Of scripts,language, and punctuation marks....

June 16, 2011

While reading a book this morning,(Georgette Heyer’s “Faro’s Daughter”,if you are interested!) I fell to musing on the various scripts in which our languages are set down. I’ve learnt English from early childhood, and it took me, therefore, a while to realize that its script is most quirky…..compared to the orderliness of the scripts of most Indian languages.

Indian language scripts are, by and large, phonetic, and what you read is what you pronounce. But English (and I suppose French has a lot to do with this!) is very unphonetic, with different letters “singing” different “songs” (Yes, I am harking back to a wonderful grammar book that I had in school as a child,

“The Songs the Letters Sing”

….does anyone ever use it now, I wonder!)

I used to think that the dEvanAgari script was the most phonetic, until I came to the Kannada script, which has, additionally, letters for “ko” (as in “colander”) and “kO” (as in “coal”). If we could just add the “a” sound that occurs in “man”, and the “zh” sound of “tamizh”, it would pretty much represent whatever I want to say,phonetically. I am informed by Auntie Wiki that our Indian languages are usually


because vowels are “attached” to the consonants in the script.

Also, this whole concept of “capital letters”, I find, is inexplicable. Why should sentences and names (in German, ALL nouns!) begin with a capital letter? Indian languages don’t have two different forms of the same letter…surely it seems to just add to the confusion and make (for a young child) more to learn. If someone can tell me the “why” behind capital letters, do let me know, especially why the uppercase letter can sometimes look so different from the lowercase one.


is what the Wiki says about “letter-case”.

Punctuation, nowadays, seems to be about the same in all modern-day printed scripts, but I still do not know the reason behind the “inverted exclamation mark” and the “inverted question mark”(I’m sure they have names, but I am too lazy to google for them) of the Spanish script, that precede the sentence, with the regular marks after the sentence.

I’d like to read some really OLD manuscripts (in Old English for example) and see how punctuation has developed over time…old manuscripts and stone inscription in the old scripts of Indian languages seem not to have punctuation marks (except the “double khadipaay” at the beginning and end of Sanskrit shlOkAs). I do know the names of some of the punctuation marks in Hindi…alp virAm for a semi-colon, and khadi pAy for a full-stop (which is a single vertical bar at the end of a sentence)..but I know very few names in the script of my mother-tongue, Tamizh (muttru puLLi for full-stop, for example.)

Punctuation still makes a lot of sense to me, in being able to read a passage with the same stress and accents that the writer intended; but the logic of capital letters eludes me, except for the need to give importance to a certain word. (Eg, if I say that something is a Good Thing, that gives a nice flavour of humour and irony to my statement without my having to add another word.)

Nor can I understand what I call “illogical gender-assignment”. French, or Hindi, have only two genders, and no neuter gender at all. This, however, is still better than German! When setting out to register for my first German course, I said I would not study the language unless it had a neuter gender. Having been assured that it did, I paid up…and then discovered that non-living things were not neuter, or living things masculine or feminine! The young girl (Maedchen) is neuter gender, and the Hemd (clothes) that she is wearing are masculine…so all that happened was, when faced with every noun (or Noun) I had three categories (and article endings!) to choose from, not two. Cannot understand how this could have developed!

I also wonder whether capital letters exist in “western” scripts other than Roman (Cyrillic, for example), and whether they are phonetic or not. Bad thing to be so ignorant of so many other scripts…..! Just shows….how little I know.