Phonetics of Devanagari and Tamil scripts

Phonetics of Devanagari and Tamil scripts

These two scripts are phonetically related in a very odd way. Many of the north Indian languages closely follow the Devanagari script as used by Sanskrit presently. Other south Indian languages (I am consciously avoiding the term Dravidian languages) follow their own independently evolved scripts. I found some interesting contrast between the scripts of Sanskrit and Tamil which I want to share with my readers. These are all my own original ideas and purposely I have not read or referred any previous work or study on this aspect (which I will eventually do after I publish this write-up).

Like the scripts of all languages, these two scripts also have vowels and consonants. The Devanagari script has thirteen vowels as below. (I am giving only the phonetic value of these vowels);

Vowels : a, Aa, i, Ee, u, Uu, ru, eay, ai, oh, ou, amm, aha.

Actual Devanagari script is not of our interest as of now. Let us now look at the vowels in Tamil language:

Vowels : a, Aa, i, Ee, u, Uu, eay, Eaay, ai, oh, Oh, ou.

As we compare these phonetics we see, they are essentially similar, but with significant differences. When ‘a’, ‘i’ and ‘u’ have their extended phonetic as ‘Aa’, ‘Ee’ and ‘Uu’, the same extension is not given to ‘eay’ and ‘oh’ in Devanagari script. But Tamil script has extended phonetics for them also. Tamil seems to need them too. Look at the Tamil words –

mattu, mAattu, mittu, meettu, muttu, mUuttu, mettu, meayttu, mottu, mOhttu

– meaning respectively,

less, hang, earth/land, pluck a string of a musical instrument, butt or bang with your head, enflame (or bone joint), musical tune, raised level, flower bud and bulging. (Phew, look at the strength of Tamil vocabulary).

If we assume that Tamil phonetics were derived from Devanagari script, then Tamils have surely added two more vowels to meet their phonetic requirements. Let us wait till we see the consonants.

The primary consonants in Devanagari are:

Ka, kha, ga, gha, nga

Cha, chha, ja, jha, ngya

Ta, tha, da, dha, Nna

Tha, Thha, dha, dhha, na

Pa, pha, ba, bha, ma

The corresponding consonants in Tamil are:

(Ka, nga) – (Cha, ngya) – (Ta, Nna) – (Tha, na) – (Pa, ma)

Tamils added (perhaps after a later thought) one more set of similar consonant in

Rra – na, (literally at the end of the list of alphabets).

While an emphasized Rra (or tra) is required to handle a few important Tamil words, I always found a second ‘na’ superfluous, although the two ‘na’s are surely used in different contexts in the written language.

As can be seen above, Devanagari script appears to be an expanded version of Tamil phonetics. If it is still believed that Tamil phonetics were derived from Devanagari, what could have been the reason for dropping the different variations of Ka, Cha etc? When writing purely Tamil words, Tamils don’t feel the need for these emphasized consonants, as they are intended to be pronounced with such variations as per the context. Tamil also uses double letters for emphasized consonants such as KKa for Kha. However, when writing words of other languages in Tamil script, one feels handicapped by this deficiency in the script. Some authors use subscripts like 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the script for marking these variations. As you can see in the next section, in later days, a few Devanagari phonetics were also adopted in to Tamil script, even though purists do not use them.

Now let us write down the secondary consonants of Devanagari script, as below:

Secondary consonants: ya, ra, la, va, sha, sya, sa, ha

Tamil has similar consonants as below:

Secondary consonants: ya, ra, la, va, zha, Lla

Earlier Tamils did not adopt the latter half of the above set of Devanagari phonetics in to their script. As need arose to read and write words of foreign roots, they adopted the others also in to a set of special (Northern!) scripts – ‘sha, ksha, sa, ha and Sri’. Here again the purists do not use them. The consonants zha, Lla, Rra, na are special phonetics of Tamil, (especially the zha), and significantly they at the end of the list of Tamil alphabets.

From the above account it appears that the phonetic scripts of Devanagari and Tamil could have had their roots in a more ancient common script. Critical comments on the above are most welcome.


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