A couple of days ago, I came across a few news reports that a professor from IIT Madras (Professor V Srinivas Chakravarthy) has developed a script (called Bharati) to “unify 22 Indian languages”. As a script-enthusiast, I was of course slightly interested.

There is a lot of self-congratulatory rhetoric in India about how Indian scripts are very ‘scientific’. On the contrary, the English script (which, in most cases, is the only other kind of script most Indians know) is criticized for being arbitrary, ambiguous, unscientific, what have you. Prof Chakravarthy voices similar sentiments, saying that English is arbitrary and that “There is no logic to why A comes first and Z last. Indian scripts are logical.”

It is indeed true that the arrangement of vowels and consonants in the Devanagari script has a sound phonetic basis. Prof Chakravarthy explains some of it in an interview. There is some hand-waving in the middle, where he calls aspirated consonants stressed and when he uses plosives while listing places of articulation, but he has got the general problem more or less correct. Each row of the first 5 consonant rows corresponds to a place of articulation (starting at velar and ending at labial), while each column represents a combination of aspiration and voicing. The last column represents nasal consonants, and the last two rows contain glides, liquids and fricatives.

However, interesting though all this is, the arrangement of the letters has hardly any bearing on whether or not that script is easy to learn, because the forms of the characters corresponding to the various consonants / vowels are pretty arbitrary. I remember a French friend once remarking that she’d found the Devanagari much more difficult to pick up compared to Arabic. I can understand why. One would expect that the Devanagari script, in all its scientific rigor, would have similar glyphs for sounds that share phonetic features, thereby making it easier to learn, but it has no such thing. Speaking of the script used for writing Urdu, it lends some order to the chaos by not having separated symbols for aspirated and unaspirated sounds (such as k / kh, ch / chh etc.), instead using a symbol called do-chashmi-he (ﮪ) in front of unaspirated consonants to indicate aspiration. For example, _pal_ (moment) in Urdu is written as پل while phal (fruit) is پھل.

The scripts from Kannada and Telugu also fare marginally better than Devanagari in this respect, where at least a few similar consonant pairs also have similar characters. For instance, aspiration is indicated in a few characters by placing a dot below the unaspirated counterpart. Eg. b / bh (ಬ / ಭ), p / ph (ಪ / ಫ) and d / dh  (ದ / ಧ). Thankfully, Prof Chakravarthy admits to this much—”Indian scripts are logical,” he said. “But, they are also unreasonably complicated and ornate.”

The script developed is not in public domain, so I can’t offer any comment on it, though the inventor claims it will be easier to learn because it uses similar shapes for similar sounds, and draws from many Indian scripts. However, he wants to patent it, which is weird because his aim was purportedly to  help spread the script.

The concept of developing new / better scripts isn’t new, and a lot of effort is put into doing so, but with relatively little result, and that is assuming that the thing makes sense to begin with (I had argued otherwise for the Hinglish project back in December).

Even if the concept makes sense, scripts and languages have so much inertia that it’s very very difficult to ask millions of people to just drop everything they know so far and pick up something different, no matter how logical or scientific it is. Moreover, script difficulty isn’t a problem for the average speaker of a language. Most of them learn the script in school when they’re young, and once you know it well, there is no real incentive to change it.

In a post a couple of months ago, I wrote about SayPu, an attempt to make a common spelling system across languages using the Roman script. Professor Chakravarthy’s effort, at least by its description, looks like a much more useful / better one compared to SayPu. His job was of course relatively easier because most of the Indian languages share a large part of their phonemic inventory, but he had to come with new symbols, which the SayPu guy didn’t.

All in all, I am curious to find out what the Bharti script looks like. I doubt if it will ever be seen beyond its inventor’s notepad, but I would love to have a look at it nonetheless.