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Romanlipi & Guidebook for conversation in Indian languages

Roman script, Roman alphabet, learn Indian languages, conversastion guide


For the first time, all the major languages of India have been brought under a single alphabetical string called – “Romanlipi” (lipi means script). As the name suggests, the script is devised on Roman letters. Any word of any Indian language can now be reconstructed in Romanlipi with phonetic accuracy. Any person who knows English can benefit from the scheme. It is now possible to plan lessons to teach/learn any Indian language because we shall be using an already known script – of English. It saves a lot of time and drudgery.

There are twelve major languages in India. They are Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, and Sanskrit .Of these Sanskrit, Hindi, and Marathi use the Devanagari script. Bengali and Assamese have a common script except for one or two letters. The rest have their own scripts. When we compare the characters of these alphabets, we are confronted by their bewildering dissimilarity in the structure of the letters. It is not therefore surprising that this aspect puts off many who want to learn a new Indian language.

Let us see how many characters there are in all Indian languages. The total number of characters among Indian languages is 571. This number relates only to vowels and consonants. To this number we have to add the vowel signs (matras) which number 14. The biggest hurdle then is the conjunct consonant – when two or more consonants combine without an intervening vowel. In every such case in Indian languages, a new visual symbol is employed to denote the combination. These conjunct consonants number 590 (numbering from nil in Tamil, to 110 in Sanskrit). Now we calculate the total number of characters. From the number 571, we deduct 90 – being the Hindi and Marathi letters which are repetitions of the Sanskrit script. We arrive at the figure 571 – 90 + 590 = 1071 visual symbols. No wonder that there isn’t anyone who has mastered all the Indian languages!

It is here that using the Roman script helps. It is familiar to all of the literate population. It is versatile, like a ‘mechano set’. A previously assembled structure can be dismantled and with the same component parts, a new structure can be assembled. All that we do is to rearrange the letters in an appropriate sequence to match the required sound of any Indian word.

Now the methodology: Where do we find 1071 letters in the Roman alphabet? If we observe carefully, we shall find one unique common feature among all Indian languages. It is that each language is subdivided into phonetic clusters; each cluster has the same physiological ‘source of sound’. There are the gutturals – sounds emanating from the throat; the palatals – from the contact of the thick part of the tongue with the roof of the mouth, the nasals – where the nose is also used, etc. This phonetic subdivision is a feature of every Indian language, without exception. This is the great phonetic link that runs through all Indian languages. This link serves our purpose. If we spread all the 571 letters on a grid and arrange them so that the columns represent the different languages, and the rows represent the physiological ‘sources of sound’ we discover an interesting fact. There are only 58 rows! This means that there are only 58 basic sounds among all Indian languages. These sounds combine in various permutations and sequences to produce the thousands of words that we find in Indian languages.

Our next task is to find Roman letters which can represent these sound syllables. But the Roman alphabet has only 26 letters. It is here that diacritical marks help – marks that denote the different phonetic values of the same letter. The Unicode Consortium has codified and numbered thousands of letters and symbols of many languages of the world. These can be looked up on any PC and put to use. With the help of diacritical marks, we make up the 58 letters of Romanlipi. The details of the methodology and much more are explained in the author’s website

This script which is common to all the major languages of India has a unique use. It could be utilized to teach/learn the rudiments of any Indian language and can be put to use in a guidebook for basic day-to-day conversation. Ability to converse comes either through a mastery of a language or through constant contact with persons who speak the language. In the absence of either, we are left with a short-cut method or a ready reckoner mode of learning. That is what we have attempted in this book. When we want to convey what we think, we need words which the other person understands. Conversation is vital at all levels – from intellectual discussion to asking for directions. In this book, we have restricted ourselves to questions and sentences which any tourist in a foreign land puts to local people. It could be with a stranger, asking for directions or with a shopkeeper, asking for merchandise. The encounter is limited in scope and duration and so, the expressions are also manageable. For each language, a list of about 300 oft-used words/expressions is given along with their Indian language equivalents. The Indian equivalents being given in Roman alphabet can be pronounced with the required phonetic accuracy with the help of Table A – containing the exact phonetic value of each letter of Romanlipi. With just a few minutes of practice, it is possible to read the Indian words comfortably.

Competing work:

Perhaps this is the first work of this kind where a system is explained and its utility demonstrated. There have been attempts to teach Indian languages through Roman alphabet but they have been confined to their respective target language. The Romanization also is also not uniform in all these efforts. Each effort has utilized its own method of transliteration. In this work, we have used universally recognized and numbered Unicode characters (in addition to regular roman alphabets). In our website we also given the Unicode character code numbers for each such character used.

Primary Market:

According to Press Information Bureau release, 3.36 million tourists visited India during the period Jan-Nov 2005, spending about 23,000 thousand Crores of Rupees. The numbers have increased from 2.12 million in 1995. Britain alone accounted for 300,000 per year. We may safely assume that nearly a third of these tourists were English-speaking. How did they manage to interact with the local population? In cities and large towns, there is not much of a problem because most locals have a smattering knowledge of English. But the semi-urban and rural regions pose problems. The universal ‘sign language’ is inconveniently used. It is here that the Romanlipi comes in handy. We have given, in readable form, the local language equivalents of what most tourists need. The guidebook gives lists of the most commonly used words in everyday activity. The verbs are given in an easily usable form. The tourist’s use of the verb is mostly confined to statements like “I want to---”. Coining any expression from the given glossary is easy. Any more elaboration of verbs involves grammar and that is the last thing we want. With the given nouns and verbs, a tourist can easily coin a phrase or a broken sentence to make himself understood. The locals are smart enough to react positively.

At present we have dealt with Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati and Oriya. In each language, we have given about 300 words/expressions which are quite sufficient to manage conveyance of a tourist’s needs. Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi, Marathi versions of the guide are under preparation. The Bengali version will be prepared if and when authentic reference material is available. We are not contemplating a guidebook for Sanskrit and Assamese.

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Published: 2006-08-15
Author: kasturi krishnaswami

About the author or the publisher
I am a retired broadcaster.I have prepared a booklet"Guide to conversation in Indian languages"The booklet uses Roman alphabet for the Indian words and will benefit the three million tourists who visit India and who know only English.There are eleven languages spoken in India Guides for six languages are ready and three more are under preparation.How do I proceed?

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