Monday, January 12, 2015

No Roman Hindi please

Chetan Bhagat  wrote an opinion piece calling for the replacement of the Devanagari script with the Roman script, describing it as an essential step for saving the Hindi language.

This is fundamentally a bad idea since:
  • The Roman script is clearly inferior to the Devanagari script. For instance, it is ambiguous in representing sounds: c can either be च (as in 'touch') or क (as in 'cut'). Why would you want to throw away a script designed on scientific principles of sound organization for one which is fairly arbitrary.
  • While having language specific hardware keyboards never took off, in the era of touch keyboards designing language specific keyboards is no barrier at all, and all smart tricks done for English keyboards (word completion, swipe, etc.) can be easily replicated for Devanagari. In fact, we can have innovative designs to make input easier. We can go further and have handwriting recognition systems.
  • In fact, even if we have to use the Roman keyboard on physical keyboards, there is no reason to adopt the Roman script for the language. Transliteration systems have become quite good to handle a wide variety of ambiguous mappings from Roman to Devanagari.
  • If there is a need for a common national script, then Devanagari should be the natural choice since it can be representative of all major Indian scripts and follows the same principles. In fact, languages in India which don't have much of a written history should be based on extensions of Devanagari. That will surely will be a political hot potato, so we maybe revive the Brahmi script with suitable extensions to accomodate all scripts in India, since they are but variants of the Brahmi script.

What is needed is that free, open source input solutions be developed for these core input methods so that they are widely and easily available and can become building blocks for language technologies. 

Chetan Bhagat was recently advocating non-jugaad solutions to Uber for the new-generation transportation solutions. I wonder why he proposes such jugadu solutions in this case? In fact, he is bent on destroying a 2000 year old, well-engineered solution.

Technical reasons apart, I don't know if there is a reason for this unwarranted alarm since the language seems to be thriving. While  I don't follow Hindi literature, atleast in popular culture (news, TV, Internet, etc.) the availability of Hindi content has only increased. The Union Government and the state governments in Hindi speaking states use Hindi for their official activities. In any case, how will the change of script help to preserve the language? Bhagat does not put forth any reasons. I agree that the use of English as the language of power and intellectual discourse may put regional languages at risk in the future, but the solution would be to enable people to access content and communicate in their native languages as has been done in Europe. With the rapid development of language technologies in recent times, that is clearly possible. Making people use foreign scripts will only result in a sense of inferiority and cut them off from the vast literature which is written in the Devanagari script. Instead of rejuvenating the language, it may just hasten its death.

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