Spelling Bees: A Script Chauvinist’s Musings


Spelling Bees: A Script Chauvinist’s Musings
By Deepak Kotwal, Squirrel Hill, PA

The 2011 Spelling Bee is coming up in June. You have no doubt read last year, with some pride, that an Indian-American child won the Spelling Bee for the third year in a row, and also in eight out of the last twelve annual finals. Many of the mainstream publications marveled at this feat since Indian-Americans constitute less than 1% of US population. The children’s parents, who grew up in India, had no idea what a spelling bee was while they were growing up!

After all, if your mother tongue is any Indian language, there is no need for a spelling bee. It all has to do with the well thought-out and sci-entific nature the Devanagari script (देवनागरी लऱपि). The Latin script used for the English language is a simplistic Phoneme script in which each symbol represents a consonant or a vowel. There are only 26 of the-se. The rules of pronunciation are not uniform; For example, ‘book’ (बुक्) has a short ‘u’ sound, whereas ‘boot’ (बूट) has a long ‘u’ sound.
The ancient rishis of India took a scientific approach while designing the Sanskrit alphabets, which is an Abugida system, in which consonants and vowels are combined together to represent a sound. They came up with 38 consonants and 14 vowels, which, when combine, represent 532 different sounds. The consonants were also grouped according to the part of the mouth used to vocalize these, as in pa, pha, ba, bha, ma, or ि फ ब भ म, which are ‘labial’ sounds or ओष्ठ्य. Then there are dental, palatal and guttural etc. sounds.

Anyone who learnt to read and write any Indian language first, and, started learning English later, knows how hard and illogical English is. I consider myself very lucky that I did not learn English as my first lan-guage. Many of the first generation Indian-Americans studied only in an English medium school in India, as that was deemed to be the ticket to a better economic future.

Realizing the limitations of the Roman script, early Western scholars developed and adopted a standard method of using Latin letters with dia-critical marks to write Sanskrit and Devanagari (Ref: IAST ISO 15919 adopted in 1894 in Geneva at the International Congress of Orientalists
Have you noticed that although all Bollywood movies are in Hindi, the posters are invariably in English? Is this an expression of Indians’ slavish attitude towards all things English? Has Thomas Ba-bington Macaulay1 been thoroughly vindicated? Look for an article on Macaulay in the next issue.

Or, have the masses of India suddenly become literate in English?

The French colonialists forced Vietnam to abandon its native script. Thailand, on the other hand, which has never been colonized, proudly retains its own script today.  Independent India appears to be abandoning its own scripts without any outside pressure! In my humble opinion, if Indian-American parents take the trouble of teaching their children to speak, read and write an Indian language and the Devanagari (or any other Indian) script, these children’s intellectual horizons and vision will be greatly expanded.

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