Jazz Lessons on Language – Improvisation 101 – Stuart Jay Raj’s Indic Script Compass

Jazz Lessons on Language – Improvisation 101 – Stuart Jay Raj’s Indic Script Compass

 

Find Your Way Around Indic Based Writing Systems (Devanagari, Tamil, Panjabi (Gurmukhi), Burmese, Bahasa Bali (Balinese), Bahasa Jawa (Javanese), Thai and Khmer (Cambodian) Without a GPS

Theme and Variation

The reason I love playing and listening to jazz so much is because you’re able to get into the soul of the players by hearing how they improvise on a theme. Language is not that much different.

I’ve noticed what could be described as almost an unquestioning deific reverence and fear paid to the writing systems of Indic language systems by their users (and learners of them). Whether it’s the Devanagari script used to write amongst other languages, Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi and Nepali, or the scripts of other languages in India and surrounding countries like Panjabi, Tamil, Telugu or as far down as Southeast Asia including Thai, Lao, Burmese, Khmer (Cambodian), Balinese orJavanese, when you start to scratch the surface of the origins, grammar or even just the reasoning of certain things that would seem strange to outsiders, the eyes of your average Joe who’s spoken one of those languages since birth will tend to glaze over. (Now THAT was a long sentence!)

That’s the Problem with Turtles… It really shouldn’t be that way!


Those Indians were pretty cluey back in the day. They developed an alphabet thousands of years ago that was a virtual GPS for the human mouth!

Just like the theme and variation in Jazz, all the languages that I’ve mentioned above (and many more) have used this basic map as their base – a reference guide and then coloured it with the sound filters of their own respective languages.

To draw an analogy from English, take a common sentence that we use every day like:

‘That’s the problem with turtles’

This is the ‘base’ or ‘theme’. A variation might have those same letters read as:

‘Dat’s da pwoblem wif toitles’

For many, the whole concept that ‘Dat’s’ had come from ‘That’s’ was never explained, leaving not only learners, but also native speakers of the language in a haze as to ‘why’ certain things are about the language and just accepting that it’s something beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

Part of my Mnidcraft
course is to get a good grounding in the principles of Indic based scripts and develop some level of proficiency in identifying several the scripts including Devanagari, Thai, Khmer and Burmese.

I developed my ‘Indic Consonant Glyphs’ and the ‘Stuart Jay Raj’s Indic Script Consonant Compass’ as a tool to accelerate the acquisition / learning of scripts based on the Indic sound system themes and variations.

Don’t Count The Letters!

I’ll often hear people measuring the complexity of a language by the number of letters in its alphabet. This to me is absurd as the practice of judging a presentation’s quality by its PowerPoint slide count! (Another pet hate of mine… which led me to designing my ‘Present!‘ presentations workshop who’s subtitle is ‘Bringing Presentations Back to The Presenter‘).

It’s this body count (or in this case consonants + vowel count) that has turned many a learner off from learning languages like Thai, Sanskrit, Khmer and Burmese.

What Language Would You Prefer to Learn?

Here’s the blurb….

Wadafrackizet Soowizy
Welcome to your first day of learning Wadafrackizet!
Our language only has 18 letters in its alphabet, but they’re used to write a total of 90 different sounds give or take a few.

The order of the alphabet has no specific logic to it, nor do the shapes of the letters really mean anything.

Not only that!… Wadafrackizet has an extremely comprehensive set of rules that you must follow.

Well, the general rule of thumb is that you follow those rules with the exception of the times that you don’t follow them – which happens quite often.

The joy of learning Wadafrackizet is finding out just when those times are that the rules aren’t applied by yourself.

Welcome to your first day of learning Soowizy!
Soowizy’s writing system follows an ingeniously simple line of logic that plots each letter in a systematic fashion to key points of the mouth, one syllable at a time.

This way, you don’t even really need to remember an ‘alphabetical order’ so to speak. Where the letter comes from in your mouth is where it lies in the alphabet.

Not only that, many of the letters actually ‘look’ the way they ‘sound’!

The good news is that once you’ve learned this very simple system based on only 5 points of the mouth , you can tweak it here and there enabling you to learn over 50 other languages that work on the same operating system!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be lining up to learn Wadafrackizet! (Ok, I admit it – I probably would)… but honestly, Soowizy sounds just so … EASY!

The Cardinal Points of the Mouth

As you read through the brief explanation to each of the following glyphs, place your tongue / mouth in the position and hold it there. Once you can do it for each glyph, move your gaze from one glyph to another at random and practice locking your mouth into the correct position according to the glyph that you’re looking at.

Drilling yourself for about 2 minutes like this should be enough to start to develop some long lasting muscle memory.

Gutteral

Palatal

Cerebral

Dental

Labial

Back of the throat

Flattened Tongue on the Roof of the Mouth (Palate)

Rolled Back (Retroflex) Tongue on the Roof of the Mouth

Tongue on Teeth

Lips

대한민국! (Dae Han Min Kuk!)

Now, I know the Korean speakers out there must be thinking “Hmmm… some these symbols seem eerily familiar!”.

Koreans are very proud of their writing system ‘Han Geul’ – 한 글 .. . and so they should be. Developed by King Sejong the Great (1418-1450) in 1444, it is one of the easiest scripts to learn on the planet! (I learned it on a bus ride across Seoul one sunny afternoon in 1996J ).

To add value to learning the Korean alphabet, I suggest spending an extra 10 minutes to learn how to touch type in Korean also. The keys are very logically set out between:

  • Left hand: Consonants
  • Right hand: Vowels

Each syllable in Han Geul is broken into a beginning (initial) sound, vowel and final sound component (if necessary). The symbols used to represent each of the sounds were based on the various parts of the mouth from which they were produced.

Korea Meets India

I have combined this principle with the basic principle of the Indic Scripts ‘Map of the Mouth’ logic to develop my own symbols.

It’s interesting to note that the sound for ‘r‘ / ‘l‘ in Korean is uncannily similar to many of the symbols used to represent these same sounds in Indic (Brahmi) based scripts that display a ‘rolling tongue‘ in one rendering or another. When I’m learning a new Indic script, this is actually one of the first memory points I will look for – I will peg the similarity or difference of its ‘r’ sound to the ones that I already know. I can’t include all the samples in this text based medium as the fonts probably won’t render properly on your computer. You can see them on the main ‘Indic Consonant Compass’ chart though.

Another shape that is very similar include the ‘base voice’ symbol which in many scripts is a circular shape of some sort.

The ‘y’ symbol which in Korean is normally ‘two prongs’ heading in the vowel direction. In the Indic scripts, the ‘y’ sound is usual a 2 or 3 pronged shape which I imagine is a representation of the way the tongue interacts with the palate.

Here is a sample:

Comparison of Similar Sound Shapes in Korean, Devanagari, Thai, Tamil and Gurmukhi (Panjabi)

Sound

Korean

Devanagari

Thai

Tamil

Gurmukhi

r

ya

The Key Actions of the Mouth

Stopped Throat

Aspirated

Voiced

Voiced Aspirated

Nasal

Consonant Starts with the Throat Closed

Throat opens and puffs air or a ‘h’ sound over the consonant. In some languages, the ‘h’ isn’t as accented as others

Voice Resonates Over the Consonant

Voice Resonates Over the Consonant AND puffs air over the consonant (which opens the throat)

Sound is Directed Through the Nose

Semi Vowel

Sibilant

‘H’ Aspirate

Voice Base

Not Quite a Consonant
Not Quite a Vowel –

Letters in this category are ‘fluid’ versions where ‘full contanct’ isn’t really made with the ‘cardinal point’. Think of it in English – is ‘y’ REALLY a consonant? (despite what your teachers told you)… or is it a vowel?

‘S’ Hissing Sound

‘H’ Sound

Open Throat

Root Symbol that Signifies the Voicebox

Colour Coding

I have also colour coded each category within the sound system to give a colourful representation of the textual glyph. There are 5 base colours that correspond to each of the 5 cardinal points of the mouth (see above).

When comparing the sound shifts from the original base letter to the target language letter, you can either follow the ‘glyph’ transliterations in the octagon adjacent the target letter, or just look at the colour changes. Getting a visual and emotional representation of these sound shifts through colour is another device that I find really useful in ’embedding’ the language within me.

Ready to Go!

There were so many languages to choose from. I broke this chart down to 8 scripts that I think would cover a good portion of the globe. The languages / scripts with my reasoning for choosing them are:

Language Reason
Devanagari
  • Devanagari is used to write a slew of Indic languages including Hindi, Marathi, Nepali and has also become the standard that Sanskrit is rendered in – although Sanskrit writings can commonly be found in local scripts like Tamil, Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Balinese etc.
  • Given Devanagari’s popularity and the fact that it has letters to represent each of the base sounds, I chose it as the base script.
Tamil
  • Tamil is not only popular in India, Sri Lanka and other surrounding countries, but it is also very widely spoken in Singapore and Malaysia (even reaching official language status in Singapore)
  • Given that I am in Southeast Asia, I wanted to develop this chart in particular to help as bigger cross section of the SE Asian community as possible. I think it would be great if this chart could spur people living in countries where Tamil is prevalent to have a go at learning the script. It will open up a whole new world around them.
  • Another reason that I chose Tamil is that it is from the Dravdian stream of languages – and is indeed a very ancient script. You will notice that it’s different from the other scripts in the chart in that there are very few base letters. The natural rules that govern how sounds change when preceding / followed by another letter will ‘colour’ the letter to give it different sounds – Sandhi. – E.g. in English – ‘What did you do’ is pronounced ‘wo dije du’ (very rough transliteration without IPA fonts!)
  • Tamil is the ‘What did you do’ version where the others are more the ‘wo dije du’ versions.
Panjabi
  • This is the Gurmukhi script used to write Panjabi. There are many Panjabi speakers all over Southeast Asia, so I thought it would be nice to include this script. In Thailand, there are many Thai born Indians that speak Panjabi at home, but cannot read the Gurmukhi script. Now with this comparison chart, I hope that the links to Thai can be made and again, spur some people that otherwise wouldn’t onto learning the script … which will in turn open a new world up in the area of literature, religion, culture and getting in the good-books with Grandma and Grandpa!
Burmese
  • Another SE Asian Language. There are fascinating things that happen phonetically with Burmese. I have really been getting into learning Burmese lately and am loving every minute of it. The script is very easy to learn once you have one of the other scripts down – and understanding what’s going on phonetically vs. script will go a long way to help you start to get the language ‘into your body’.
  • There are also many Burmese in Thailand that cannot read or write Thai. Given the right guidance, it shouldn’t take more than a few hours for Burmese who have lived in Thailand for any amount of time to start to link the Burmese and Thai Scripts together and open their eyes up to even more of the world around them.
Balinese
  • Balinese is a beautiful script… not that the others aren’t! Sadly, it’s a dying art in Indonesia. While ‘Bahasa Daerah’ – regional languages are taught in Primary school, I have found very small percentage of people that are really proficient at reading and writing Balinese. Hopefully this will help a resurgence J
  • Another reason that I’ve included both Balinese and Javanese is so that Balinese and Javanese speakers can see the similarities in the scripts! In my humble opinion, the two scripts are basically different fonts of the same script. While Balinese is very fluid and has more of an ‘ancient free’ feel, Javanese is more ‘boxy’ and looks more suitable for machine printed media.
Javanese
  • I love Javanese – and part of the language of course is the script.
  • Apart from that, I have pretty much the same reasoning for including Javanese as I did Balinese.
Thai
  • After having taught Thai for many years, the Script still takes the number one position for learners’ ‘obstacles in learning Thai’. I have put this together as one more aid for demystifying the script and in doing so, helping learners of Thai get over a big hurdle.
  • I wrote a post a couple of years ago that was a Fast-track guide for Indians to Learn Thai. This chart could be thought of as an upgrade to that to Indians living, working or looking at coming to Thailand.
  • Once you get this structure down in you subconscious, tone rules will become second nature!… it’s built into the system!
Khmer
  • Being a neighbour to Thailand, much of Thailand’s language, culture and customs have flowed from similar streams as Cambodia.
  • Just take a look at any temple in Thailand, or on the roof of most Taxis driving around Bangkok, you’ll often see Sanskrit and Pali writings in the Mon / Khmer script. Despite this, very few Thais can read the script.
  • Just like the tone rules for Thai are part and parcel of this 5×5 structure, so too are the ‘consonant classes’ of Cambodian. Where the Mid and High classes for Thai are the first and second rows + the ‘h’, sibilants and base throat, the Cambodian ‘oo’ and ‘oa’ classes are broken down almost identically.
  • This is my little effort in ‘bridging the gap’ 🙂


As my New Years gift to you for 2009, rather than giving you a cruddy jpg or bmp version (like you see above) and waiting for you to come to my Mnidcraft workshop to receive a full high resolution version, I have included a PDF version of my “Indic Script Consonant Compass – v1.0 – Southeast Asian Version”. I have created it using vector graphics, embedding the fonts where possible and expanding any other fonts that could not be embedded. What this means is that you are free to print out the chart to enormous sizes and stick it all over your home, office, toilet and any other place you see fit. Getting one or more of these scripts under your belt is an investment that you won’t regret.

Just the Consonants Ma’am

Remember, these are only the consonsants… and admittedly, there are a couple of rare consonants in each script that I haven’t included on the chart as it would in my opinion add unnecessary complexity to learning the scripts. There is also some funky stuff happening with the Tamil that I’m working at ironing out in future versions. If there are any Tamil experts out there, drop me a line!

You will also notice that I haven’t touched on vowels. … stay tuned… that will come in a later installment.

I also have some surprises planned for this whole ‘Indic’ kick that I’m on. If time permits, I’m sure that you will see the bizarre fruits that my brain has borne in the near future.

Good Luck!

Stuart Jay Raj is a polyglot who specializes in the languages and dialects spoken in South East Asia and China. His talents have allowed him to earn a professional living as a simultaneous interpreter in Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, among others, providing language and cultural training for multinational companies in the region and hosting his own TV programme on Thailand's Channel 5. He holds a degree in Cognitive and Applied Linguistics from Griffith University and has become an expert in the field of language acquisition with a strong track record of success. Stuart's background knowledge of Sanskrit, Khmer, Lao and various Chinese dialects and minority languages enables him to present a fascinating and unique perspective on the Thai language which makes everything fall logically into place.
  • Anonymous

    What a great post! I feel enlightened! 🙂 I never realised the specific shapes meant anything! Keep up the good work!

  • charles

    I may have missed this, but I do know in some studies of the development of hangeul, there has been speculation (sometimes affirmed sometimes denied) that Indian scholars were the committee that King Sejong convened.

  • The Language Guy

    Charles – I have read this too, but I have learned from experience that it’s a sensitive topic that should be avoided when speaking to Korean friends. The trouble it has gotten me in isn’t worth losing friends over 🙂 Are there any documents online that you’ve read that I might link to this entry?

  • charles

    There’s an article by Sinologist Victor Mair that discusses this. If you have access to JSTOR I can send you the URL, if not, perhaps there’s an address I send the article to.

    Oh, you’re quite right about it being a sensitive topic among Koreans. That has never deterred me from bringing it up, though. There is also speculation that a Paekche queen was actually from India.

  • The Language Guy

    Charles –
    That’s fascinating. I don’t have access to JSTOR. Perhaps you could shoot a copy of the article to me at stujay@hotmail.com

    I travel to Korea intermittently with my work – so Korean is one language that I feel out of my depth in at the moment. Just from what I have learned and researched though, I think there is a lot more there than what they ‘tell you’.

  • Luke Gedeon

    I have been working on something similar too. I really like the top row, except that I use a full sine wave for sibilants to make it left-right symmetrical.

    Between mirrors and windows, and those of us who suffer from dyslexia, having each character be symmetrical would make many things better.

    I can hear what order to put the letters in but backward R and S, not to mention J, L, E, etc. are the bane of the Latin script.

    I would love to help with the vowels that you mentioned you are working on, especially if you are open to the idea of making them symmetrical. Even if you would rather not go symmetrical, I would love to help develop and promote this. I can always develop an alternate font that is dyslexic friendly.

  • Amanda & Gary

    Hi Stu,

    It's Amanda again. This is BRILLIANT! Unfortunately, I can't download the PDF – I get a 'can't find the page' type error message when I try. Can you help, please?

    The more I read of your page, the more amazed and impressed I become.

  • The Language Guy

    While my site is being re-done, I have them stored temporarily here –

    Indic Consonant Chart Chart
    http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/post-a91462-Stu-Jay-Raj-Indic-Consonant-Compass.html

    Thai Consonant Chart
    http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/post-a91463-Stuart-Jay-Raj-Thai-Consonant-Map.html

  • Keranjang Batik

    WAOOUUWWW! thats a good great post! i'm speachles. never seen before. appreciate that. very usefull

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  • Anon

    I’m very very very far from being a Tamil expert, but yeah, ironing out Tamil here would be tricky.

    There’s a good chapter on Tamil phonetics in Harold Schiffman’s Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil. Seriously doubt it’s sold anywhere in Thailand, but there are a couple partial, not-quite-user-friendly versions online.

    Google books version here:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=Oqe-QsaZnnQC&lpg=PP1&dq=a%20reference%20grammar%20of%20spoken%20tamil&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

    And what I think is an older, less comprehensive version here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/plc/tamilweb/book.html

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  • Thank you for the excellent chart, it’s just what I’ve been searching for in my ongoing comparison of Southeast Asian (and other) languages.

    I would like to point out, however, that the Thai characters in the Stopped Throat and Voice columns are reversed, for example ค (kho khwai) should be in the Stopped Throat column and ก (go gai) should be in the Voiced column, likewise ช (cho chang) should be in Stopped Throat column and จ (jo jaan) should be in the Voiced column, and so on down the line.

    I would love to see Lao and Sunda incorporated into the charts, since I speak those languages as well and their scripts are closely related to Thai and Javanese respectively, though I can understand how it might be difficult to add to an already information-packed visual.

    Thanks again for your extensive contribution to the field, and I look forward to more comparing notes and insights.