Spelling Worries and Script Reform: A Cautious Approach for Odia Language


When spelling does not reflect pronunciation to a noticeable extent in a language, language experts of that language, with all good intentions, call for script reform.  This seems to have been the case at least of Odia. By and large, the users of the language are unconcerned. But that does not always discourage the experts, not most of them at least.“You don’t know what is good for you. We do. So do as we ask you to do”, is what has been the convention when it comes to the relationship between the experts and the common people.

Now, there are no objective criteria to measure “noticeable extent”; therefore, difference of opinion among the specialists is unsurprising on whether the spelling- pronunciation disconnect has reached the critical stage for script reform. Even when there is agreement in favour of reform, there could be, in fact, have been, in the case of Odia, differences as to what specific changes are needed. While working for a resolution of differences, it is very necessary not to be rigid. Script reform affects the concerned speech community in a very significant way. In my opinion, it is too important a matter to be left in the hands of the specialists alone.

Because it appeals to common sense, one often tends to go with the view that there should be one-to-one correspondence between the phoneme (speech sound) and the grapheme (letter); in fact, this idea is sometimes held as the model for designing an alphabet. But it is very difficult to implement it strictly. Speech changes, sometimes even across two or three generations, but the alphabet cannot simply be modified that frequently in order to reflect current speech.

Now, is the alphabet where there is one-to-one phoneme – grapheme correspondence easier to learn for the children than the one in which there isn’t such correspondence? It has not been proved beyond doubt that the Hindi-speaking children (whose first language is Hindi), for example, take less time to learn their alphabet in comparison with the time that the English-speaking children (whose first language is English) take to learn their alphabet which, in contrast to the Hindi alphabet, poorly reflects speech. There is again no evidence that an English-speaking adult learns the Hindi alphabet faster and more easily in comparison to a Hindi-speaking adult, who learns the English script. Suppose for the sake of argument it turns out to be the case that the English learner learns the Hindi alphabet with greater ease. Now, itwould not constitute an argument for reform in the roman (English) script to increase the phoneme-grapheme correspondence. Making alphabet learning easy for the second and the foreign language learners has never been either a goal of or a justification for script reform.

Turning to the spelling worries, it’s a real problem in Odisha. Odia-speaking children make spelling mistakes when they write in Odia, as surely do the Tamil-or Hindi- or English-speaking children when they write in their respective languages. It has not been persuasively argued, to the best of my knowledge, that the children’s spelling performance is solely or almost solely due to the alphabet they learn. Poor teaching and inadequate practice by the children and very little correction of their performance by their teachers are far more likely reasons for this situation. In schools where the student-teacher ratio is better, children seem to be better in their spelling performance than in those where it is poor.By the way, spelling errors are not restricted to the children. But the spelling problem of the adults is a somewhat more complicated matter. We wish to leave this matter for a future piece.

It is obvious that a major change in the alphabet, which would affect the system of the basic characters (vowels and consonants) would require rewriting of not just the pedagogical material (text books, manuals, etc.) in current use, but also the existing reference material, such as the scholarly dictionaries, dictionaries for general use, dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, encyclopaedias, glossaries and much else. Besides, the existing literature (imaginative and knowledge-based, both) would be difficult to read once the script change is implemented. The members of the community, especially the younger ones, would not have the motivation to read the classics of their language and this situation, sooner than later, would give rise to a cultural disconnect for the relevant speech community. Much must depend on how the community thinks about all this this; not how the experts alone do. The perils of depending on the expert in matters of social policy- making have been powerfully brought out by Gabriel Marquez, Noam Chomsky, Paul Feyerabend and Peter Medawar, among others.

But the above must not be taken to mean that change as such is undesirable and must be resisted, including language change and script change. Although there is resistance sometimes, changes in the social and the cultural life of a community do take place. Some changes take longer to become part of personal and social life than some others, but that’s a different matter. What the above suggests is that unless it is of a very minor nature, involving, say, only a very few compound characters (letters), the powers that be must exercise utmost caution about spelling / script change. My own opinion is that in this matter, it is better to be cautious and somewhat conservative. One concrete suggestion that embodies this position is that (a) the basic characters (vowel and consonant letters) should remain, barring the ones that have been out of use for many, many years in speech and writing, as evident from the dictionaries and similar material, (b) exploring the possibility of simplification of a few select compound characters (juktaksara), and (c) allowing alternative spellings, in those cases for some time (that is, not doing away with the existing spelling right away), where modification has been considered necessary after due consideration.

The real problem arises when one works on the details – for example, which of the compound characters need to be changed, how the so-called “borrowed” words and technical words must be spelt, among others. As for language tools, as far as the Odia script is concerned, there exists, as far as I know, the necessary technology to deal with the existing alphabet. If this is correct, then spelling / script change would require modification in the available system and its consequences may be a factor to consider because it would have a bearing on the ongoing efforts for machine transliteration and translation efforts involving Indian languages, and related language tool-development work.

To conclude, I submit that script change should be implemented at the school level at the very last, only after it has gained community support over a period. School is not the place for experiment. Not at all. Probably the good places where the implementation can start are the newspapers, news magazines, popular and scholarly magazines, posters, sign boards and the like,and of course, government documents. There is nothing new about the spirit of my submission. Text books in any field do not contain knowledge that is being created at the frontiers of the field, but only settled knowledge.  Now, as regards alphabet and script change, if it is found after, say, five years or even earlier, that the readers do not accept the new spelling, then the media can return to the old spelling, and the social cost may not be much. The pedagogic situation is very different, a matter too obvious for explication.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)