A plea for the use of the Roman script (with diacritics) for the teaching of Indian languages

In the modern age, a case can be made for using the Roman script to teach Indian languages.

A plea for the use of the Roman script (with diacritics) for the teaching of Indian languages

This paper advocates the use of the Roman script, augmented with diacritics, for Indian languages, in limited domains (such as language teaching). It makes no pretence to originality. In fact, it attempts to highlight the contributions of pioneers such as Madhukar Gogate, Chetan Bhagat and Richa Devesar. (It is an enlarged version of a paper presented at the International Conference on Sustainable Globalization, January 10-12, 2019, Kochi, organised by the School of Tourism Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University.) The author believes that a greater use of the Roman script, officially mandated and financed, need not be prejudicial to the interests of indigenous Indian scripts.


One of the leading lights of the Indian freedom movement, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, proposed the use of the Roman script for Indian languages, during his Presidential Address to the Indian National Congress in 1938. His words reflect the exhilaration he felt at his first-hand discovery that an Oriental nation, namely, Turkey, had switched to the Roman script, an act that was revolutionary in its time:

the best solution would be the adoption of a script that would bring us in line with the rest of the world. Perhaps some of our countrymen will gape with horror when they hear of the ROMAN SCRIPT, but I would beg them to consider this problem from a scientific and historical point of view. There is nothing sacrosanct in a script. The Nagari script as we know it today has passed through several phases of evolution. Besides, most of the major provinces of India have their own scripts…. In view of such diversity, the chance of a uniform script for the whole of India should be made in a scientific and impartial spirit, free from bias of every kind. I confess that there was a time when I felt that it would be anti-national to adopt a foreign script. But my visit to Turkey in 1934 converted me.  I then realized for the first time WHAT A GREAT ADVANTAGE IT WAS TO HAVE THE SAME SCRIPT AS THE REST OF THE WORLD.”[1]

However, in his day, there were many arguments against the wholesale adoption of the Roman script, and most of them are still valid. Most languages in India use abugida scripts derived from the ancient Brahmi, which are eminently suitable for them. The Roman script cannot, and need not, replace them. Also, some languages, such as Urdu, Kashmiri and Sindhi use Arabic-based scripts, which enjoy great prestige for their iconicity. India was not yet an independent country, and the freedom movement was in full swing. The Roman script in which English is written could only have been seen as a vehicle of imperialism. There was simply no question of replacing India’s traditional scripts.

Netaji’s ideas thus did not resonate among his listeners to the extent he would have wished. (They did have an important legacy, as we will see below.) The examples of China and Japan show that a country can certainly retain its traditional writing system and still get “in line with the rest of the world”.[2] However, even if we do not consider replacing the traditional scripts completely by Roman, we can still make a very solid case for the partial use of an augmented Roman script in some limited contexts in India. One such context would be in the domain of language pedagogy (for the second or third languages wherever the “three-language formula” is applied). Another place would be on street signs, and on public notices.

The Roman script can certainly help India connect with the rest of the world. However, less commonly appreciated is the fact that it can help India connect with itself. In what follows, we will try to list some of the benefits of the use of the Roman script[3]:

1. Diasporic Indians can learn their ancestral languages, and reconnect with their land of origin.

Large diasporic communities live in Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Surinam, South Africa, the UK, Canada, Australia, USA. In all these countries the official language is one that uses the Roman script (French, Dutch, English). Members of the Indian diaspora thus can be expected to be familiar with the Roman script, but not those of Indian languages.

There are also millions of Indians living in the Middle East, where they cannot hope to get citizenship despite their long domicile. These populations are drawn from a number of different linguistic groups, and English is their only link language. Since the expatriates’ social life is segregated from that of the Arabic-speaking native populations, Arabic has not been adopted by the expatriates. The only script familiar to all the Indian expatriates in the Gulf countries thus is the Roman script.

2. Migrants in India working outside their traditional homes can adapt to the local languages.

During the days of British rule, and since independence in 1947, large linguistic communities of speakers of Indian languages have begun to reside in parts of India other than their traditional homelands. Such, for example, is the case with Sindhis all over India, Panjabis and Bengalis displaced by the Partition of India, etc. Cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru have a plurality of speakers of languages from outside. These immigrant groups are not always able to adapt to the local language. They can learn the local language easily, provided it is presented to them in the Roman script.

3. Speakers of minority languages (and endangered languages) can preserve their traditions.

Many linguistic communities in India are too small for their languages to be granted official status. For example, in the state of Karnataka, the Tulu and Kodagu languages do not have official status, though they are wholly native to some districts in Karnataka. The languages of refugee communities, such as Kashmiri Pandits and Tibetans, also suffer from this systemic disadvantage. Such languages can be promoted only by volunteer efforts. The Roman script, ubiquitous in the world of computers, is the logical choice of script. If these languages are taught in a commonly used script, people from outside the heritage student pool will also be attracted toward these languages. Thus, for example, non-Kashmiris will be able to study the Kashmiri language.

4. Indians can access their classical literature

The vehicles of classical literature in India are the Sanskrit, Pali, Ardha-Magadhi, Arabic, and Persian languages. (A small minority can claim Latin and Greek, too.) Sanskrit has traditionally been written in a number of scripts, of which the most common is Devanagari. The scripts of these languages are known to some segments of the literate population. The rest can (and actually do) access this literature through the Roman script (in transliteration).

5. To simplify the task of evolving new notation (in software programs, or for music)

As an example, let us consider the case of Indian music notation. Indian music came to be written down in recent times, and there is as yet no single standard system of notation. The commonest practice is to use solfege syllables (Sa, re, ga … corresponding to the Western Do, re, mi…) often abbreviated as S, R, M etc. Diacritical marks are often to indicate sharp and flat notes, and to indicate upper or lower octaves. The Roman script lends itself to this notation as admirably as that of Indian languages, but it has the advantage of being more compact.

6. Indian culture itself has gone global, and making Indian language material available in an international script will be helpful to many lovers of Indian culture overseas.

This point can be best illustrated by the experience of a personal friend, Dr. Yvette Claire Rosser (Ramrani) from Austin, Texas. Yvette is well-known to the expatriate Indian community in Texas and all over the US as a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba. She is a frequent visitor to the Kainchi Dham temple in Nainital, Uttarakhand. In her own words:

“one day when I was in Kainchi Dham I was using the prayer book written in Devanagari to sing along with the Pujaris. An American fellow told me later that he had seen me singing and assumed I was using a transliteration of the Sanskrit and he said how disappointed he was when he looked over my shoulder and saw I was reading Devanagari.”

Yvette promised her spiritual teacher Siddhi Ma that she would make a transliterated version of the “Prarthana Priti” prayer-book for the use of Western devotees. It was prepared in 1996. In 2008, a devotee named Prema added translations for all the hymns. The updated prayer-book has proved very popular and has been republished.

With all these advantages of the Roman script, it would seem that there should be little opposition to a wide acceptance of this script.  Some difficulties exist, but none that cannot be resolved by consensus:

1. In the early days after independence in 1947, a frequent criticism of the Roman script was that it failed to distinguish between Indian dental and retroflex sounds or short and long vowels, and was thus unsuitable for Indian languages.[4] (This criticism could partly have been allayed by the use of All-India Roman notation devised by Professor J. R. Firth (1916), who supplemented the Roman script with symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet.)[5] Diacritical marks would have been needed, such as are commonly used in East European languages. However, typewriters in India were mostly not equipped for diacritical marks.

This criticism has largely lost its force, as computers and word processors are becoming ubiquitous.

2. In the common transliteration schemes, there is often some overlap between symbols used to represent Sanskrit sounds, and symbols reserved for sounds absent in Sanskrit but used in modern languages. For example, the Sanskrit vocalic ‘r’ is usually transliterated as ‘ṛ’ (with an underdot), but in Hindi that represents a retroflex r.

3. In the common transliteration schemes, there is often some overlap between symbols used to represent Indic sounds, or to represent Perso-Arabic sounds, which become ambiguous when used for the Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi or Kashmiri languages. The retroflex Indic consonants, for instance, ṣ and ṭ, need underdots for their accurate transliteration. However, the same symbols are also needed to represent the Arabic velar consonants ص and ط respectively. 

4. Some sounds from South Indian languages do not exist in North Indian languages (such as the short vowels e and o). The existing transliterations are not universally followed by all languages.

Points 2, 3 and 4 require some debate and a consensus in using Roman transliterations in future.

The Roman script and its link with English

The hegemony of the English language is a matter of great concern to many people in India, who fear the loss of their own languages. Yet, the ubiquitous presence of the English language and its necessity to India is admitted grudgingly or not. In the domain of software, the captains of India’s industry certainly celebrate the English language, as we can see from this excerpt from Nandan Nilekani’s writings:

through the early days of independent India, many saw English as a language of the imperialists and did everything possible to marginalize the tongue. This included attempts to make Hindi the sole national language, and restricting or banning outright the teaching of English in state schools. But once outsourcing made English the entry ticket to a global economy and higher incomes, the language rapidly became a popular aspiration, a ladder to upward mobility for both the middle class and India’s poor. As a result, state governments across the country are now reversing historically anti-English policies, even in places where Hindi-language nationalism was trenchant. Such is the power of changing ideas.[6]

The need for the Roman script

In this section, we will address the question why the Roman script has been specially singled out.

As we have already seen that the Roman script needs to be supplemented, either by diacritical marks or by the inclusion of other symbols. Schemes of transliteration currently in vogue are sorely in need of standardisation. The Roman script (without diacritical marks) simply lacks symbols that could represent a number of sounds peculiar to Indian languages, such as the retroflex and tongue-flip consonants which distinguish Indic languages even from several close relatives in the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. These sounds are often not clearly represented in Roman transliteration, which seriously undermines the intelligibility of the transliterated text. Thus, there is a certain cost to the use of the Roman script for Indian languages.

Any script historically associated with a certain language would need to be augmented before it could be used for other languages. For example, the Arabic script had to be supplemented by many new symbols before it could be used for Indic languages such as Urdu and Sindhi. The Cyrillic script used for Russian came to be used for other languages like Tajik and Kazakh and had to be augmented with new symbols.

Existing Indian scripts can also be easily enhanced with new symbols or diacritical marks. Underdots have been added to some symbols from Devanagari script to represent Perso-Arabic sounds. Even the short vowels of Dravidians languages can now be represented in Devanagari, with the addition of new signs.

Though the Roman script needs augmentation (in the form of diacritical marks), it can still prove very useful and deserves to be promoted, in addition to any efforts made to promote other Indian scripts. We will argue this point by means of the sobering message of an example: that of the development of the Sindhi language in post-partition India. During the fateful partition of India in 1947 and its aftermath, a large number of Hindu Sindhi speakers relocated to India. They mostly settled in the Western states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. There was a debate within the Indian Sindhi community, as it tried to preserve and promote its heritage outside its ancestral homeland. One party argued that the Arabic-based Sindhi script be dispensed with, and the Devanagari script be adopted since the latter was widely used in India. However, another argument prevailed. The supporters of the Arabic script feared that switching to Devanagari would cause a rift within the global Sindhi community – between those in exile in India and those at home in Sindh.[7] The Arabic script continued to be used for Sindhi. This favoured the older generation of Sindhi speakers, who did not have to switch scripts. However, the next generation of Sindhi speakers, living in the diaspora, found the script barrier too steep. Spontaneously and effortlessly, they picked up the regional languages of the states to which they had immigrated. Regrettably, however, the domain of their mother tongue, Sindhi, was restricted only to the confines of their homes. The diasporic Sindhi speakers were caught in a vicious circle when their lack of familiarity with the Arabic script translated into a slackening demand for books and printed material in that script. The resulting lack of reading material contributed to the decline of the language further. Over time, the diasporic Sindhis assimilated into the Gujarati and Hindi speech communities. Today, this loss of the mother tongue is lamented by many Sindhi community leaders.

From this example, we see that for the vitality of a language, the crucial element is its ease of acquisition. To make a language easily accessible to all its potential speakers and students, it is best to choose a familiar script or a combination of them. A distinguished Indian jurist, ambassador and Education Minister, Mahomedalli Currim Chagla, made the same point in his autobiography, Roses in December (though he was trying to argue for the greater use of the Devanagari script):

I was also strongly in favour of a common script. One can become enthusiastic, and indulge in flag-waving on behalf of the mother-tongue. But there is no such thing as a mother-script. One may lisp in one’s other-tongue, but one does not lisp in one’s mother-script. [emphasis added] A common script would open up more easily avenues of knowledge enshrined in different languages in India to everyone. The only common script one could possibly adopt is the Devanagari script, which is the script of Sanskrit, the mother of most Indian languages, and is also the most scientific with a capacity for reproducing all the sounds which are found in a language.

With respect, one must disagree with the eminent Justice Chagla, if he was suggesting that Devanagari can capture all the sounds in any language. However, his basic point that the script is less fundamental and less viscerally important than the language itself, cannot be denied. Justice Chagla also told … (his Muslim friends) …that there were millions of non-Muslim admirers of Urdu, but they could not read Urdu books because of the script. Urdu would receive a tremendous fillip, as Urdu books would circulate much more widely if they were written in the Devanagari script. The experiment was tried with the works of Ghalib, the great Urdu poet, with striking success. His poems were published in the Devanagari script, thousands of copies of which were sold.[8]

Since the Roman script is the single most widely used script in India, with the possible exception of Devanagari, it is automatically a very good choice as an alternative and an ancillary to the other scripts of India. Just as Ghalib’s works became accessible to a greater readership by virtue of their availability in Devanagari, most other works in Indian languages can only gain by their being available in the Roman script too.

An Emerging Consensus

In addition to the scholars mentioned above, the cause of the Roman script in India has been championed by Mr Madhukar N. Gogate, main founder and main director of the Roman Lipi Parishad (RLP), which was inaugurated in a public meeting in Mumbai on 26 January 1984.[9] Chief among the objectives of the Parishad were the following:

  • To popularise the Roman script, as an optional script, for Indian languages.
  • To standardize spellings of words and names in various languages.
  • To study and publicize the benefits of Romanization.

In the year 1984, the odds against the Roman script seemed to be stacked very high. However, with the economic liberalization of the 1990s, and the great spread of Information Technology and computers, the arguments against the Roman script have lost their force.

The Konkani language spoken in the state of Goa has a long tradition of using the Roman script. The Roman script is favoured by Christians, whereas Hindu Konkani speakers prefer the Devanagari script. However, the identification of the Roman script with a particular religious group is fast becoming a thing of the past. In the preface to a well-known prayer-book, a Hindu religious teacher, Swami Advayananda, writes:

… The uniqueness of this book is the English transliteration provided. This is certain to be a sure boon to all the students who are not familiar with the Sanskrit script but are eager to learn and master the art of Vedic chanting.[10]

This pragmatism is echoed by Sindhi language activists, anxious about the future of their mother-tongue who “suggest that Sindhi can be written in Roman script to fulfil certain necessities and requirements”.[11] The Roman script would be common to Sindhis on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani border. The distinguished Indo-Anglian writer of blockbuster novels, Chetan Bhagat, carries the arguments a great deal further, arguing that legitimizing a Roman Hindi script will actually “save Hindi”, which is the single most widely spoken language in India. His arguments for the promotion of the Roman script are that:

It is on computer key boards and telephone touchscreens. It is already popular, especially among the youth. Millions of Indians, for instance, use Whatsapp where most conversations are in Hindi, although using the Roman script.12

In fact, a new genre of writing in ‘Hinglish’ – (a mix of Hindi and English) written in Romanagari (Hindi text written in Roman script) has already been inaugurated by Richa Devesar, a young writer from the Tricity, who writes that “It is considered to be the language of today’s youth. People often use this language on social sites without even knowing it is Romanagari.”[13]

It may have taken eighty years, but the vision of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose is now the focus of an organically growing consensus. It is to be hoped that the authorities in India acknowledge this reality by promoting the optional use of the Roman script for the official languages of India, at least in the domain of pedagogy.

The uncontrolled use of the Roman script without augmentation with diacritical marks will certainly hurt the teaching of Indian languages. That is what is threatened by the rapid growth in the number of cell phones and computers. It is better, therefore, to make sure that language teaching materials of high quality are available in an augmented Roman script. As an example of the possibilities that exist, we will end this paper by leaving you with a beautiful poem, and you can verify for yourself how delightfully easy it is to read — in the Roman script — “Karṇa kā mitraprema”, an excerpt from Rashmirathi, the epic poem by Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’:

Karṇa kā mitraprema

dhūlõ mẽ thā main paṛā huā

kiskā saneha pa baṛā huā

kisne mujhko sammān diyā

nr̥ptā de mahimāvān kiyā

hai r̥ṇī karṇa kā rom-rom

jānte satya yah sūrya som

tan man dhan duryodhan kā hai

yah jīvan duryodhan kā hai

mitratā baṛā anmol ratan

kab ise tol saktā hai dhan

dhartī kī to kyā bisāt

ā jāe agar vaikuṇṭh hāth

use bhī nyochāvar kar dū̃

kurupati ke caraṇõ par dhar dū̃

References / Footnotes

[1] The International Education Year And Common Script for India (An Appeal), Minocher K. Contractor, Surat, 1973, p.5.

[2] Though even here, teachers of Chinese as a second language, for example, universally rely on the pinyin system of Romanization.

[3] There is no implicit claim of originality on the part of the author here. Prime Minister Nehru had advocated the optional use of the Roman script for Indian languages. Other notable proponents of this script include C. Subramaniam, Sardar Hukum Singh, Frank Anthony, Dr. P. Subbrayan, Prof. Sunitikumar Chatterji, Prof. K. Swaminathan, Dr. C. D. Deshmukh, Shri M.C. Setalvad, and Dr. Alma Latifi.  (The International Education Year And Common Script for India (An Appeal), Minocher K. Contractor, Surat, 1973, p.23.)

[4] See, for example, The Indian Language Problem: A Comparative Study, R.K. Yadav, National Publishing House, Delhi, 1966.

[5] H.M. Lambert, Gujarati Language Course, Cambridge, 1971. This notation has been used in several books including A. H. Harley, Colloquial Hindustani, London, 1944, and H. M. Lambert, Marathi Language Course, Oxford, 1943.

[6] Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation, Nandan Nilekani, The Penguin Press, New York, 2009, page 7.

[7] Asani, A.S. (2003). At the cross-roads of Indic and Iranian civilizations: Sindhi literary culture. In S. I. Pollock (Ed.), Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (pp. 612-646). Berkeley, CA: University of California, Press.

[8] Roses in December: An Autobiography, M.C. Chagla, 1974, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, p.355.

[9] http://www.mngogate.com/e04.htm

[10] Chinmaya Book of Vedic Chants, Chinmaya Mission West, Langhorne, PA, 2005.

[11] Dr. Satish Rohra, Sindhi in Roman Script, http://www.sindhishaan.com/article/language/lang_08_02.html, downloaded on March 16, 2019.

[12] Chetan Bhagat, http://www.chetanbhagat.com/columns/scripting-change-bhasha-bachao-roman-hindi-apnao/, downloaded on March 16, 2019.

[13] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chandigarh/Tricity-gives-birth-to-first-novel-in-Hinglish/articleshow/46569733.cms

About Author: Dileep Karanth

Dileep Karanth teaches physics and enjoys working with natural languages. He welcomes suggestions, to help improve his bare-bones blogs at: i) leepkar.blogspot.com ii) dileepkaranth.wordpress.com/blog/ iii) https://hcommons.org/members/leepkar/

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