A case for Marathi spelling reform

Marathi is this amazing, beautiful language, rich in literature and expression. So why it persists with an atrocious spelling system beats me. Not that it has an unsuitable script, Devanagari and Modi before it did an appreciable job for representing most of its sounds. But there are a few characters that if added, can make the spelling even more phonetic.

Firstly, we need to add अँ and आँ to the existing vowel list. Both vowels and their matra symbols are already commonly used in Marathi spellings, though largely for foreign words like बँक and कॉम्प्यूटर for which there aren't everyday Marathi words. संचयनी and संगणक aren't used all that commonly. Enshrining अँ and आँ into the alphabet will make things so much better.

Then, take the symbols च and ज. They not only stand for the sound 'cha' and 'ja', but also do double duty for the uniquely Marathi sounds 'tsa' and 'dza'. Right now, one makes out the 'cha' or 'tsa' sound of the printed letter through context, or from memory. How nice would it be if there were separate symbols to represent them?

So here I suggest two more symbols (see image on right), to appended at the base of the alphabet to do duty for 'tsa' and 'dza' respectively. I draw them both from the discarded Modi script, where they had the same values as च and ज do in Devanagari. The rest is easy, wherever च takes the 'tsa' sound use the first symbol, and wherever ज takes the 'dza' sound use the second. Or it could be vice versa. The sound with the higher frequency takes the Devanagari character, and the lesser one the character from Modi.

That's only half done. There is the long or stressed schwa to be taken care of. Marathi, unlike other Indian languages, has two schwas - the short one अ, and a long one, yet unrepresented. The long schwa is a spoken device used for clarity.

e.g. read out these sentences: रसत्यात नाच तमाश्या चालतात vs रसत्यात नाचत माश्या चालतात.

In the former, a long schwa follows च, allowing the listener to insert a break, while in the latter, a pause happens after त. Thus the spoken sentences convey different meanings unambiguously. One way to represent the long schwa would be to place a dot below the consonant that carries it e.g. रसत्यात नाच़ तमाश्या चालतात. Since Marathi does not use this diacritic, unlike Hindi, it can be used as the matra for long schwa. The 'z' sound is ज़ in Hindi but झ in Marathi (which does not have the 'jha' sound), and the Hindi letters ड़ and ढ़ are not used in Marathi Devanagari.

Lastly, the sounds 'mha', 'Nha' and 'nha', unique to Marathi and represented by the double forms म्ह, ण्ह and न्ह. These could be also be represented by their own characters in Marathi, placed after म, ण and न respectively. Again, we can draw them from Modi, whose corresponding characters lie unused.

Wishful thinking: if these spelling reforms were to be carried out, it would improve the correspondence between written and spoken Marathi, and make it far more easier to spell, and remember the correct pronunciations of words.


mm said…
I agree....Marathi needs spelling reform. Keep up the good work, I like your blog.
Purnima Thakur said…
It is an interesting read, thank you. I wanted to make a point about your suggestion for introducing separate characters for the alveopalatal voiceless (ts) and voiced stops (dʒ). These are not phonemes, rather allophones in Marathi. Their distribution is limited in that they are realized as such only when followed by high vowels or by glide 'j'. And every native Marathi speaker knows these phonological rules. It would be an extra load to add two extra symbols on the already loaded stop consonant inventory. A phonological rule is much more efficient, which is easily learnt. Languages do not use separate symbols to represent allophones, the orthographic inventories would run amok if one did so and this is not an optimal way of representing the sounds in the language.

Popular Posts