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Thursday, March 02, 2000



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Malayalam script for DTP

Surendranath C.


`RACHANA' in Malayalam means `to write', `to create'. Rachana Akshara Vedi, a team of socially committed information technology professionals and philologists, has applied developments in computer technology and desktop publishing to resurrect the Malaya lam language from the disorder, fragmentation and degeneration it had suffered since the `modernisation' of the Malayalam script in 1967-69.

The group has brought out `Rachana', a new package of Malayalam DTP software complete with the original script system containing all its near-900 characters, a variety of fonts, the Word 97 text editor and a choice of user-friendly keyboard configuration s featuring also an improved version of the popular Inscript keyboard, called Minscript.

The Rachana group comprising Mr. R. Chitrajakumar and Mr. N. Gangadharan of the Malayalam Lexicon Department, and Mr. K.H. Hussain, Mr. Subhash Kuriakose and Dr. P. Vijayakumaran Nair of the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), Peechi, speeded up the ir efforts in 1999 when the State Language Institute introduced a new style book dropping a few more characters in the script system.

The Rachana team believed that standardisation of the script should aim at determining the character set of the language, regularising the internal mapping of the character codes, standardising the keyboard layout in accordance with the frequency distrib ution of the characters in the script and internationalising the script system in order to make it compatible with the Internet and the Unicode Confederation's efforts to fix the character set and allot space of all the major languages in the world.

New opportunities provided by the 16-bit and 32-bit Windows operating system were utilised by Rachana to revive the original script with all its conjuncts. The phonetic keyboard widely used by DTP firms was slightly modified by Rachana to reduce the keys trokes by 20 per cent.

The keyboard layout was rearranged in accordance with frequency distribution of characters. It was made possible to type 21 most widely used characters with a single key stroke. The need for toggling back and forth between English and Malayalam key fonts was abandoned.

New programmes were written into the software for auto hyphenation and automatic adjustment of line space to suit multi-deck conjuncts. All these resulted in increasing the keying-in speed two to three times.

Rachana also revived the Malayalam numericals. A new keyboard layout for beginners /children is also a feature of the Rachana software package.

Rachana is now looking forward to introducing automatic spellchecking in Malayalam texts, voice/ optical character recognition and writing algorithms that can enable sorting and database management.

The response to Rachana from Malayali literati has been overwhelmingly positive. A publishing group has already brought out in the revived original script the latest work of late Guru Nityachaitanya Yati who was one of the guiding spirits to Rachana.

Many artists in Kerala have offered volunteer support to Rachana in calligraphy and typography. Rachana, the group is now in the process of marketing the product in ways and means that would uphold the lofty ethical values writ into the creation of Racha na, the software.

Scripting a fiasco

THE Malayalam script that had established itself as a distinct system in the 14th century had more or less retained its characters/ alphabets as well as the basic characteristic of mirroring the spoken phoneme till the standardisation efforts in the late 60s.

In order to fit the script to the Procrustean bed of the Malayalam typewriter keyboard and to make typewritten Malayalam the means of official communication, the State Language Institute introduced several changes in the script in 1968.

These changes were necessitated not by any social demand to improve communicability or functionality of the language but only by the need to adapt the script to the typewriter keyboard. Many vowel-signs hitherto used in conjunction with consonants were s eparated out; a few characters were virtually discarded as redundant; except for 16 conjuncts, all the others were split into a series of basic characters linked with a link character (a half-moon sign).

The end product of `standardisation' was disorder and disintegration: with the introduction of the new script in the school syllabus (against the avowed intent of the language modernisation committee itself) two different script systems came into use.

A new generation of children were brought up entirely on the new script and they found it difficult to read earlier texts and the treasures of Malayalam literature. A schism developed between spoken and written Malayalam, corrupting both.

That the script system of a language encompassed not only sounds and visual signs but also an inherent logic the language community had evolved through centuries was completely overlooked in the process. A centuries-old language and the culture it embodi ed was debased for the sake of a mechanical tool that would hardly have a life of three decades.

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