Of all the things that Maldivians could use to represent their identity, nothing is better than their language. Indeed this could apply to several if not most cultures of the world, as it could be argued that language makes up 50% of culture if not more. The special thing about the Maldivians, however, is their writing system used for their language, known as “Thaana Akuru” or simply just “Thaana”. Of all the writing systems used in South Asia (including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), Thaana stands out as it did not descend from the Brahmi script used in ancient India. Instead, it was developed from Arabic numerals as little as 300 years ago – a relatively short time compared to the earliest Tamil writing in the 5th century BC.
The “newness” shows itself in many features of the script, most notably the direction of writing which is from right to left as opposed to the left-to-right of the Brahmi descended scripts. It should be noted that some languages in India and Pakistan such as Urdu and Sindhi are also written from left to right, but these are written with scripts based on the Arabic script and hence are not Brahmi descended. In addition, the order of letters in the script is different and a lot more arbitrary than that of the Brahmi descended scripts which are organised roughly based on the position of the tongue in the mouth. Finally, the script is a lot simpler in terms of both the letterforms and the type of script it is.
Each of the letters in the Thaana script can be thought of as a line with some kind of distinguishing feature, usually a hook, a curve, a tail, another line or a combination of those. But in all except 4 cases, the line is the foundation of the letter. This in itself does not make the script simpler, as some of the Brahmi based scripts also share this feature (although not to the same extent). What makes the script simpler is that none of the letters feature the excessive intricacy that characterises many of the Brahmi based scripts and most can be written within two strokes of a pen – something that cannot be said about the majority of the Brahmi based scripts.
As for the type of writing system, the Brahmi descended scripts are abugidas in which consonant-vowel sequences are written as one unit but will usually retain separate parts so that the consonant within the unit is still distinguishable from the vowel in the unit. This is in contrast to a syllabary such as the Japanese Hiragana and Katakana in which each syllable is different. The Thaana script, however, does not fall into either of these two groups. It falls somewhere between an abugida and a true alphabet in which consonants and vowels have equal status and are written separately. In Thaana, vowels sounds are represented by diacritics which go either above or below the consonant they follow. If a vowel sound occurs by itself, it must be written with an “empty consonant”/”carrier consonant”. Because of this, it cannot be considered a true alphabet, but it comes much closer than the Brahmi descended scripts. And because it is closer to being a true alphabet, it does not have some of the features which make the other scripts harder to learn, for example inherent vowels and conjunct/half consonants.
The following is a list of the South Asian scripts ranked from most to least complicated, with a short description and an explanation given as to why it is in that position. It should be noted that the list is somewhat subjective as it is hard to quantify the complexity of individual letters as well as the characteristics of a script. Generally, curvy, intricate or ornate letters, ligatures and diacritics which modify letters are considered to make a script more complicated for the purposes of this list.
- Telugu. Used mainly to write Telugu but is also possibly used for other minority languages in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The script has over 40 letters, all of which are written in a round style typical of many scripts in the region. Some of the letters are very ornate and many look similar to each other, with the differences being as small as a single dot or a space between parts of the letter. In addition, each consonant has a half form which is used if a word has a consonant cluster. While most half forms are simply subscript versions of the full form, some are much less intuitive as they do not resemble the full form whatsoever. Finally, being an abugida, the Telugu script uses diacritics to indicate vowel sounds. These are not always consistent, however, and can be slightly different for certain consonant-vowel combinations.
- Kannada. Used mainly to write Kannada, but also used for Tulu and Konkani and other languages spoken in Karnataka. The Kannada script and Telugu script are so closely related to the point of being almost mutually intelligible. If a person learns one of them, they should be able to read a large part of a text in the other one without many problems. Understanding the text is another issue as the languages themselves are not mutually intelligible. Due to the similarities of the scripts, they are almost equal in difficulty. Like Telugu, Kannada has a large number of letters, has half-forms for those letters which are not always intuitive, and has diacritics which are not always consistent. The thing that sets Kannada apart is that some of its letters are not as decorative as Telugu and more diacritics are written on the same line as the consonant, allowing for more consistency and more clarity when reading. These differences are minimal, however, and the complexity of Kannada is still very close to that of Telugu.
- Bengali. Mainly used for Bengali and Assamese. The Bengali script has a large number of letters as well as half forms for those letters which are used in consonant clusters. These half forms usually resemble the full form of the letter but this is not always the case. Unlike in the previous two languages consonant clusters are represented by connected ligatures rather than subscript forms which are not joined to the main letter. The letters themselves are somewhat ornate but not at the same level as Kannada or Telugu. However, some look a bit disjointed, almost as though they have not yet taken a true form. This makes the script overall look very calligraphic, and even the printed form has a handwritten feel to it.
- Odia (Oriya). Used to write Odia. It features the large number of letters of all the previous scripts as well as the conjunct forms (using a mixture of subscript forms and connected ligatures). The conjunct form usually bares resemblance to the constituent letters but this is not always the case. It is simpler than Bengali only because of the way the letters look. Although they are round like those of Telugu and Kannada, straight lines feature more prominently. Vowel diacritics are not too messy and the letters are not as calligraphic in printed form compared to Bengali.
- Malayalam. Used to write Malayalam. It has all of the features of the above languages. The letters are round and often feature loops. In most cases, they combine to make ligatures although sometimes a subscript form is used for consonant clusters. This is the most complicated feature of the script, although in most cases, the constituent letters can be seen in the final ligature. The script underwent a reform in the 80s meaning that diacritics are straightforward and consistent. They do not involve any modification of the main letter.
- Sinhala. Used to write Sinhalese. It has the large alphabet similar to the previous languages, and even includes four extra letters to represent prenasalised sounds which are not present in the other languages. The forms of the letters are more complicated than those of Malayalam, Odia and possible even Bengali (but they do not have the same handwritten feel as Bengali) because they are very rounded and feature very few straight lines. Some of the letters are also quite similar. The reason this script is ranked below the other languages in terms of complexity is that it does not have any ligatures. Instead, consonant clusters are indicated in a similar way to the Latin script, that is, by simply putting the letters next to each other. Unlike Latin, there will be a diacritic to indicate no vowel – it is an abugida after all.
- Perso-Arabic. This is one of two non-Brahmi descended scripts in this list. It is used to write Urdu, Punjabi (in Pakistan), Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, and Kashmiri. The letters have simple forms but many of them have the same basic shape with the difference being one or more dots, or sometimes circles. The letters also have different forms depending on its position in a word. But these forms are mostly very similar to the isolated form. It can be compared to cursive writing in the Latin script. One of the characteristics which increases the complexity of this script is the Nastaliq style in which it is commonly written. This is a highly calligraphic style with specific rules about how the letters should be written, their sizes, and their position. However, these are characteristics of that style and not of the script itself. It just happens to be that in South Asia the Nastaliq style is preferred over simpler styles. Other features such as the number of letters cannot be stated absolutely because it varies depending on the language being written, and some are more complicated than others. For example, Perso-Arabic-Sindhi has more letters than Perso-Arabic-Urdu making it slightly more complicated. Meanwhile, Perso-Arabic-Kashmiri has clear vowel indication while this is not always the case for Perso-Arabic-Urdu. Perso-Arabic-Balochi does not have a form which is completely standardised because it was only a spoken language for a long time.
- Devanagari. This is the most widely used of all the Brahmi descended scripts. It is used to write Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, Sanskrit, Kashmiri, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Konkani and many others. It has a large number of letters like the previous languages. Certain languages have extra letters to represent sounds particular to that language. It is similar to Bengali in the sense that the letters hang off a horizontal bar. Unlike Bengali, however, the letters do not look handwritten and they lack excessive intricacy. The diacritics are much clearer (although not always consistent) and overall, the script is cleaner. The feature which makes this script more complicated is the large number of ligatures used for consonant clusters. Most are intuitive and are made of half-forms of the constituent letters. Some look nothing like their constituent letters. They can consist of up to four consonants meaning that there is a very large number of possible combinations. Not all of these exist, however, and the ones that do exist are rarely used. It should also be noted that consonant clusters do not always have to be written in ligature form. It is acceptable to write them in the same way they are written in the Sinhala script, that is, by putting the letters next to each other with a mark to indicate no vowel sound.
- Gujarati. Used to write Gujarati. This script can be thought of as Devanagari without the line on top. If a person learns one, they can read just about 90% of the other. As such, Gujarati has many features in common with Devanagari, including the lack of excessive intricacy, the clear diacritics, and the simple forms of the letters as well as the complicated ligatures. Some letters are simpler than their Devanagari equivalents and some are more complicated. The reason it is ranked lower than Devanagari is mainly because of the lack of the horizontal bar, which just goes to show how similar these scripts are.
- Gurmukhi. Used to write Punjabi (in India). This script is also similar to Devanagari but they are not mutually intelligible. The letters have a jagged feel when compared to Devanagari and they make greater use of closed spaces. Most of the letters are simple, but some are more ornate. There is the possibility of confusion between some of the letters, but they are not too similar – especially when compared to scripts like Telugu and Malayalam. The script as a whole is simpler than Devanagari because it has much fewer ligature conjuncts. Consonant clusters, in the overwhelming majority of cases, are written with two separate consonants and a diacritic to indicate no vowel sound.
- Tamil. Used to write Tamil. This script is very similar to Malayalam except it features more straight lines, giving it a square look. The letters are relatively simple, although they are arguably more complicated than Gurmukhi of Devanagari letters because they are bigger. The majority of them are not very ornate. The two things which put Tamil at the bottom of this list are its small alphabet (it is about a quarter to a third the size of the other scripts) and the fact that there are no ligatures whatsoever for consonant clusters. The only inconsistency is in how the vowels “u” and “uu” combine with consonants. But even here, there is regularity in the irregularity.
- Thaana. Used to write Dhivehi. It has a small alphabet and is closer to being an alphabet than an abugida, meaning that vowels do not have an independent form as well as a diacritic form. The letters themselves do not have the intricacy of many of the other scripts in this list but they are nonetheless different enough from each other in the majority of cases to avoid confusion. There is no inconsistency when it comes to diacritics and there are no ligatures for consonant clusters either.
The Maldivians should be proud that they managed to develop the simplest script in the region. This is not to say that the other scripts are bad – they too have their own forms of beauty. But from a practical perspective, that is, when it comes to things like learning and word processing, Thaana is the best.
However, it would be unfair to say all these good things about the script without mentioning its flaws. Most of them are aesthetic (meaning they can be fixed relatively easily) but a few of them are related to the structure of the script itself. Here they are in no particular order:
- The monochotomy of handwritten and printed language. The majority of the world’s scripts have a marked difference between their printed forms and their handwritten forms. The printed form normally looks much clearer and much more formal then the handwritten form. This even applies to the ornate Brahmi descended Indian scripts. In the case of Thaana, however, the printed form is more or less based on the handwritten form. In fact, the writing in some old books which were handwritten are virtually indistinguishable from their modern printed counterparts. Arguably, this is not even problem, as having similarity between handwriting and printing makes the script much easier to learn, especially compared to other scripts such as Latin where a person has to familiar with cursive. And that is true – this would not be a problem if it were not for the second flaw:
- The overused Comic Sans style font. It is pretty sad that practically only one font was developed for such a unique script (Emphasis on practically – there is more than one, but the overwhelming majority of printed Dhivehi texts use only one, or ones that look very similar to each other). What is sadder is the fact that that one font lacks many of the features required to appear formal. As a result, it appears juvenile (kind of like Comic Sans, as mentioned earlier) and somewhat out of place in formal contexts. This is emphasised by the fact that Latin text is often used alongside the Thaana script. In 99.99999% of cases, the Latin script will have a neat, ordered feel to it which is completely lacking in the Thaana script. The two main features of the font which contribute to this effect are its roundedness and its angle (this will be discussed later).
- The final flaw has to do with the structure of the script itself. Thaana is written on three lines as opposed to the one line of most other scripts. The middle line is used for consonants and the top and bottom lines are used for vowels. The problem here is that all lines are given equal weighting and are equally prominent whereas in other scripts that make use of two or more lines, there is usually one line that is dominant. This means that the consonants can sometimes be difficult to read if the size of the font is too small. In addition the three lines creates some problems when it comes to word processing.
So there you have it – the good and the bad of Thaana. The Maldivians of the 18th century solved most of the problems with their writing system, and now it is time for Maldivians of the 21st century to continue that process. We might not be able to fix all of its problems, but we can at least start by taking a little more pride in our writing system and our language.