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The Kashmiri Alphabet

Prof. J. L. Kaul

(Editor's comments: The original print contains some words written in Hindi that translated to unintelligent characters like U, /U, etc. while doing the HTML conversion. We apologise for the inconvenience.)

Do we have a Kashmiri alphabet? Has there been, ever in our history, Kashmiri in use as a subject for study either as language or as literature? I think not. Had this been so, we should have had an alphabet of our own, no matter what the script would have been. We should, that is to say, have had a set of letters to indicate all the sounds of our language, the sounds of it which are common with other neighbouring Indian languages as well as those which are peculiar to it. It is wrong to say that Sharada was our script for Kashmiri, that it expressed, more or less adequately, all the sounds of Kashmiri alphabet. Sharada was indeed our script but it was our script for writing Sanskrit which we now, very rightly, transcribe in the Nagari script. Nor was Perso-Arabic script ever adapted to Kashmiri so as to enable it to express, more or less adequately, the sounds peculiar to our language. We have some old manuscripts of Kashmiri in these scripts, but though in some of them a few indicators have been employed according to the whim of the writer or the copyist, yet we cannot say that there has ever been, till very recently, a serious attempt to adapt these scripts to Kashmiri. That we pronounced Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic as some of us still pronounce Hindi and Urdu, in the Kashmiri way, is a different matter altogether, and does not prove the point.

Kashmiri shared the humiliation of not having its own alphabet with several other languages which, not long ago, had no alphabet of their own but which adapted one of the prevalent alphabets, introducing several unavoidable new signs or letters to indicate sounds peculiar to them. Thus was Roman alphabet adapted to Turkish and Indonesian and Perso-Arabic to Pushto and Sindhi. Arabic, we know, does not have the letters which must be there to denote sounds peculiar to Persian like , or the Hindi-Hindustani sounds like these and and ; but the urgency of need made it inevitable for Arabic script to be so enlarged as to include these, then newly invented, letter-symbols several centuries before it was further enlarged to include some more letter-symbols to express sounds peculiar to Sindhi and Pushto like with four dots instead of one dot inside it to denote the same sound as we have in the first letter of Kashmiri word 'tsar', /U,.....; (a bug). This was as inevitable for Arabic script to do as for the Roman alphabet which most of us know only as the English alphabet but which also contains other signs and letter-symbols to be able to express sounds peculiar to French, German, and some other languages. So far as I know no such attempt has been made to enlarge the Nagari script to enable it to express sounds peculiar to other Indian languages, notably Tamil, Telegu, Kannada, and Malayalam, even Marathi; nor will any such worthwhile attempt be made so long as the Hindi Pundits of U.P. continue to have it their own suicidal way.

It must, however, be conceded that while Perso-Arabic script was enlarged to contain signs and letters for sounds other than those it needed only for Arabic and Persian, the process was not complete nor phonetically accurate. It was not, for instance, made phonetically accurate so as to express adequately all Hindi-Hindustani sounds. But scripts need not follow logic any more than language resulting in what appears to us to be a very erratic and illogical pronunciation. But we know also that the English alphabet does not include the signs and letters that, in the Roman alphabet, are used to denote sounds peculiar to languages other than English. This, however, continues to be done with the Arabic alphabet so that when one is writing Persian or Urdu, one has to write Arabic words or words of Arabic origin as they are written in Arabic, using the very same spelling, though one may not pronounce them in the Arab way. One result of this is inevitably to make the spelling of languages using Perso-Arabic script derivative and therefore difficult. For one who does not know Persian and, better still, Arabic also, writing of Urdu becomes difficult for this reason. This is so with Kashmiri written in this script where, for example, we have to write U, ,/U, /U, , /UU, ,, not to name 'sacred' words or proper nouns. This is so also with the Nagari script though not to the same extent not because there are a larger number of words derived from Arabic and Persian than from Sanskrit (this, as regards the basic vocabulary, is not true) but because most of the words derived from Sanskrit have been more intimately assimilated in our phonetic system e.g., (F), /U (), /U (), ȧ (), (h), /U (). Nevertheless in this script we shall have to write , /U/U, , , though I know that some advocates of this script for Kashmiri would not insist upon doing so. But this will not, and surely need not, be so if we write Kashmiri in the Roman alphabet where we shall write these words thus : (a) of Arabic or Persian origin khat, nazar, asar, hakh, saph, khalath, katra. (b) of Sanskrit origin bagavan, narayan, daram, dyan. In Perso-Arabic alphabet the spelling will be derivative; in Roman alphabet, phonetic.

I am not here pleading for adapting Roman alphabet for Kashmiri as more scientific and otherwise suitable than Perso-Arabic or even Nagari scripts though this, in my considered opinion, is very true and for these reasons :

(a) It has one fixed definite letter for one fixed definite sound, and vica versa an advantage it shares with the Nagari script.

(b) It has the additional advantage that it will have letter symbols to denote sounds and not mere diacritical marks as in Perso-Arabic script with its facile omission of vowel indicators () or even in the Nagari script in certain letter combinations e.g., (one) but (a wing), .... but ,U while in this script we shall write 'akh' and 'pakh' and the vowel a can neither be dropped nor mysteriously merged with the preceding consonant. For, Roman Kashmiri will neither be a consonantal script like Perso-Arabic nor a syllabic script like Nagari.

(c) There will be only as many letters to denote vowels and consonants as are needed in Kashmiri, making the Kashmiri alphabet a much shorter alphabet than it would be in Urdu script where all the letters denoting Perso-Arabic sounds have also to be included and where the many Kashmiri vowels have to be added on to it; or in the Nagari script even if it were simplified and shortened by removing all its vowels and consonants not necessary for Kashmiri.

(d) There would be an immense and incalculable advantage of printing and type-writing. Even if Kashmiri is written in the Naskh (and not the more familiar Nastalik) style of Perso-Arabic script, there must be at least three variants for each letter, its initial, medial, and end shapes; but for Kashmiri in the Roman alphabet we need only one shape for each letter. We can dispense with Capitalization, adopt only one script-hand form for both printing as well as writing, and not use punctuation marks like semi-colon, inverted commas, brackets, and dashes. The type machines will be very simple and simply handled while they will have to be much more complicated for Perso-Arabic or Nagari scripts with keys for vowel indicators above and below the letters.

(e) Its immense advantages notwithstanding, other languages find it difficult to adopt this script since tradition, long use, and availability of considerable literature in their own scripts prevent them from doing so, but these reasons cannot weight with Kashmiri because there is neither tradition nor long use, nor any literature available in Perso-Arabic or Nagari scripts. Except Mr. S. K. Toshkhani's Women Welfare Trust readers and Pandit Zinda Kaul's Paramananda, both in Nagari script, all that has been published has been without any attempt being made to adapt the script used, chiefly Perso-Arabic, to express sounds peculiar to Kashmiri. I do not refer to Kashmiri publications of Royal Asiatic Society, notably of Grierson, nor to my Kashmiri Lyrics, all of them using Roman alphabet with certain changes and additions.

(f) Where, however, no such considerations carried weight, the Roman script was adapted, among others, by Muslim countries themselves, Turkey, and Indonesia.

My purpose here is to focus attention on a fact of supreme importance viz, firstly, that, whether the script adapted for Kashmiri be Nagari or Perso-Arabic or Roman (the only more or less known scripts here), we shall need to invent diacritical marks or letter-symbols to denote sounds peculiar to Kashmiri; and, secondly, that, for Kashmiri, letter-symbols are very much better than mere diacritical marks.

Kashmiri is, what may rightly be called, a vowel language : it has not only many vowels but its vowel system is intricate. It has semi-vowels and shades of vowel sounds; and it differs from other Indian languages in having silent or nearly silent vowels (called matras by Hindu Grammarians) which may modify the pronunciation of the preceeding vowel, as in "Khos" (a cup) but 'khasi' (cups); 'guru' (a horse), 'guru' (a mare), 'guri' (horses) but not in 'guri' (mares) where the end vowel is more distinctly pronounced. In framing Kashmiri alphebet we need not, however, be very pedantic : We can leave these subtleties to the context as, for example,

asi on gur (we brought the horse),

asi ani gur (we brought the mare).

Nevertheless Kashmiri has an intricate vowel system and cannot afford to drop or omit vowel marks as is very easily done in Perso-Arabic characters. There it does not very much matter for there are only zabar, zer, and pesh to pronounce; and it is comparatively easy to conjecture which of these three would make sense and we need not include etc. Where however, there are two more variants each of these three alone, six in all, it is well-nigh impossible to have a conjectural or a guess script. The vowels cannot be dropped and it becomes necessary to invent letters, not merely marks, to denote these extra vowel sounds. But Perso-Arabic will not or cannot accept letter symbols for them because it is a consonantal script. Arabic alphabet distinguishes between letters , and U/U or ,U and not between vowels and consonants, as such, as Nagari does which is not only phonetic, but also phonetically arranged. This leads some of us to the wrong conclusion that consonants alone can be indicated by letters, not vowels which, acording to them, can, and therefore should, only be denoted by indicatiors or U/U as zabar, zer and pesh, which are not, and therefore should not be, included in the alphabet chart of any language which adapts Perso-Arabic characters. This, obviously, is a wrong conclusion for two good reasons : First, that as a matter of fact, in Urdu for instance, the sounds denoted by , in /U and /;U in and in and in and are vowel sounds and not consonant sounds as those of in or of in Secondly, it may be a strong sentiment that retains all the letters of the original Arabic alphabet even though some at least of its letters are not needed and do not express any sounds of the language which adapts the Arabic alphabet for its own use, it is a linguistic superfluity. If Kashmiri were to adapt the Roman script, there seems to be no reason why it should retain the English spelling of the words it borrows from that language but certainly does not pronounce in the English way. For example : We shall not write switch but such ,, not cigerette but sigreth ,U.

That is why the Turkish and the Indonesian alphabets do not retain the letters which it does not need and the sounds of which are foreign to them. There should, therefore, be no reason why we many not look to our own convenience. Consistently with the linguistic and phonetic needy of our language. But can we do so if we adopt Perso-Arabic or even Nagari alphabet? Not at all if we adopt Perso-Arabic script and not wholy even for Nagri.

Be that as it may, all this need not mean that Perso-Arabic alphabet cannot be adopted for Kashmiri but that we must recognize, firstly, that, on all scientific and utilitarian considerations, the Roman alphabet is the best to adopt and Nagari the second best; and, secondly, that if there are other out weighing considerations (as I believe there are) in favour of Perso-Arabic alphabet, then we should not hesitate, wherever necessary, to introduce new symbols and, thirdly, that these new symbols, so far as can be, should be letters rather than mere indicators. There is, after all, nothing sacrosanct about a script, and Arabic scholars know the several forms through which the Arabic alphabet has evolved in Naskh and Nastalik styles.

This is what the 1948 Kashmiri Script Committee did, and when the script was again put before the Committees of 1952 and 1953, they could not resile far from this basic position. These outweighing considerations in favour of Arabic script may not be scientific but sentimental; nonetheless they are there and they are, at present, supreme. That is why, nearly twenty years ago, I made an attempt to adopt this very script in Nastalik style to Kashmiri and introduced, for the first time, a Kashmiri section in 1936 S. P. College Magazine, the Pratap, which continued till it was replaced by Professor S. K. Toshakhani's short-lived Kashmiri in International-Roman alphabet.

Late Prof. Jayalal Kaul was a very distinguished scholar of Kashmir, Prof. of English and Principal S. P. College , Srinagar. He passed away in 1986. The above is an except from his book, Studies in Kashmiri, 1968. Since Arabic alphabets could not be reproduced, in their place Nagri equivalents have been used. Since this is a long presentation only that portion, relevant to our theme, has been included in this article.
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