Languages, Scripts and the Unicode

By: Rajen Barua

The Unicode is a global consortium of the computing industry standard. For the layman, it may be taken as the modern printing press in the electronic industry; through the Unicode one can write in different languages in the Internet. At present, a silent debate is going on in the use of the Unicode scripts for writing Assamese because the script being offered is called the "Bengali" Script. This brings to the forefront the old sensitive question again, “Are Assamese using the Bengali script for writing? And if not, why the Unicode script is being called, the "Bengali" script?” This article is written to address both these issues.

The answer to the first question is a big, No. Assamese has its own separate independent script, the paleography of which goes back to the 5th century A.D. which is much older than that of the Bengali script. Developments of both these similar scripts occurred in parallel down to the nineteenth century A.D. However, with the advent of modern printing press in the nineteenth century, both the languages are using exactly the same script except for two letters: the Assamese ৰ (Ro) and ৱ (Wab-Bo). In modern Bengali script, the ৰ (Ro) is written as র (Ro) and the letter ৱ (Wab-Bo) is absent. A brief history of the developments of these two particular identifying letters in the two scripts would throw some interesting lights on many other aspects of the issues. Amongst others, it would be seen that the two letters, ৰ (Ro) and ৱ (Wab-Bo), were also there in the Bengali script till recent times.

Basically, the East Indian languages i.e. Assamese, Bengali, Maithili and Oriya, all trace the origins of their scripts from the same common Brahmi script of Ashokan days. According to many scholars, at one time, these four languages and their scripts were more or less the same. There is much truth in the statement. The manuscript of the 'Caryagitikosa' (also called 'Crayapada') may be taken as a case in point. In the beginning of the twentieth century, H. P. Shastri, a Bengali scholar, discovered this manuscript of medieval Buddhist mystical songs in the Royal Library of Nepal, and he published these as “The Buddhist Songs and Couplets in a thousand years old Bengali Language". Since then, Assamese as well as Oriya and Maithili language also made claims these Caryagitis as their own. Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterji rightly stated that this common claim simply indicate that at one time all these languages were more closely related. The Caryagitis were probably composed between the eighth and the twelfth century AD. Dr. Bani Kanta Kakaty, Dimbmeswar Neog and many other Assamese scholars have shown through detail analysis that the language of the Caryagitis resembles present Assamese more than any of the other three languages. It is more likely that the language of the Charyagitis was the old Assamese (Kamrupi) mixed with some Maithili words. The Assamese স (s) sound is also present in the Caryagitis. So far as the script is concerned, the Assamese letter ৰ (Ro) is visible in it although it was written as ব (Bo) with the inside fully blackened which may be either the result of the pen style used or it may indicate that the Assamese ৰ (Ro) was starting to form at that time. The Assamese letter ৱ (Wo) was also there which was however written as similar to ব (Bo).

Besides these Charyagitis, there are some other old manuscripts which both the Assamese and the Bengali claim to be their own. These include, the "Gopi Chandrer Gan", the "Krishna Kirtan" and the "Sunya Puran". For the purpose of analyzing the script, we will take the manuscript of the ‘Krishna Kirtan" of the fourteenth century which is being shown as a valued specimen of Bengali literature in the mediaeval period. The "Krishna Kirtan" shows its influence from an earlier work namely the ‘Gita Govinda’ of Jayadeva of Maithili language, and is a compilation of love songs of Radha and Krishna with some erotic touch. The manuscript was discovered in 1919 in the Bakura district of Bengal. In this manuscript also the Assamese ৰ (Ro) is very prominently visible. Late Dimbeswar Neog, the Assamese scholar, has shown through analysis that the language of the Krishna Kirtan was nearer to modern Assamese than to modern Bengali, a fact that was admitted by many Bengali scholars. To quote Neog, one Bengali scholar was so much impressed that he commented in Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Patrika, “This proves that either (1) the Krishna Kirtan has travelled through the land of the Assamese language or (2) that the two languages were at one time the same in the past”. Needless to say that the former was the correct conclusion. Anyhow the manuscript of the Krishna Kirtan clearly shows that the Assamese ৰ (Ro) was being used in Bengali till the 14th century. It is sometimes only later that the Assamese ৰ (Ro) changed to the present র (Ro) in the Bengali language. Although details are sketchy, this development seems interesting.

First let us see how long the Assamese ৰ (Ro) prevailed in the Bengali script after the fourteenth century. According to a paper written by Dr. Mitali Chatterji of Bengal, (as quoted by Dr Upendranath Goswami in his Asomiya Lipi), in some inscriptions of Bengal the ৰ (Ro) was written with a dot inside the ব (Bo). Then again from seventeen century, the Assamese ৰ (Ro) was seen in various inscriptions in Bengal. According to Narayan Das, an Assamese scholar (vide his Biswalipir Bhumika), even in the Gazette of Bengal of 1786 published in Calcutta, the Assamese ৰ (Ro) was used. During the eighteenth century, various Portuguese and Dutch missionaries published various samples (Ro) of Bengali writings in London, Lisbon and other cities abroad. In all these, normally the Assamese ৰ (Ro) was written. We also find a "Bengali-Sanskrit Dictionary" written by Graves Haughton in 1833 (courtesy of Azizul Hauque of Guwahati) where also the Assamese ৰ (Ro) is used. All these shows that the Assamese ৰ (Ro) was the standard letter in Bengali language instead of the present র till the nineteenth century.

Compared to ৰ (Ro), the history of the ৱ (Wab-Bo) is not very clear. It has been stated earlier, that Assamese paleographic records show the X in fifth century A.D. stone inscription. During the time of the Caryagitis and the medieval time, the ৱ (Wab-Bo) seems to be mixed with ব (Bo). At times, it was also seen that the letter ৱ (Wab-Bo) was written with a dot below the ব (Bo) i.e. like the present Bengali র (Ro). Notably, we see this in an inscription of 1744 A.D. of Kamakhya of Ahom King Promotto Singho. This is also seen in the silver coin of Ahom king Rudro Singho in 1700 AD. Except for such exceptions, the Assamese maintained the ৱ (Wab-Bo) in various Assamese literature of later period. Compared to this, the history of the ৱ (Wab-Bo) in Bengali seems to be a bit chaotic.. The first Bengali grammar book published was the "Bengali Grammar" written by the Portuguese missionary Manoel da Assumpcam in 1737 in Portuguese and published in Lisbon in 1743. The book was later republished with edition by Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee. The book shows valuable information about the phonetics and script of the Bengali language of that time. It is interesting to note that all the sibilants in the book were written with the letter স indicating that the Assamese স sound was prevalent in East Bengal at that time. Later however, when the center of the Bengali language was shifted to West Bengal, the স sound disappeared from the literary Bengali language. Dr. Chatterjee also shows in the book, that the Assamese ৱ (Wab-Bo) letter was there in the language at that time. It is again interesting to see a Bengali-Sanskrit Dictionary published in 1876 edited by John Mendies where besides the both the Bengali র (Ro) as well the Assamese ৰ (Ro) were used; র (Ro) was used to represent the regular ৰ (Ro) while ৰ (Ro) was used to represent the letter ৱ (Wab-Bo). Thus the dictionary spells words like ‘পরৰানা" (warrant) and ‘পলোৰান" (a strong guy) etc as pbxrana and paqlaran etc. From this it is seen that the ৱ (Wab-Bo) had been in use till the nineteenth century. Eventually however, the Bengali lost the ৱ (Wab-Bo) letter completely. From what we know, both the letter ৰ (Ro) and ৱ (Wab-Bo) might have become accidental victims of the nineteenth century renaissance in the Bengali language. In the nineteenth century there was a renaissance in Bengal. One of the cultural leaders of this renaissance was the Bengali scholar Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar who was also a social reformer. Around 1850, he published a reformed Bengali alphabet (Bornomala) that contained 12 vowels and 40 consonants. This alphabet shows the Bengali র (Ro). This Vidyasagar alphabet has since become the ideal alphabet of the modern Bengali language all over. If that is so, it may be said that the present র (Ro) got its firm footing in Bengali alphabet only during mid or late nineteenth century. It is also probable that it was due to this Vidyasagar alphabet that the Bengali lost the ৱ (Wab-Bo) completely from the language, because this Vidyasagar alphabet did not show the ৱ (Wab-Bo) letter.

The following may be said of the ৱ (Wab-Bo). Although from the point of pronunciation, there is not much difference between ব (Bo) and ৱ (Wab-Bo), the ৱ (Wab-Bo) however carries a long tradition of thousands of years starting from the Brahmi script. The Sanskrit language also has the ৱ (Wab-Bo) letter. In Assamese it serves a great purpose and help in writing such Assamese words as যোৱা, খোৱা, থোৱা, পৰুৱা etc. Besides, the letter ৱ (Wab-Bo) is very much needed in writing words like ৱাছিংটন (Washington). It is not that a section of Bengalis don’t feel the need of the letter. Late Dimbeswar Neog at one time suggested that the Bengali may still incorporate this traditional ৱ (Wab-Bo) letter its language. We may also suggest that Bengali may pick up this old letter that was lost during the confusion in the nineteenth century. It is said that late Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterji was in favor of adopting this ৱ (Wab-Bo) letter, and he even used the ৱ (Wab-Bo) in some of his Bengali writings.

Anyhow, it is clear from the above discussions that the scripts of Assamese and Bengali as well as of Maithili and Oriya, all originated from a common eastern source of pre "Caryagitikosa" period, and all developed independently. This common eastern source is rightly be called the Kamrupi script because when the this common script originated in Kamrup sometimes in the 5th to the 7th century AD, the kingdom of Kamrup not only covered present Assam but extended all over North Bengal and included parts of Mithila as well up to the present Koshi river on the west. It is from this common Kamrupi script that later the scripts of the four eastern languages developed in parallel. The Assamese script shows a continuous development from the early 5th century A.D. up to the nineteenth century. During the middle ages, three different styles of Assamese scripts developed in Assam namely, Gorgoyan, Bamunia and Kaitheli on which various manuscripts are available. The Assamese script retained much of the original Kamrupi script including the Assamese ৰ (Ro) and the ৱ (Wab-Bo) letter as well as the letter ক্ষ (Khyo). The Bengali script also developed, partly in isolation from others due to the Muhmmadan rule, and emerged in nineteenth century with transformation of the letter ৰ (Ro) and loss of the ৱ (Wab-Bo) letter all together. The Oriya script was later much influenced by the Telegu due to which it has acquired a circular shape, underneath which however the original Kamrupi script is still very much visible. The Maithili script also retained much of the original Kamrupi script including the Assamese ৰ (Ro).

In the nineteenth century, with the advent of the printing press, Assamese and Benglies are using the same scripts except for the two identifying letters. Since the modern scripts of both these languages are exactly the same, many people confuse the script to be Bengali script due to broader publicity of the later language. There was a time when in the nineteenth century Assamese language had to fight for its own identity as a separate language which, thanks mainly to the American Missionaries in Assam of the time, was now well established. However, due to general ignorance even amongst the scholars, the identity of the Assamese script as a separate and independent script was not properly recognized for a long time. Out of ignorance or self-pride, the Bengali scholars generally used to call this common script the Bengali script. In 1919, the Bengali scholar, R. D. Banerji wrote his essay, "The Origin of the Bengali Script" where he gave a history of the development of the script through the Caryapada and Krishna Kirtan and other inscriptions. As a specimen of the modern Bengali writing, he actually presented an inscription of 1744 A.D. of King Promotto Singho in Kamakhya hill which is however a specimen of the Assamese script. However he not only called the script a Bengali script but also made the remark that Assamese does not have separate script of its own and are adopting this Bengali script in its language. That shows the complete ignorance of history of the scripts of the two languages. Unfortunately, at that time, there were no proper criticism from the Assamese scholars against his remarks, and this false impression was carried to the national level. For instance, we find that later, Dr. Ahmed Hasan Dany in his "Indian Paleography" published in 1961, made a careless remark without any proper study that the script of east India is the ‘Bengali" script and that Assamese is using the Bengali script. This view was however later properly criticized by the Assamese scholar Dimbeswar Neog who showed with scholarly analysis that Assamese and Bengali are two independent scripts and what the Bengali scholars were calling the Bengali script is actually the common script which should rightly be called the Kamrupi script. Since then several Assamese scholars has discussed the subject of the history of the Assamese script and have established its position solidly. However on national and international level, the case is yet to be fully recognized.

It would probably be clear to us by now as to why the Unicode is calling this common Assamese-Bengali script, the Bengali script. It is probable that Unicode is ignorant of the issues in details and that nobody has explained the situation intelligently. The Assamese scholars are also partly to be blamed for not pursuing the subject forcefully and establishing the separate identity of its script properly on national level. In any case, so far as the Unicode is concerned, the situation needs to be corrected. There are two options which Unicode may be requested to do to rectify the situation.

  1. Rename the existing common script from "Bengali" script preferably to "Kamrupi" script or to something else which is acceptable to both the languages. Or
  2. Make a separate provision for the Assamese script in the Unicode.

This article was written basically for two purposes. One was to bring an awareness of the situation among the general public, and two, was to inform the Unicode of the situation and seek correction. Since the initial writing of the article, a copy was also sent to the Unicode requesting the above. Some individuals and organizations were also trying for the same. I am now glad to report that as of last week of September 2011, the Unicode has changed the name of the script from "Bengali" to "Bengali and Assamese Script". This is a very positive move and credit must go to all who had been working hard to rename the Unicode script. While the above change by the Unicode is technically correct and acceptable to the Assamese people, the only question we may ask the Unicode as to why they did not make the new name alphabetically correct to make it ‘Assamese & Bengali Script" instead. The Unicode also need to do the necessary internal changes as required.
It may be noted that at present both Govt of India as well as Govt of West Bengal and Govt of Madhya Pradesh are members of Unicode. We also request that the Govt of Assam become a member of Unicode so that it can play an active role by giving its due voice for the case of the Assamese language. Let us hope that the present issue would encourage the public and the literary organizations like the Asam Sahitya Sabha to get more involved as well as to encourage more serious research work on scripts of the language which is badly needed.

Rajen Barua, an engineer by profession and a writer by passion. He lives in Houston, Texas.
Address; 22506 Stormcroft Lane, Katy, TX 77450
Ph: 713-677-9162


1) Linguistic Survey of India – George Grierson

2) Origin and Development of Bengali Language – Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterji

3) Origin of Bengali Script – R. D. Banerji

4) Caryagitikosa – Nilratan Sen

5) Origin and Growth of the Assamese Language – Dimbeswar Neog

6) New Light on the Origin of Assamese Language and Script – Dimbeswar Neog

7) Assamese: Its Formation and Development – Dr Banikanta Kakaty

8) The Structure of the Assamese Language – Dr Golok Ch Goswami

9) অসমীয়া লিপি – ডঃ উপেন্দ্ৰ নাথ গোস্বামী

10) বিশ্ব লিপি ভুমিকা – নাৰায়ন দাস

11) Inscriptions of Assam – Mukunda Madhab Sharma

12) অসমীয়া ভাষাৰ মৌলিক বিচাৰ - দেৱানন্দ ভৰালি

13) Evolution of Assamese Script – Dr Mahendra Bora

14) Development of Scripts in Ancient Kamrupa- Dr. T.P. Verma

15) চৰ্যাপদ – পৰীক্ষিত হাজৰিকা

16) Kamrup Sasanawali – Edited by Dr. Dimbeswar Sarma

17) A History of the Civilization of the People of Assam- P.C. Chaudhury.

18) Bengali-Sanskrit Dictionary – 1833 – Edited by Graves Haughton

19) Bengali-Sanskrit Dictionary – 1876 – Edited by by John Mendies

20) Bengali Grammar - Manoel da Assumpcam (1743) (Republished with Bengali translation and edited by Dr. S. K. Chatterjee)