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Kannada - The Next Computer Language?

Aug 17, 2007
Kannada, written using the Kannada script is ranked as the 29th most spoken and the 3rd oldest language in the world after Sanskrit and Tamil. It is one of the major Dravidian (of southern India) languages, spoken by 64 million speakers across the globe in its 20 odd various dialects. There are 55 million of them, who claim Kannada as their first language, or the mother tongue.

Kannada, one of the official languages, listed in the constitution of the Republic of India is at the same time the state language of Karnataka, one of India's four southern or Dravidian language states.

King Nripatunga Amoghavarsha I (850 CE), author of Kavirajamarga, the earliest existing literary work of Kannada poetry refers to the entire area between the Kaveri and Godavari Rivers as Kannada country, implying the language was popular further north in present day Maharashtra. Even today, Kannada, besides Karnataka is also spoken in the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala and to a certain extent in Goa too, but it is however, certainly not the language of Canada (official language English and French), which many often mistake with.

Latest in the evolution of Kannada language is use of its characters for computer coding and has thus it has made a special mark for itself, with a promising future in the overall growth of Information Technology in the state as well as the globalised world. It is not a coincidence that one finds harmony and resemblance between the Kannada-speaking and the fastest growing computer-age technology fields.

Already keyboards with Kannada characters are available for coding, where Input is through a transliteration based phonetic layout. Baraha (based on ITRANS) and Nudi, (the Karnataka government's standard for Kannada transliteration) are two schemes, most often used to type Kannada characters using a standard keyboard.

Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka state has recently shot into prominence due to development of everything related to computers from hardware to IT enabled services and therefore earned the distinction of an Indian cyber city, compared to the Silicon Valley. Other countries trying to cash in on IT boom, emulate and often quote Bangalore and Karnataka as examples they would like to follow to build their IT industry.

Kannada has one of the most ancient literatures, not only of South India, but of all India as well. Though, Kannada is approximately more than 2,500 years old, but, the Kannada alphabet has evolved only around 1,900 years ago. Kannada has been categorized into the Proto-Dravidian group of languages on account of its close affinity with Tamil. Kannada base character set, on the other hand has been the source for evolution of Telugu script too, implying its influence over latter's evolution. The Kannada script is also used in other languages such as Tulu, Kodava Takk and Konkani.

The development cycle of Kannada language has followed the scheme of other Dravidian languages and spoken language evolving before the written system becomes available. Spoken Kannada varies from region to region; the written form rarely changing across the region where it is spoken. However, ethnologues has identified about 20 dialects of Kannada language. All these 20 different dialects are influenced by their regional and cultural background and regional affinity, i.e., spoken only in the particular area, where it has evolved.

Buddha and many of his other contemporaries in India spoke various dialects that were closely or vaguely related to Sanskrit. Some of these dialects like on proto-Tamil, proto-Kannada, etc., had southern Indian influence, while others had Persian and other influences. Significant influence of Buddhism over evolution of Kannada language can be concluded from this fact. Thus, Kannada in its evolution during the later centuries has been greatly affected by Sanskrit vocabulary and literary styles, absorbing many Sanskrit words and phrases.

The Kannada script, derived from Brahmi is syllabic and phonetic. The Kannada character set is almost identical to character sets of other Indian languages. Its, script is a complicated script like scripts of most other Indian languages due to existence of various "half-letters"(Glyphs), or symbols.

Kannada script has 52 basic sounds/ phonemic letters, of which 49 are present in the currently used script. Similar to the vowels and consonants in English language - all 49 characters are divided into three groups: Swaragalu or vowels, numbering 13 characters, 2 Yogavaahakagalu characters and 34 Vyanjanagalu, or consonants.

However, in contrast to a single phoneme in languages like English, every written symbol in the Kannada script corresponds to one particular syllable. Different Kannada characters can be combined to form compound characters (vattaksharas), because of which, the number of written symbols in reality far exceeds 49.

Until the thirteenth century, Kannada literary works used letters 'rh', 'lh (zh)', which were most likely articulated like to those in present day Malayalam and Tamil . The later Kannada works replaced 'rh' and 'lh' with a ra and a La respectively. These two characters are absent from the currently used Kannada script.

Another unclassified vyanjana or consonant that has become extinct now is 'nh' or 'inn'. This has been replaced by consonant n (It too has its equivalent in Malayalam and Tamil). It was used until the 1980s in Kannada works of coastal Karnataka, but is hardly used in any major works today.

Kannada language has three gender forms - masculine, feminine, neutral or common, and two number forms - singular and plural. The number forms are based on many factors, including the gender, number and tense, of the subject in reference.

Kannada literature has historically supported every literary novelty that had developed over the ages. This characteristic ensured its primacy and popularity amongst the common people in the Kannada-speaking region. The history of Kannada language can be studied under three phases:
Old (Hale), Middle (Nadu) and Modern (Adhunika) Kannada.

In Old Kannada period, Jainism had a great influence on language, literature and the works of writers of that period. One of Kannada literature's greatest authors, Pampa lived in our times and he wrote the "Vikramarjuna Vijaya" and "Adipurana", both of which are considered as modern classical works.

Middle Kannada period works have great influence of Hindu and Jain philosophies. A secular philosophy that developed during this time had a deep impact on Kannada culture. This period was also witness to the birth of many different forms in Kannada literature - some new forms of compositions.

The Modern Kannada period has witnessed the rebirth of Kannada. It has revived the cultural consciousness and linguistic identity, bringing it close to the modern form, as found and employed today. This has been the result of domination of foreign powers in India.

Literature and Poetry
The Kannada writers of earlier periods (except Modern Kannada writers) have either been written by the king himself or mostly about their kings and spiritual leaders; either in praise of mother nature or as an official treatise on management of various aspects of king's administration and finally on simplifying and standardizing grammar in an effort to bring together different Kannada dialects to help people of the land understand each other.

The earliest existing Kannada poetry is Kappe Arabhatta, written in 700 C.E. Kavirajamarga by King Nripatunga Amoghavarsha I (850 CE), the earliest existing literary work of Kannada poetry, identifying all region between the Kaveri and Godavari Rivers as Kannada country, including present day south Maharashtra. This treatise was written in complex grammar to standardize various Kannada dialects used in literature till then, often quoting earlier Kannada works like by some King Durvinita and other leaders before him. Many other Kannada works from 6th, 7th and 8th centuries mentioned in Kavirajamarga are still untraceable today. Existence of this work of King Nripatunga during this early period is itself an indicator that Kannada was then a fully developed literary language.

Gajastaka, an elaborate treatise on elephant management was written in 8th century by king Shivamara II of Western Ganga Dynasty. Chandraprabha-purana was Sri Vijaya's work, written in the court of Amoghavarsha, who belonged to early 9th century.

Many Kannada works of this period have been written in praise of Kings and big dignitaries. An early existing prose work (900 CE) of Shivakotiacharya, Vaddaradhane describes the life of Bhadrabahu of Shravanabelagola elaborately. Karnateshwara Kathe, in praise of king Pulakesi II as its hero was also written in the 7th century.

Other ancient texts found in later centuries are works of 650 CE by Syamakundacharya who wrote Prabhrita and Tumubuluracharya who wrote Chudamani, a 96,000 verse as a commentary on logic Tatwartha-mahashastra.

Though, only Sanskrit and Tamil have an older written traditions than Kannada (based on available inscriptions and literature), Tamil Buddhist commentators of the 10th century CE (Comentary on Nemrinatham, a Tamil grammatical work) make references that show that Kannada literature must have flourished as early as 4th century CE

Since the earliest existing Kannada work is one of complex grammar and a guide how to unify existing Kannada grammar and literary styles, it can be safely assumed that literature in Kannada must have started several centuries earlier. As noted above and concluded from an epigraphical study, there is enough evidence that the spoken form of Kannada language evolved much earlier than the well-known Halmidi inscription of 450 A.D. - the first ever example of written form of Kannada.

Kannada language and script, as we see has been a prolific one, developing and evolving with time, meeting the needs of those times, like adopting Kannada characters for computer coding. This may have become necessary to accommodate those young computer operators, who were good at computer logic, but had no knowledge of English, the language, on which computers communicate currently. It would not be a surprise to find Kannada slowly replacing English, or being used side by side.
About the Author
Ostom Ray is a linguist. His website provides informationon Indian languages and translation services, Culture, Travel, Outsourcing and more.
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