The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The allure of a diacritical mark

I am a fan of Amitav Ghosh. He chooses such exotic subjects. Like the great romantic novelists, he takes us to explore the unknown and the strange. He is my Indian Conrad. I am not sure that I have read all his novels. But to my knowledge, The Hungry Tide is his first novel about Bengal. He has made even Bengal romantic in this book.

There is another novelty about The Hungry Tide: Amitav uses a tilde, my favourite diacritical mark. It is one of the two features of Portuguese which make it such an attractive language ' the other being the Portuguese pronunciation of j as zh ' as in leisure. I do not mean the Punjabi pronunciation, which is close to leiyur; I mean the s as in measure, and not the y as in mayor. And Amitav uses the tilde as in b'dh, 'a tall embankment', or Morichjh'pi, or search me.

I was told that this tilde was invented as a labour-saving device by the Romans. They were great ones for laws and documents; and since they did not have personal computers, they had to write out everything in longhand ' and copy it any number of times. Apart from the labour of writing, every document had to be written on something. That something was papyrus, the wonder writing base from Egypt, where the papyrus reed grew on the banks of the Nile. Its rind was stripped off, its pith was laid out in strips, another layer of strips was laid on it at a right angle, and the two layers were hammered together into a sheet. It was a laborious process. Egypt had a monopoly on papyrus, and both Greece and Rome had to import it. It made a hole in their trade balances.

Then just before the birth of Christ, Egypt declared an embargo on the export of papyrus. Greek philosophers were in agony: how were they to write epics and drama without papyrus' One philosopher (literally, lover of knowledge) looked around, and inspiration came to him. All around his school, in the shadow of Acropolis, grazed cows and goats. He took the skin of a goat, cleaned it of hair and fat, and stretched it out and dried it. Thus he got parchment ' a smooth, durable medium for writing which could be rolled up and shelved. After that, as long as the Greeks ate enough sheep, goats and cows, they could go on writing books without worrying about a shortage of material. If they wanted to write more books, they only had to eat more goats.

The Greeks did many experiments with the preparation of parchment. Some put lime in the water in which the hide was soaked; others put flour and salt. Some put oak gall to tan the hide; others tried out dog shit ' a technology the Jews did not take to. But everyone had one suited to his tastes.

Instead of rolling them up into scrolls like the Greeks, the Romans stitched together sheets of parchment like our present-day books; they came to be known as codices. The word comes from caudex, which was a wooden stump to which petty criminals in Roman times were tied like modern cows or goats. This goes back to a time when the Romans wrote on wooden sheets covered with wax ' they scratched out the letters on wax with a stylus. It was easier to scratch out straight than curvy lines; so instead of U they wrote V. If you do not believe me, go to Rome and walk around; you will find many triumphal arches the Romans built to bear me out. They wrote Marcvs Avrelivs, for example.

Even though the Greeks and the Romans ate all the animals they could, it was prudent to be economical in the use of parchment. Some people erased what was written on parchment and rewrote on it; such a manuscript, born of parsimony, was called a palimpsest. Many Roman words ended in m and n. They wrote the m or n on top of the vowel before it to save horizontal space. That is how the tilde was invented. After they departed, their descendants used it whenever they wanted to give a word a nasal twang.

The Portuguese often combine a tilde with a cedilla. Cedilla (pronounced as sedeeya) means the little Z in Spanish. Its origin was not dissimilar to that of the tilde. If the tilde abbreviated m or n, the cedilla abbreviated z. It was the product of the alphabetical confusion that reigned to the west of India.

India's rishis were prescient. So before Indians learnt to speak, some clever rishis standardized the 36-letter Sanskrit alphabet. Ever since then, this alphabet or its equivalent has fitted us like a straitjacket. However we may pronounce Indic languages, we have to write them in the standard format. Maharashtrians have a ts, but they must write it as a ch. Bengalis have an o, but have to write it as an uh (although some of them think that Sanskrit has an o and the rest of the Indians mispronounce it as uh). Even the Thais write their language in a Sanskritic script, although they speak it in the singsong Chinese manner.

The Middle Easterners were, however, not so lucky; they did not have founding fathers. They went into business before scholarship ' carrying frankincense and myrrh from the scholarly East to the hedonistic West. Phoenicians (later called Levantines, nowadays labelled Lebanese) invented an alphabet to write addresses on parcels sent abroad. They only made sure someone on the ship could read the address. How he pronounced it did not bother them. So they had no letters for vowel sounds (a tradition carried on today in Arabic and Urdu). And they went to town on gutturals and sibilants: they had similar-sounding qaf, qof and gimel, and samek, sin and saade.

The Greeks, who adapted the Phoenician script for their own use, called gimel gamma, and wrote it as a y-shaped twig, g. But when the Etruscans (forebears of Tuscans and Umbrians in today's Italy) borrowed their script, they forgot one side of the twig and wrote it like a C. The Etruscans also had three s's with two, three and four corners. And their z was a mirror image of their two-cornered s ' which was M turned up around a right angle.

This has led to endless confusion between c, s and z in European languages. Each community adapted the Roman script to its local sounds by combining letters. Amongst them were tz, cz and sz. Just as the Romans had put a little m or n on top of letters, their descendants put the z underneath letters; it became the cedilla.

The commonest use of the cedilla is in 'a (saa), French for 'this'. But I am really fond of the Portuguese 'o, which is equivalent to the English -tion. Thus opposition becomes oposi'o, election becomes elei'o, and rules become regulamenta'es.

Having come this far, I have developed an ambition to write a book in Portuguese. I have written the title: Rela'o do um amor. I am waiting until enough of my countrymen learn Portuguese before I write the rest.

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