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A future with Hindi in English script?
Ajit Balakrishnan
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October 27, 2006

Are we likely to see a future India where newspapers, magazines and literature in Hindi are printed using the English script, instead of the current Devnagiri? Similarly, will Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam also, sometime in the future, abandon their own scripts and use the English script?

Such a future does not appear all that outlandish when you observe young people in the Hindi heartland extensively using English character computer keyboards to create at lightning speed Hindi words spelt phonetically in the English script. Or when you observe millions of Hindi SMSs being sent every day using the English script keyboards on mobile phones.

To check if this is because of the lack of easy availability of Hindi character keyboards, we once did an experiment where young users are presented both alternatives. They invariable chose the English script keyboard.

The English script computer keyboard, familiar to all of us with the letters QWERTY arranged on the top row, and thus labelled the Qwerty keyboard, is itself a subject of much study and controversy among scholars.

To start with, it is a carry-over from the manual typewriter era and has defied all attempts to modernise it. In the early days of the manual typewriter, there were two contending keyboard layouts - the Qwerty and the Dvorak, the latter named after its chief proponent.

Scholars say that the Qwerty was first adopted to prevent jamming of the keys on fast typing, but ultimately won out because of the phenomenon called "Path Dependence" - a process by which a technical option that is not particularly the better or more efficient one wins out because it is the first, and society has invested a lot in it. Every attempt to introduce a more efficient layout has proved futile.

Similarly, scholars invoke Path Dependence to explain why the petrol engine won out over the steam engine for cars. Both were equal contenders in the early days of the automobile, with nothing much to choose between them on pure engineering and economic criteria. In 1899, 1,681 steam-driven cars were produced versus just 936 petrol-driven cars.

In the initial period, the steam-driven cars even cost less, $650-1,500, compared to $1,000-2,000 for petrol cars. Once the petrol-engine path was chosen due to a variety of social reasons, massive resources were devoted to make it lighter and more efficient, and supported with infrastructure like petrol stations such that it is today impossible to imagine cars that work any other way in spite of the clear benefits to the world economy (and world peace?) of using a steam engine.

Another example is the use of 4 feet 8-1/2 inches (1.435 metres) as the standard gauge for railways throughout North America, in much of Europe, and altogether on over half of the world's railway routes. This is not because of any technical reason but because it was the width of the wheels of the first horse-drawn coal carts in Newcastle, England, at the start of the industrial revolution.

George Stephenson, the designer of the first railways, continued this width and once the first few railway systems and locomotives and wagons were built to this width, it became impossible to change it. A change to a technically more efficient and safer width is just too costly.

Such a Path Dependence process may be under way in the world of keyboards in India. Practically all the several dozen million computer and mobile phone users in India use the Qwerty English keyboard, and every year 5 million more computers and 30 million mobile phones with English-character keyboards are being added.

This may have larger implications than what appears today. If a generation of young Indians grows up using the English script for email and SMSs, it is not inconceivable that they may start preferring it next on websites and ultimately in newspapers, magazines and books.

If the likelihood of the English script being used for newspapers, magazines and novels in Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, etc. sounds farfetched, remember Turkey. In the 1920s, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the legendary founder of modern Turkey, soon after he seized control of the decaying Ottoman Empire, decreed that all Turks must wear western dress, study science - and use not the Arabic script but the Latin (English) one to write Turkish. Today, Turkish road signs, newspapers and literature use the English script.

In India, this process may not happen through diktat but may nevertheless be creeping up on us in spite of efforts by various state governments to popularise keyboards in their local languages.

Today, outside of a few government departments, you don't see many of these. In particular, you hardly ever find them in the 100,000 or so cybercaf�s that the average Indian uses to access the Internet.

It all started in 1835, when the British Governor General's Committee on Public Instruction was evenly split on the issue of the medium of instruction in the colleges then being established in India.

One group, calling itself the Orientalists, supported Sanskrit or Arabic and another, the Anglicists, supported English. As we now know, Macaulay wrote his famous Minute and cast the tie-breaking vote for English, and from then on English has been the language of higher education in India.

Will the Path Dependence of the English script keyboard now complete Macaulay's work?

Ajit Balakrishnan is the founder and chief executive officer,
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