While both Bengali and Assamese are written using the Eastern Nagri script (পূর্বী নাগরী [pu:rbi: naɡɔri:] or Bengali-Assamese script), Sylheti was traditionally written using a unique script, the Siloti Nagri script (which is currently known by various names and spellings¹, including Sylhet Nagri, Sylheti Nagri, Syloti Nagri, Sylot Nagri, Siloṭi Nagri (with a Sanskritic diacritic to indicate retroflex sounds), Siloti Nagri, Silot Nagri, ꠍꠤꠟꠐꠤ ꠘꠣꠉꠞꠤ [silɔʈi naɡri], ꠍꠤꠟꠐ ꠘꠣꠉꠞꠤ [silɔʈ naɡri] … or simply Nagri²).
The Siloti Nagri script/alphabet³:
- may date back to the 1500s or older
- is better suited to Sylheti’s sound system
- had 19th century printing presses
This historical script fell out of usage in the mid to late 20th century, but it is experiencing a revival. Today, Siloti Nagri is in Unicode for computers and smartphones, with various fonts available:
- Surma font (Surma-Regular.ttf) by Sylheti Translationa and Research (STAR), available for non-Apple OS, with a keyboard programme and installation directions, at http://www.sylheti.org.uk/fonts/
- Fonty 18 font (Fonty 18.ttf) by Mukter Ahmed (includes traditional Siloti *numbers)
- Google’s Android keyboard (or in two steps: step 1 then step 2)
꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪
A tutorial to learn the Siloti Nagri script, is also available in an Android app, by Vision Prototype (Fakharuddin Chowdhury).
꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪ ꠪
1. The traditional name of the region where Sylheti is spoken is pronounced [silɔʈ] in the Sylheti language; Sylhet’s endonym (or autonym, that is, the internal name for a place, site, or location in the language of the people who live there) is ꠍꠤꠟꠐ / ছিলট / ‘Silot’.
‘Sylhet’, with its odd spelling, is the British colonial interpretation of the Bengali exonym (or xenonym, that is, the external name for a place, site, or location of a group of people, commonly used only outside the place of the linguistic community in question) pronounced [sileʈ] সিলেট in Bengali/Bangla. (It is pronounced [silɔʈʰ] ছিলঠ in Assamese.) ‘Sylhet’ is therefore the English version of the Bengali name for the region where the Sylheti language is traditionally spoken.
More recently, some have chosen a combination between the British colonial spelling and the ‘proper’ Sylheti pronunciation, using ‘Sylot’ in Roman script spelling to refer to the region where the Sylheti language is traditionally spoken.
2. Today many people are simply saying ‘Nagri’ or ‘Nagri basha’ (meaning ‘Nagri language’, meaning perhaps ‘written language’) to refer to the Sylheti language. If it’s [siloTi basha] ‘Sylheti language’ and [siloTi nagri] ‘Sylheti script’, does [siloTi nagri basha] mean ‘written Sylheti language’?
It doesn’t seem to be the case that there was once a wider language called ‘Nagri / Nagori / Naagari’ and that the form of this language spoken in Greater Sylhet was called Sylheti Nagri, meaning that using ‘Nagri (basha)’ to refer to the Sylheti langauge doesn’t mean there are/were two different languages.
It can be the case that the written form of a language is a different ‘language’ from the spoken form. Like Arabic(s), the written form is the ‘classical’ language that no one really speaks anymore and the spoken languages are those that have evolved. It was that way too in Europe until the 1800s, with (‘dead’) Latin being what was written while everyone spoke the various evolved languages. And it was similar in South Asia when most writing was in Sanskrit, or a very Sanskritized version of the local language. It was a revolution to write ‘vernacular’ languages that populations popularly spoke, a necessary step in the campaigns for wide-spread literacy when education for all became more normal and literacy is most successful if first learned in one’s native/mother language. However, although we’d have to do a historical study of people’s behaviour, ‘Sylheti Nagri’ with the word ‘script’ meaning the written form of the Sylheti language as a different language from the spoken form of Sylheti doesn’t seem very likely.
It may simply be that so many today want to highlight that the Sylheti language has traditionally been written, has had a written form in its unique Sylheti Nagri script. And of course, even though the Sylheti Nagri script was created in more modern times to write the Sylheti language, not to write Sanskrit like both the Devaanaagari and Puurbii Naagori scripts were created to write, and any language can be written in any script, with more or fewer modifications, although Sylheti was the original language, Sylheti is not the only language that has been written with the Sylheti Nagri script. (In recent years the Bangladesh government sent to hundreds of schools a set of books of ‘Bengali’ literature written in the (Sylheti) ‘Nagri’ script, without including any mention of the Sylhet region or the Sylheti language in reference to the ‘Nagri’ script, and we’d be very interested to see which authors’ works were written in these books, if any authors are/were Sylheti and if any of the texts are in the Sylheti language, or if they are all texts in Standard Bengali/Bangla language simply written with the Sylheti Nagri script.)
And then there are parallels with the names of scripts for other languages:
[puurbii nagori] ‘eastern script’, aka ‘Bengali(-Assamese) script
[devaa-naagari] ‘script of gods’, the traditional script in certain areas for Sanskrit
[siloTi nagri] ‘Sylheti script’
(Note how ‘script’ is pronounced differently from one language to another!)
The Sylheti language does have that additional historical cultural influence from Islam which has had very different traditions regarding language and popular literacy than Hindu traditions which were originally not in written form with writing more reserved to certain classes/groups.
Perhaps the Nagri ‘script’ or writing name dates back to then, but it’s so far back that there’s not really evidence, only speculation.
3. A script is a writing system, from hand-writing to typeface, with various calligraphic styles and fonts, that consists of a set of graphic symbols/signs. Any script can be used to write any language, with more or less ease and with more of less necessary modification.
For example, the Roman script, named from its origin in Rome, was first used to write the Latin language spoken in Rome and is today used to write languages such as Italian, French, English, Polish, Turkish, etc. Historically, Latin was at times written in the Greek script, while Greek was at times written in the Arabic script.
An alphabet is a set of symbols or letters, usually in a fixed order, used to represent the speech sounds of a language. While two different languages may use the same script, each language assigns different sound values to each symbol/letter, and therefore each language has a different alphabet.
For example, while both French and English are written using the Roman script, the French alphabet is not pronounced the same as the English alphabet. And while both Assamese and Bengali are written using the Eastern Nagri script, the Assamese alphabet is not pronounced the same as the Bengali alphabet. If Sylheti is written using the Eastern Nagri script, the Sylheti alphabet in Eastern Nagri is not pronounced the same as either the Assamese or Bengali alphabets.
An orthography is a set of norms for writing a language which includes conventions of spelling, word breaks/separations, capitalization, punctuation, hyphenation, abbreviation, emphasis, etc. A language can have multiple orthographies, some more formal/standard than others, but all equally valid.
For example, standard American English and standard British English have different orthographic conventions as per different formal institutions, as well as having informal or non-standard orthographic conventions.
*The original Unicode proposal argued to not include traditional Sylheti numbers. However, font creator programmes have allowed some to add the traditional Sylheti numbers to their Siloti Nagri font designs.