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‘F’ for ‘ph’ and ‘v’ for ‘bh’

THE way Bangla words — names of individuals, places, organisations, and anything — are spelt in Roman letters is in keeping with a scheme known as the Hunterean system. The biggest advantage of the scheme that is widely in use in the Bangladesh-India-Pakistan subcontinent is that it uses Roman letters without any diacritical marks — no bars over vowels to indicate their length, no dots under consonants to distinguish retroflex from dental letters, no marks on the enn (n) to signify the end-letters of the first four consonant pentads or rows of five consonants, no marks on the ess (s) to different three esses that Bangla writing system has and no mark to distinguish one ‘ya’ from the other.

William Wilson Hunter, the surveyor general of India, in the third edition, published in 1875, of his work, A Manual of Surveying for India, gives an explanation to the correspondence of the Roman with Bangla letters. The book says that ‘á’ is for the second letter of the Bangla vowels while ‘a’ is for the first letter. Similarly, long ‘i’ and long ‘u’ have the acute accent to flag a difference from short ‘i’ and short ‘u’.

The vowel section, thus, stands like — a, á, i, í, u, ú, ri, e, ai, o and au. The consonant section runs like — ka, kha, ga, gha, na, cha, chha, ja, jha, na, ta, tha, da, dha, na, ta, tha, da, dha, na, pa, pha, ba, bha, ma, ya, ra, la, wa (in Bangla writing, this is realised as the other ‘ba’ but is used with a different value in conjunct consonant formation), sha, sha, sa, ha, ra, rha, ya, m or n, h and n. The scheme says that ‘jña’ should be ‘gya’ as in ‘gyan’, knowledge, and ‘ksha’ as in ‘pariksha’ (examination) could also be written with ‘x’. The first vowel ‘a’ would drop out if it was not pronounced, unlike the case of scholarly transliteration in which every ‘a’, pronounced or dropped, would be written in Roman letters.

The Hunterean scheme, as it is known, is said to have been fully worked out in the 1860s. It was published in a book named Guide to the Orthography of Indian Proper Names from Kolkata in 1871. The British-Indian government made some changes to it in 1872. About 70 years later, the Indian government, the continent had by then been divided into India and Pakistan, decided that it would use a flat bar, called macron, on the vowels to express their length such as ā, ī, and ū as opposed to a, i and u.

The scheme has since then been used in official and unofficial spellings of names of individuals, places and organisations. It was easy to use in official documents, newspapers, books and for other purposes meant for popular consumption as it did not require any diacritical marks, which made it look simple. It was easily comprehensible and anyone knowing the Roman letters of the English alphabet could read and write words written this way. But it had its weaknesses. It warrants that the users of the scheme would have a working knowledge of the Bangla or other Indic languages as it failed to make any desired distinction between letters in a few cases.

It, moreover, has some uneducated disadvantages that are typical of any other schemes unless the users are properly attuned to it. The disadvantages mainly concern one Bangla vowel, a, which is often pronounced ‘o’ as in ‘hot’. This often makes people use ‘o’ in place of ‘a’. People also tend to use vowel clusters such as ‘au’ or ‘aw’ in such cases. By extension, the problem also relates to the ‘ai’ and ‘au’ vowels of Bangla as in the two instances, the letter ‘a’ invariably produce the ‘o’ sound. The other folly that people often fall into is about the use of ‘pha’ and ‘bha’, where people try to use ‘fa’ and ‘va’. The phonetic analysis shows that Bangla ‘pha’ and ‘bha’ are aspirated stops, the sounds are made with a complete obstruction of the air flow inside the mouth, with a discernible ‘h’ sound. But the English ‘fa’ and ‘va’ are made with a near-obstruction of the air flow and do not subsume any aspiration. While both the lips work to produce the Bangla sounds, it is a case of the upper lip and the lower teeth in the English sounds. The replacement of ‘pha’ and ‘bha’ with ‘fa’ and ‘va’ is, therefore, linguistically inaccurate.

The Bangla alphabet has a ‘ja’ and a ‘ya’, both sounding alike, with a second ‘ya’, sounding like the English ‘y’. Without a diacritical mark, it is difficult to tell the ‘ja’-sounding ‘ya’ from the ‘ya’-sounding ‘ya’, which has a dot under the consonant. One function of the ‘ja’-sounding ‘ya’ used as a dependent form in Bangla is to produce germinate clusters, the repeat or doubling of a consonant without any vowels in between. ‘Bidya’, or knowledge, could easily turn out to be ‘bidda’, which would signify the doubling of the letter ‘da’. The letter ‘wa’, which is realised as ‘ba’, also does the doubling in conjuncts as in ‘Bishwa’, or world, which could well be construed as ‘bishsha’, a conjunct construction that is illegal in the Bangla script system.

With a bit of ministration, it is not very difficult to grasp the rules and apply them. Most writers and editors do. Adherence to the rules of the transliteration of Bangla text using this scheme gives an almost close feel of how the text in the original script is spelt. The United Nations Group on Experts on Geographical Names held its 10th meeting in Tallinn in October 12–13, 2006; a meeting of the UNGEGN Working Group on Romanisation Systems was also held in conjunction there in October 9–10. The experts holding the meeting there were informed that Bangladesh, India and Pakistan till then used the Hunterean scheme in official work. The experts were also informed that Bangladesh had informed the United Kingdom in 2004 that Bangladesh authorities had used the Hunterean scheme, but for the macron over the vowels, which ceased to be in use in the 1980s.

But the scheme is not Hunter’s own plan. He built it on the scheme of William Jones, a British philologist who was a puisne judge on the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, who also modelled his scheme on that of Charles Wilkins, a typographer and Orientalist who, along with Panchanan Karmakar, first cast Bangla metal types for the printing of Nathaniel Brassy Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengal Language, the first book, published in 1778, to use Bangla movable types.

William Jones codified his scheme in 1788 and used it in International Numismata Orientalia. Jones’s scheme uses four diacritical marks and a mix to remove the ambiguity in transliteration. There had been more than a dozen schemes to write Bangla or Indic words in Roman letters, especially for scholarly works. The situation soon reached the height of the Tower of Babel. It prompted Orientalists to hold a convention in Geneva in 1894 and decide a scheme that was meant for Sanskrit and Pali but could be applied, with some ambiguity, to other Indic languages.

The ambiguity contained in the 1894 Geneva scheme was finally effectively dealt with for the scheme’s application to neo-Indo Aryan languages such as Bangla and nine other Indic languages. The scheme, ‘ISO 15919: Transliteration of Devanagari and Related Indic Scripts into Latin Characters’, was an International Standardisation Organisation standard passed towards the end of 2001. The scheme uses six diacritical marks and a mix to equate Roman letters to Bangla letters. Its rules are strict and a casual reading from the transcribed text is not difficult, but cumbersome.

But for the Hunterean scheme, other schemes, tables and rules all use diacritics and, even, certain letters italicised to convey the meaning. The whole process began with a simple transcription, gradually moving towards complex schemes. Hunter’s was the scheme that does away with diacritical marks and is applied to text for popular consumption.

But how did it began? Manoel da Assumpçam, or Assumpção in modern Portuguese spelling, who is credited with having written Crepar Xaxtrer Orth,bhed: Xixio Gurur Bicar (Missionary dialogues between the disciple and the precepter) in 1734 and Vocabulario em Idioma Bengalla e Portuguez: Dividido em duas partes (Vocabulary and idioms in Bangla and Portuguese: Divided in two parts) sitting in a church in the Bhawal region of Dhaka and published them from Lisbon in 1743, wrote Bangla text in Roman letters and used them in both the books. A couple of books published earlier from Europe printed part of the Bangla alphabet with their weak Roman letter equivalence, Assumpçam’s books are the ones that contained texts, short and long.

Yet again, there is another way of transcribing Bangla words in Roman letters. While the scheme at hand tries to follow the spelling of the Bangla words as closely as possible, the other schemes, which have no fixed rules and which in most cases depend on the pronunciation of users, try to follow the pronunciation of the Bangla words in an ineffective way but as closely and individually as possible.

‘Saran’ written in the Hunterean scheme can mean ‘displacement’ with the ‘dental ess’ and it can also mean ‘supplication’ with the ‘palatal ess’. In efforts to transcribe the pronunciation, it can be written as, if the users know only English, ‘shoron’, ‘shauron’ or ‘shawrawn’ and any mixes of them, as, if the users know only French, ‘choron’ or ‘chauronne’ and mix of them, and, finally, as, if the users know only German, ‘Schoron’.

The pronunciation will even then not be represented correctly as ‘r’ is pronounced differently from Bangla in French-German and in English. Yet, when the transcription of the pronunciation might be the concern, ‘shoron’, ‘chaureaunne’, or ‘Schoron’ might even signify the Bangla word for ‘remembrance’, which in the Hunterean system should be written as ‘smaran’.

While the spelling of place names as written in Bangladesh is mostly in keeping with the Hunterean system, the spelling of the names of individual and organisations sometimes fall out of the scheme and appear to be a mix and match of the Hunterean system and the transcription of pronunciation, further adding confusion to an already compounded issue of expressing words of one language into the script of another language, a process that is called transcription.


Akkas, Abu Jar M (2022 Oct. 14). ‘F’ for ‘ph’ and ‘v’ for ‘bh’. New Age s4


Rev.: vi·vi·mmxxiii