Brāhmī script

Brāhmī script

Infobox Writing system
languages=Early Prakrit languages
time=perhaps 6th, and certainly 3rd, century BCE, to c. 3rd century CE
fam1=Proto-Canaanite alphabet
fam2=Phoenician alphabet
fam3=Aramaic alphabet
sisters= Kharoshthi
children=Gupta, Pallava, and numerous others in the Brahmic family of scripts.
iso15924 = Brah

Brāhmī script refers to the oldest members of the Brahmic family of alphabets. The best known inscriptions in Brāhmī are the rock-cut edicts of Ashoka, dating to the 3rd century BCE. These were long considered the earliest examples of Brāhmī writing, but recent archaeological evidence in South India and Sri Lanka [ [ Deraniyagala on the Anuradhapura finds] International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences, Proceedings of the XIII International Congress of the Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences. 1996.] [* [ Coningham, Robin, University of Bradford Anuradhapura Project] ] suggest the dates for the earliest use of Brāhmī to be around the 6th century BCE, dated using radiocarbon dating and thermoluminescence, though these dates are controversial.

The Brāhmī script is a systematic writing system in its spacing of sounds across the alphabet [Frits Staal, "The science of language", Chapter 16in Gavin Flood, The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism Blackwell Publishing, 2003, 599 pages ISBN 0631215352. This essay also outlines its spread across Khmer, Sinhalese, Tibetan, Khotanese, Balinese, etc.. "Like Mendelejev's Periodic system of elements, the "varga" systemwas the result of centuries of analysis. In the course of that development,the basic concepts of phonology were discovered and defined." p.352.] , which may explain its wide influential across Asia, compared to contemporary scripts like Kharoshti. The alphabet was a result of contact with Sanskritic concepts in phonetics, e.g. the arrangement of stop consonants, into a 5x5 varga or square, in which distance between sounds is preserved whether one recited these horizontally or vertically.

This script was ancestral to most of the scripts of South Asia, Southeast Asia, some Central Asian scripts like Tibetan and Khotanese, and its organization influenced Japanese Katakana and Hiragana (c. 1000 AD), as well as Korean Hangul (1444 AD). The Brāhmī numeral system carried the zero place value a system that was adopted by the Arabs, and later came to be known as the Hindu-Arabic numerals.


Ashoka inscriptions

Brāhmī is clearly attested from the 3rd century BCE during the reign of Ashoka, who used the script for imperial edicts. It has commonly been supposed that the script was developed at around this time, both from the paucity of earlier dated examples, the alleged unreliability of those earlier dates, and from the geometric regularity of the script, which some have taken to be evidence that it had been recently invented. [Richard Salomon, "Brahmi and Kharoshthi," in Daniels and Bright, "The World's Writing Systemes," 1996]

Aramaic hypothesis

Brāhmī is believed by most scholars to be derived or at least influenced by a Semitic script such as the Imperial Aramaic alphabet, as was clearly the case for the contemporary Kharosthi alphabet that arose in a part of northwest Indian under the control of the Achaemenid Empire.A possibility is with the Achaemenid conquest in the late 6th century BCE,Fact|date=February 2007 or that it was a planned invention under Ashoka as a prerequiste for his edicts.

A glance at the oldest Brāhmī inscriptions shows striking parallels with contemporary Aramaic for the phonemes that are equivalent between the two languages, especially if the letters are flipped to reflect the change in writing direction. (Aramaic is written from right to left, as was Brāhmī originally, whereas Brāhmī later came to be written from left to right.) For example, both Brāhmī and Aramaic "g" resemble Λ; both Brāhmī and Aramaic "t" resemble IPA|ʎ, "etc."

However, Semitic is not a good phonological match to Indic, so any Semitic alphabet would have needed extensive modification to represent Brahmi. Indeed, this is the most convincing circumstantial evidence for a link: The similarities between the scripts are just what one would expect from such an adaptation. For example, Aramaic did not distinguish dental from retroflex stops; in Unicode|Brāhmī the dental and retroflex series are graphically very similar, as if both had been derived from a single prototype. Aramaic did not have Brāhmī’s aspirated consonants ("unicode|kʰ", "unicode|tʰ"), whereas Brāhmī did not have Aramaic's emphatic consonants ("transl|sem|q, ṭ, ṣ"); and it appears that these emphatic letters were used for Brāhmī's aspirates: Aramaic "q" for Brāhmī "kh," Aramaic "Unicode|ṭ" (Θ) for Brāhmī "th" (IPA|ʘ). And just where Aramaic did not have a corresponding emphatic stop, "p," Brāhmī seems to have doubled up for its aspirate: Brāhmī "p" and "ph" are graphically very similar, as if taken from the same source in Aramaic "p." The first letters of the alphabets also match: Brāhmī "a," which resembled a reversed κ, looks a lot like Aramaic "alef," which resembled Hebrew א. (See the illustration above for some examples.)

According to others, Brāhmī was a purely indigenous development, perhaps with the Indus script as its predecessor; these include the English scholars G.R. Hunter and F. Raymond Allchin. In northern India, there is a gap of over a millennium between the Indus script and Brāhmī, but the earliest fragments of Brāhmī exist in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu leading to a theory that some derivative of the Indus script may have survived in the South, eventually emerging as Brāhmī. This also explains the rapid emergence of Brahmi (as opposed to contemporary scripts like Kharoshti) for most of the Prakrits across South Asia.

Bhattiprolu Brahmi

The earliest evidence of Brahmi script in South India comes from Bhattiprolu [The Bhattiprolu Inscriptions, G. Buhler, 1894, Epigraphica Indica, Vol.2] [Buddhist Inscriptions of Andhradesa, Dr. B.S.L Hanumantha Rao, 1998, Ananda Buddha Vihara Trust, Secunderabad. The script was written on the urn containing Buddha's relics. The languages were Prakrit and old Telugu [Antiquity of Telugu language and script:] . Linguists surmise that the Mauryan Brahmi evolved in 500 BCE and travelled to Bhattiprolu giving rise to its variant in 300 BCE [Ananda Buddha Vihara; ] [Epigraphist extraordinaire; ] . Twenty three symbols were identified in Bhattiprolu script. The symbols for 'ga' and 'sa' are similar to Mauryan Brahmi. 'bha' and 'da' resemble those of modern Telugu script. Although Telugu evolved by 6th century BCE from it was not used in the inscriptions because of its unofficial status

Tamil Brāhmī

Recent claims for earlier dates include fragments of pottery from the trading town of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, which have been dated to the early 5th century BCE; discoveries in Bhattiprolu in Andhra Pradesh [Antiquity of Telugu language and script:] ; and on pieces of pottery in Adichanallur, Tamil Nadu, which have been radio-carbon dated to the 6th century BCE. [ Subramanian, T.S., Skeletons, script found at ancient burial site in Tamil Nadu] ]


Brāhmī is usually written from left to right, as in the case of its descendants. But a coin of the 4th century BCE has been found inscribed with Brāhmī characters running from right to left [ [ Brahmi - Crystalinks ] ] . Brāhmī is an abugida, meaning that each letter represents a consonant, while vowels are written with obligatory diacritics. When no vowel is written, the vowel /a/ is understood. Special compound letters are used to write syllables that begin with consonant clusters, such as /pr/ or /rv/.


Brāhmī and its sister Kharoshthi are the two oldest alphabets of India. While Kharoshthi was only used in Afghanistan and northwestern India, Brāhmī was used across the Subcontinent. Over time, differing regional forms and styles of Brahmi developed into many descendant scripts. Kharoshthi, on the other hand, fell out of use without leaving any descendants.

Like Kharoshthi, Brāhmī was used to write the early dialects of Prakrit. Its usage was mostly restricted to inscriptions on buildings and graves as well as liturgical texts. The earlier Sanskrit had not been written down while it was natively spokenFact|date=March 2008, and was only written many centuries later. As a result, Brāhmī is not a perfect match for Sanskrit, as several Sanskrit sounds have no letter or diacritic in Brāhmī.

Descendant writing systems

Brāhmī evolved into many different scripts, which are commonly divided into a more rounded Southern India group and a more angular Northern India group. Over time, certain scripts became associated with specific languages. Alphabets of the Southern group spread into Southeast Asia, while the Northern group spread into Tibet. Today descendants of Brāhmī are used throughout India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and scattered enclaves in Indonesia, southern China, southern Vietnam, and the Philippines. As the script of Buddhist scripture, Brahmic alphabets are used for religious purposes throughout China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Although not universally accepted, it has been claimed that Hangul, was based on Phagspa script, used in the Mongol Empire, a derivative of the Tibetan alphabet. Canadian Aboriginal syllabics may also show systematic similarity with principles and characters of Brāhmī.

See also

*Indian inscriptions


Further reading

*Kenneth R. Norman, "The Development of Writing in India and its Effect upon the Pâli Canon", in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens (36), 1993
*Oscar von Hinüber, "Der Beginn der Schrift und frühe Schriftlichkeit in Indien", Franz Steiner Verlag, 1990 (in German)
*Gérard Fussman, "Les premiers systèmes d'écriture en Inde", in Annuaire du Collège de France 1988-1989 (in French)
*Siran Deraniyagala, "The prehistory of Sri Lanka; an ecological perspective (revised ed."), Archaeological Survey Department of Sri Lanka, 1992.

External links

* [ On The Origin Of The Early Indian Scripts: A Review Article] by Richard Salomon, University of Washington (via
* [ Brahmi project] of the Indian Institute of Science
* [ Ancient Scripts - Brahmi]
* [ Windows Indic Script Support]

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