Writing Sylheti in the Roman script

Possibly the least prestigious, but arguably the most used script for writing Sylheti is the Roman script. Consciously, people would probably say they don’t write Sylheti using the Roman script. But text messages, Facebook, and Twitter have created contexts where many languages across the world are being adapted to the Roman Script for quick and easy communication across a variety of electronic devices - Sylheti being no exception.

But it's not just the technological and digital revolutions, or the growth of social media platforms that have led to such attempts to encode Sylheti in Roman. At least two modern Sylheti language learning books - Learning Sylheti by Rod Chalmers (1996) and Learn Sylheti Bangla in 30 Days by Mohammed Talib (2012) - have unashamedly adopted the Roman script in writing their Sylheti phrases. Even more recently, A Short Dictionary of Londoni Sylheti (2014) has been produced by Roger Gwynn, who also preferred to represent his lexical entries using the Roman script.

There is a common denominator in the use of the Roman script by the above three authors to represent spoken Sylheti - that of audience. All three books were published in the UK and have an English-speaking audience in mind, Sylheti and non-Sylheti. But there is another factor too - that the systems employed by all three authors have been designed more as guides to pronunciation than as guides to writing.

Admittedly, Gwynn goes much further than the other two authors in developing a systematic and well-argued transcription scheme for codifying Sylheti (2014:6-9), but, even so, his purpose is not primarily orthographic. That is, even though Gwynn has developed an orthographical representation of Sylheti words - which is separate from his more-phonetic pronunciation guide, his system for writing Sylheti is specifically aimed at English-speakers in order 'to provide just enough vocabulary to sustain a simple conversation on everyday matters with a British Sylheti-speaker' (2014:4). In other words, it is a means to an end whose end is conversation.

While such ends are noteworthy and commendable, Sylheti Translation And Research has a different aim and audience in mind: to develop a system for writing Sylheti using the Roman script that is designed for Sylheti speakers.

Why write Sylheti in the Roman script?

But why write Sylheti in the Roman script at all? After all, as mentioned above, there is no 'prestige' in using the Roman script to write Sylheti. It's not unique like Siloṭi Nagri and it has no associations with Bangladeshi identity and nationhood as does Bengali. The basic script also lacks the number of characters needed to differentiate the sounds of spoken Sylheti, which means that either additional symbols or diacritics need to be added to avoid potential ambiguities in writing.

So, then, why develop a Roman orthography for Sylheti?! At least three reasons are self-evident from the above. Firstly, some people are already using the Roman script to write Sylheti - those using it to send messages via SMS and social media, as well as those seeking to encourage Sylheti language learning. Secondly, for Sylhetis who have grown up in the UK, the USA or in other European countries and have been educated in English or other European languages, the Roman script will already be familiar to them, whereas the Bengali script and (almost certainly) the Siloṭi Nagri script may not be. Thirdly, while STAR's primary interest and aim is to design a Roman-script orthography for Sylheti speakers, one obvious advantage of using the Roman-script to write Sylheti is that it will be accessible to a non-Sylheti audience as well.

The answer to the 'why' question, therefore, is largely pragmatic. And it is for such pragmatic reasons as these that STAR is developing a trial system for writing Sylheti in the Roman script. It is our hope that the resulting orthography will both adequately represent the sounds of spoken Sylheti whilst also being as simple as possible for common everyday usage across a range of electronic devices.

How to write Sylheti in the Roman script 

STAR's transcription system is currently under development. Our intention is to provide a comparative chart which will show how to write Sylheti in all three scripts - Siloṭi Nagri, Bengali, and Roman - seeking to maintain as much consistency as possible. In time, we also hope to make available more detailed guides which will include examples of how to write individual words in each script, as well as whole sentences, explaining the principles which have guided the transcriptions.

STAR's latest publication, Siloṭi Nagri Horof (Sylheti Nagri Alphabet), the first in a planned 'Sylheti Mini Picture Book Series', is the first book to have adopted our new three-script transcription system. There are 33 pages of individual words spelt in each of the three scripts, based on each character of the Siloṭi Nagri alphabet (as well as an additional three pages of charts). This book is now available to purchase through our online store at a cost of £2.00 (plus shipping & handling).