Writing Sylheti in the Siloṭi Nagri script

Listen, faithful brethren, to my plea,
countless people want to know Nagri.
Their heart’s desire is to learn,
they search for a primer and do not find one.
Though Sylheti Nagri is so easy,
clever people find it a struggle to learn.
Seeing this I thought to myself,
they would find it easy if they had a primer.
When I saw the zeal in people’s hearts,
I made the effort to help them.
If I wrote out all the letters systematically,
with God’s help they could learn in one day.
— Abdul Lotif. 1930. 'Pohela Kitab o Doikhura Rag', p13-14.

So writes Abdul Lotif over 80 years ago in his Siloṭi Nagri primer. At that time there was a great 'desire' and 'zeal' to learn Siloṭi Nagri. Historically this was due to a combination of factors - not least the desire to access the literature written in the script, containing as it did Islamic stories and teachings (Lotif himself includes songs written by 'Doikhura' in his primer as an inducement to learn!) - but because it was 'so easy'. Indeed, Lotif claims that 'with God's help', Siloṭi Nagri could be learned in 'one day'.

The accessibility of Siloṭi Nagri is evidenced by the fact that women - usually among the least literate in developing societies - were able to read it. According to Rod Chalmers, in his book Learning Sylheti (1996:10), 'in a society often assumed to be sexist, the ability to read Sylheti Nagari was known to be particularly widespread among women. Of what other Indian script can that be said?' This was corroborated by David Kane in his 2005 fieldwork in Sylhet for his doctoral research on puthi-poṛa, who observed several women still reading Siloṭi Nagri puthis

So, why is Siloṭi Nagri 'so easy' to learn? Simply, because it was designed to write spoken Sylheti. The Sylheti language has fewer phonemes (sounds that distinguish meaning) than Bengali, and, consequently, Siloṭi Nagri has fewer characters in its script - 33 to Bengali's 51. Siloṭi Nagri also uses very few conjuncts (consonant combinations which result in separate characters, some of which are not easily worked out from the individual consonant characters).

Why write Sylheti in Siloṭi Nagri today?

National literacy in Bangladesh is in the Bengali language, which uses the Bengali script. This is one practical reason that could be put forward in favour of writing Sylheti in the Bengali script (click here to read more).

However, due to the differences in phonology between spoken Sylheti and spoken Bengali, the Siloṭi Nagri script naturally represents the sound system of spoken Sylheti better than the full Bengali script, which includes more characters than are needed for writing Sylheti. In short, the Bengali script over-differentiates the sounds. Conversely, a Roman-based script, like that used to write English, under-differentiates the sounds. This means that the basic Roman characters cannot represent the sounds of spoken Sylheti without the use of diacritics (click here to learn more about writing Sylheti using Roman script).

So, why write Sylheti in the Siloṭi Nagri script today? Pragmatically-speaking, because it is orthographically and phonologically the most suited to writing Sylheti. This makes it 'easy' for a Sylheti speaker to learn!

But there is another reason. The Siloṭi Nagri script is unique. It has been exclusively used for writing Sylheti for hundreds of years, a fact attested by the large corpus of extant folk literature written in the Siloṭi Nagri script. Therefore, the Siloṭi Nagri script is also an important part of Sylhet's historic literary and cultural heritage.

How to write Sylheti in Siloṭi Nagri

In his 'editorial plea', Abdul Lotif states that even 'though Sylheti Nagri is so easy, clever people find it a struggle to learn'. On the face of it, that sounds like a contradiction. And it would be if Lotif didn't also explain the context: 'Seeing this I thought to myself, they would find it easy if they had a primer.' People wanted to learn, they searched for a primer but didn't find one. 'If I wrote out all the letters systematically,' Lotif continues, 'with God's help they could learn in one day.'

For exactly the same reason, STAR is developing a transcription chart for writing Sylheti in Siloṭi Nagri and the other two scripts, which we hope to make available for viewing on the website and for download when it is completed.

We have also produced a new Sylheti Nagri Alphabet book which is the first in a planned series of Sylheti Mini Picture Books which is available for purchase via our online store. STAR's own primer, Learn to Read and Write Sylheti (first published in 2006), is currently undergoing revision and we also hope to make this available for purchase later this year.

To view our full list of publications, click here.