Santali language and a history of the creation of its script

It seems that the impetus for the creation of the Alciki script came from a deeply felt regret that this relatively widely spoken language did not have its own means of written expression or form. While the Santal community is universally recognized to have ancient roots, its written record is limited to barely 200 years, the first century of which had been written in borrowed scripts and largely by non-native speakers. The impetus can also be traced to the need for an identity at a time when ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ were emerging as politically meaningful and driving ideas. There is no doubt that script helps in the spread of the language through education, and books written in one’s own script remain as tangible proof of the existence of the language. A script helps to extend communication through a common means between people occupying different regions of the country, thus helping to forge emotional ties and associations aimed at achieving common ends. Guided by ‘divine’ intervention between 1920 and 1940, Pandit Raghunath Murmu created the script that is known as Alciki/Olchiki.4 The script as ‘found’ by Murmu included 30 characters divided into 6 vowels and 24 consonants (Mohapatra 2001, pp. 74-88). The larger and more comprehensive script now in use was developed much later, with its origins in Orissa (now Odisha) dating from India’s independence in 1947, progressed, albeit at a sporadic pace (Ibid.).

In 2003, the movement for inclusion of the Santali language in the 8th Schedule of languages of the Constitution of India achieved success. This was indeed a moment for jubilation. The West Bengal government by this time had already established the Santal Akademi, which gave recognition and fillip to the revitalization of the Santal community and its distinct culture. As a result of this recognition, there was a surge in writing textbooks and providing facilities for higher education in Santali language and literature. Inclusion in the 8th Schedule was also seen as a means of opening up employment avenues for those who acquired the necessary qualifications and proficiency in Santali language. Some districts of West Bengal chose Alciki as the major admissible script, while others continued to learn the language in Bengali. Some enterprising young educated Santals innovated new ways to teach Santal primary-school-going Santal students: education began in Santali language in the Bengali script, but gradually changed to Bengali language, knowledge of which was mandatory in middle and higher levels of education, as well as in the broader society.5

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