PuLLi, a diacritic in Grantha

PuLLi, a dot is a very old diacritic in Tamil Grantha script. Its use as a reducer diacritic for reducing vowel-length or inherent vowel /a/ from akshara (syllable) is defined in many Tamil grammar books across centuries for the last 2000+ years. This posting is to documentation the PuLLi (dot) diacritic in Grantha. This ancient PuLLi diacritic for generating short e and o vowels can be contrasted with the situation in Devanagari script where various NEW solutions are tried - for example, European tilde or breve signs are imported today. But in Tamil Grantha, this is NOT the case. A. C. Burnell, Elements of South Indian Paleography, 1874. page 37, “The origin of this Tamil alphabet is apparent at first sight; it is a brahmanical adaptation of the Grantha letters corresponding to the old VaTTezuttu, from which, however, the last four signs (LLL, LL, RR and NNN) have been retained.”

An example of PuLLi diacritic on Grantha letters in print:

Govt. of India proposal on Grantha (L2/10-426) has a Nukta combining sign, which is an import from Persia, at U+1133C which is to help make Grantha letters write English letters, Z, W and F in proper transliteration. Nukta is brand new for Grantha, and not found at all in old books and manuscripts. Also the proposal has the native and much more ancient puLLi diacritic for short E and O vowels. The puLLi “dot” diacritic has been applied on Grantha letters in print long ago. For example, see the book, T. S. Naraya Sastry, Bhoja Charitram (Mylapore, Madras, 1900) (available at Google books also):

(p. xiii)

śṛṇudhvam gadatō mē 'dya

(p. xiv)

vyāghravat vyagara karmakṛt ||

(p. xiii)

asabhyaiḥ prāviśan niśi |

Normally, the PuLLi diacritic will be missing in South India, as creating a hole in palm leafs will destroy the writing material sooner. Hence it is normally left out, but is employed in print.

For long, Tamil letters have been added in Brahmi scripts to write Dravidian properly. This is acknowledged in Unicode encoding, for example, Brahmi encoding in Unicode allots separate code points for Tamil/Dravidian letters. In addition to the “vowel reducer” diacritic, Tamil puLLi to generate short /e/ and /o/ vowels in Brahmi in Unicode encoding, S. Baums and A. Glass added the Tamil letters in Brahmi code chart in Unicode (pg. 8-9, L2/07-342):

“For the representation of sounds particular to Dravidian, the makers of Old Tamil Brahmi added four new consonant signs to the repertoire of Brahmi: LLL, LL, RR and
NNN. The second of these, LL, is phonetically identical (a retroflex lateral) to the LL that somewhat later appears in north-Indian Brahmi for the writing of Sanskrit, and that also occurs in the Bhattiprolu inscriptions. Moreover, both the Tamil Brahmi and the Bhattiprolu LL are graphically derived from the regular letter l, the former by adding a hook to the lower right of l, the latter by mirroring l horizontally (while the north-Indian LL is derived from the letter DD). Old Tamil, Bhattiprolu and north-Indian LL should therefore all be encoded as 11031. Additional code points are provided for LLL, RR and NNN in the positions 11072 to 11074.”

“A special device was introduced for the marking of vowelless consonants, used both for Sanskrit and Tamil. In Sanskrit, this sign is called virama and is first attested in manuscripts of the first century CE. In Tamil, it is called puLLi and is attested in inscriptions from the second century CE (Mahadevan 2003, p. 198).” (pg. 4).

“In the second century BCE, as Brahmi spread southwards, speakers of Old Tamil became acquainted with it and adapted it to the writing of their own language.” (pg. 7).

“PuLLi takes the form of a dot above or in the upper part of the akSara. In addition to this normal virama function, puLLi is also used with the vowels e and o in order to mark them as short: in contrast to Sanskrit and most Middle-Indo-Aryan dialects, the Dravidian languages have short as well as long e and o phonemes.” In the Brahmi encoding, puLLi function and its shape “dot” to reduce long /e/ and /o/ to short vowels is allowed in Unicode (S. Baums and A. Glass, L2/07-342, pg. 8, L2/07-342).

A 13th century example of Tamil written in Grantha orthography.

" Curiously enough we find a copper-plate grant containing an inscription having Sanskrit and Tamil sections both written in the Grantha script [11]. The date of the record falls in 1289 AD. The Tamil portion is entirely transliterated in Grantha script following only the written form and *not* the form of pronunciation

[11] Ep. Ind., XXXVII, pp. 175 ff
(pg. 243. “Convertibility of surds and sonants”—historical evidence, K. G. Krishnan - Indo-Iranian Journal, 1972)

Table giving Visual Representation of short E and O and the corresponding vowel signs
in Grantha, Devanagari and Tamil scripts:

It should be noted that Tamil E and O differ from the older Grantha E and O because of the reform introduced by a Jesuit priest from Italy. "The famous Jesuit Beschi (1704-1774) is the author of a great improvement in Tamil orthography – the distinction between long and short e & o.” (pg. 37A. C. Burnell, Elements of South Indian Paleography, 1874).

Even after Beschi in mid-18th century, PuLLi diacritic for short E and O vowels
and vowel signs continue to be used. For example,
Ancient and Modern Alphabets of the Popular Hindu Alphabets of the Southern
Peninsula of India, Capt Henry Harkness, 1837, Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 1 & 2.

Grantha has 2 fonts in Unicode blocks: James Kass (PUA) & Elmar Kniprath (Bengali). Both of them have short E and O vowels and matra signs with PuLLi dot diacritic. See for example, Kniprath's font writing south Indian place names: