Ol Chiki alphabet

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Ol Chiki script (alphabet)
Ol Chiki
Languages Santali language
ISO 15924 Olck, 261
Direction Left-to-right
Unicode alias
Ol Chiki

The Ol Chiki script, also known as Ol Cemetʼ (Santali: ol 'writing', cemet‍ '​ 'learning'), Ol Ciki, Ol, and sometimes as the Santali alphabet, was created in 1925 by Raghunath Murmu for the Santali language.

Previously, Santali had been written with the Latin alphabet. But because Santali is not an Indo-Aryan language (like most other languages in the south of India), Indic scripts did not have letters for all of Santali's phonemes, especially its stop consonants and vowels, which made writing the language accurately in an unmodified Indic script difficult. The detailed analysis was given by Dr. Byomkes Chakrabarti in his Comparative Study of Santali and Bengali. Missionaries (first of all Paul Olaf Bodding, a Norwegian) brought the Latin script, which is better[citation needed] at representing Santali stops, phonemes and nasal sounds with the use of diacritical marks and accents. Unlike most Indic scripts, which are derived from Brahmi, Ol Chiki is not an abugida, with vowels given equal representation with consonants. Additionally, it was designed specifically for the language, but one letter could not be assigned to each phoneme because the sixth vowel in Ol Chiki is still problematic.

Ol Chiki has 30 letters, the forms of which are intended to evoke natural shapes. Linguist Norman Zide said "The shapes of the letters are not arbitrary, but reflect the names for the letters, which are words, usually the names of objects or actions representing conventionalized form in the pictorial shape of the characters."[1] It is written from left to right.

Need of Ol Chiki script[edit]

In earlier times, all Santali writings were in Bengali, Devanagari, or Roman script. Although there have been impressive number of works by foreigner and non-Santal writers on dictionary, grammar, collection of folklore etc., these works are mostly intended for research purposes. Roman script was in extensive use for writing Santali and several books in Santali have been published using Roman script. But most of the creative literatures were written by the native speakers in Bengali or Devanagari script. The use of different scripts for writing Santali has hindered the development and utilization of Santali language. This, in turn, has effectively marred the progress of Santali language in several fields such as philosophy, history, religion, science, novel, prose, poetry etc. The problem of using different scripts for the same language necessitated the invention of a new script for Santali, and it finally led to the invention of Ol Chiki by Pandit Raghunath Murmu.

After the invention of Ol Chiki, a large number of books have been written by various authors in Santali using Ol Chiki script. Types of books include (i) novels and short stories, (ii) poetries, songs, and religious sermons, (iii) books on Santal society, (iv) primary books for learning Ol Chiki, (v) books for learning primary mathematics, (vi) books on Santali grammars and related topics, and (vii) books on great tribal persons. Santali magazines in Ol Chiki are also being published regularly.

The problems with Indic Scripts[edit]

The problems of correctly representing Santali sounds in Indic scripts, viz., Bengali, Devanagari & Oriya are explained here. Firstly, in Indic language, some phonetics like checked consonants / k', c', t', p'/ do not exist. If one attempts to suppress the inherent vowel of consonants /KA/, /CA/, /TA/ & /PA/ of any Indic script, it would only produce /k/, /c/, /t/ & /p/, respectively. There are no mechanisms to represent these unique Santali sounds. Secondly, there is a difficulty of representing the Santali vowels. Currently, the Santali language does use eight or nine vowels that can be short or long and nasalized, whereas the Indic scripts provide only six vowels. By modifying the vowels of Indic script using diacritic marks, the santali vowels can be represented to some extent, but when such vowels are used in the beginning of a word, they tend to approximate with closest vowels of the Indic script. Thirdly, there is no mechanism to represent the Glottal stop of Santali sounds which Santals use very frequently.

The problems with Roman Script[edit]

Although the Roman script can nicely represent checked consonants, but it is not without deficiencies. The Roman script cannot distinguish between the short and long vowels. It is worth mentioning that the Santali long vowels are pronounced much longer than those of English, and other Indic languages. Another problem with Roman script is that it does not have any explicit mechanism to represent the Glottal stop. Therefore to retain the beauty, specialty, peculiarity & sweetness of Santali language, there is a need to use a script that can represent all sounds of the Santali language accurately and is naturally appealing to all Santals, and it is definitely the Ol Chiki script that fulfils these requirements.

Ol Chiki[edit]

The Ol Chiki letters are arranged in a matrix of 6 by 5, in which the six letters in the first column of the matrix are vowels, and the rest 24 letters are consonants. However, the five letters of the third column represent dual consonants, and this, eventually, helps to represent 29 consonants with the help of diacritic Ahad. Ol Chiki gives 5 basic diacritics, and the combination of diacritics Mu Tudag and Gahla Tudag gives rise to another diacritic, called Mu-Gahla Tudag. The matrix of Ol Chiki letters are listed with transliteration of alphabets, with pronunciation in brackets and their sounds in bracelets. The above table gives Ol Chiki letters, their transliterations, their pronunciation and the corresponding phonetic alphabets(IPA). Phonetic alphabets are given to understand the correct pronunciations of Ol Chiki letters. Note: sometimes /AAW/ also approximates to /v/.


The diacritic Mu Tudag functions like Devnagari chandrabindu, and it is used for nasalization of vowels.

Gahla Tudag is used for generating additional vowels, and Rela is used for generating extra length in the vowels. Pharka is used as separator and Ahad has special properties, that will be discussed later.


The important component of any writing system is the vowels, which are, indeed, responsible for producing words by joining the consonants. The description of vowel system of Ol Chiki script is given here. The Santali language has 9 vowels. The first six vowels are shown in first column of the Ol Chiki alphabets matrix. The next three vowels are generated juxtaposing the Gahla Tudag. But one of the vowel generated by placing Gahla Tudag (/A/+ Gahla Tudag) has marginal phonemic status and rarely used. In Santali all vowels may be long or short and all vowels may be nasalized. The Santali diphthongs consists of two vowels; unlike English they never consist of a vowel and a semi-consonant. The below is that list of Santali language vowels along with their corresponding International phonetic alphabets. The first six are familiar vowels in English and many other Indian languages like Bengali, Hindi or Oriya. First vowel is equivalent to /o/ of boil, boy, coy. The pronunciation of this vowel is similar to that of Bengali or Oriya first vowel which is also the inherent vowel of Bengali/Oriya script. /a/ is pronounced as in /a/ of English word car. The pronunciation of /i/ is similar to that of /i/ in English word city or sit, and that of /u/ is similar to /u/ of put. The pronunciation of /e/ is similar to /e/ of English word get, and that of /o/ is more like /o/ of more. The remaining three vowels are discussed in the Gahla Tudag section.

Word Formation[edit]

Ol Chiki writing system is alphabetic, and so, it is better understood using Roman script. Normally, in Santali language, all words begin with either a vowel or single consonant. However, it is observed that inside a word, a combination of two consonants may occur, and, sometimes even three. But then one of these is a nasal. It is worth mentioning that, in Santali language, the occurrence of nasals is extremely regular. These are even distinguishable in word final position. Let us look at some of the examples that illustrate how words can be formed using Ol Chiki letters. Suppose, one needs to construct a Santali word /am/, then just put the vowel /a/ followed by the consonant /m/. so, we write /a/ + /m/ = a + m = /am/ which, in Santali, means 'you'. Similarly, when we need to write /ipil/, we write /i/ + /p/ + /i/ + /l/ = i+p+i+l = /ipil/ which, in Santali, means 'star'. Given below is a list of examples which would help to understand the mechanism of forming words using Ol Chiki vowels and consonants.

Additional consonants[edit]

Apart from the consonants mentioned above, Santali language does use other aspirated consonants. An aspirated consonant is generated by juxtaposing /OH/, which functions more like English /h/, immediately after another consonant. For example : /dh/ of Dhanbad, is generated using /EDD/ followed by /OH/. It should be noted that, in Ol Chiki, it is /OH/(and not /IH/) that is used to generate the aspirated consonants, and this is in contrast to the English language, where no such distinction is made. The consonant /OH/, when placed immediately after the unaspirated consonants t/AT/, g/AG/, k/AAK/, j/AAJ/, c/UCH/, d/UD/, p/EP/, D/EDD/, t/OTT/, b/OB/ generates the corresponding aspirated consonants.

Glottal stop[edit]

Here is an example, where /OH/ is used along with /EN/ as in the word, /nhate/ which means 'this side'. This sound is a bit voiceless. This is a prolongation of /n/ along with /h/ sound, and it is an example of glottal stop. A point to be noted here is that this glottal stop is generated in combination of /IH/ with Ahad, but it is normally written in a shorter form using /OH/. Although there are few words in Santali language that use the glottal stop, but the use of such words are very frequent in Santali language. Here is a list of words where glottal stop is used.

Mu Tudag[edit]

This diacritic is used for the nasalization of vowels. As already mentioned that in Santali language, all vowels and diphthongs may be nasalized. It works in the same way as the chandrabindu of Devnagari script. When it is placed immediately after a vowel, the vowel gets nasalized. The example of nasalized vowels that are used in the words of Santali language are given below.

Gahla Tudag[edit]

Gahla Tudag is used to generate the additional vowels from the following vowels, viz., open vowel /o/(first vowel), /a/, and /e/. The vowel /a/+/Gahla Tudag/ is the most frequently used vowel, and there is no exact English equivalent for the same. This is a half open central vowel and its pronunciation is approximately equivalent to that of /a/ in ago. The vowel /e/+/Gahla Tudag/ is pronounced as in /a/ of English word gate and it is open /e/(half open front vowel). But the pronunciation of the vowel /o/+/Gahla Tudag/ is very nearly the same as that of the original vowel, and it occurs in a few words only.

Mu-Gahla Tudag[edit]

The Mu-Gahla Tudag indicates that the new vowel generated by the Gahla Tudag is nasalized.


In Santali language, all vowels may be short or longs and it is Rela that is used to lengthen the pronunciation of vowels. For example, in the pair of words /hit/ and /heat/ (or /bit/ and /beat/ ) in English, the former uses a short vowel , but the later uses a long vowel. In case of Ol Chiki, the long vowels are pronounced much longer than those of English, and a long vowel corresponding to a vowel is indicated by immediately following the vowel with the diacritic Rela. The Rela is extensively used in the adverb of Santali language. Here is a list of words that use the rela and their pronunciations and meanings.


In Ol Chiki, the letters, /AG/, /AAJ/, /UD/, and /OB/ are semi-consonants. These semi-consonants become consonants (voiced equivalents), when they are immediately followed by a vowel or Ahad. This generates dual sounds from these semi-consonants depending on whether they are immediately followed by a vowel/Ahad or not. This is a feature unique to Ol Chiki, which is not observed in any other writing system. Take the example of /AG/: it produces two sounds, viz., /k'/ and /g/. The use of /k'/ is in words like /amak'/your/ or /senok'/go/. The /k'/ is not fully released in these circumstances. The pronunciation of this consonant is a bit unique to Santals, and it is in-between /k/ and /g/. It starts with /k/ and glides towards /g/. Similar is the case with /AAJ/, which gives /c'/ and /j/ (Here /c/ is unreleased /ch/ of church ). Similarly, /UD/ gives /t'/ and /d/, and /OB/ gives /p'/ and /b/. Whenever a semi-consonant occurs at the end of a word, and the word is naturally extended for a different use using a vowel or Ahad, it is always the corresponding consonant as given above that appears in the new word. What it means is that /k'/ will always get extended to /g/, and never to /k/, and so on. This behaviour of semi-consonants normally occurs in verb formations, and hence, this transformation is very widely used in Santali language. As an example, consider the following pair of sentences: /Uniy rak' kek'a/He wept/ and /Uniy raga/He will weep/. In this example, /kek'a/ in the first sentence gets replaced by /a/ in the second sentence, and therefore, /k'/ in /rak'/ gets extended to /g/ in /raga/. Examples of pairs of sentences using other semi-consonants are as follows: /Uni toway hedec' kek'a/He boiled milk/ and /Uni toway hedeja/He will boil milk/, /Uniy ut' kek'a/He swallowed/ and /Uniy uda/He will swallow/, and /Uniy up' kek'a/He poured/ and /Uniy uba/He will pour/. An example of a pair of words that can show this behaviour is /rakap'/lift(intransitive verb)/ and /rakab/lift(transitive verb)/. This is the reason why each of the Ol Chiki letters /AG/, /AAJ/, /UD/, and /OB/ has been used to represent the dual sounds as given above, and because of this special behaviour of these letters in word formation, they have been termed as "semi-consonants". However, a better name can be sought if it is deemed so.


The diacritic Pharka is used very frequently in Santali writings and works as separator in two ways. First, it is used to separate two consonants of similar paired words as in /sujh-bujh/understanding/. Second, it is used to separate a consonant from the following vowel. It is generally used to prevent the semi-consonants from becoming full consonants and these cases occur in a large number of verb formations such as /menak'-a/have/Verb/, /hijuk'-a/come/Verb/ etc. Also, there is another situation, where nasal consonant /ANG/, is separated by Pharka from the following vowel.

Punctuation marks[edit]

The main punctuation mark used is the single vertical line "|", and it marks the end of a sentence. There are other familiar punctuation marks which are also used in Santali language. The names of punctuation marks as given in the grammar book Ranal written by Pandit Raghunath Murmu are as given in the following table

The hand writing of Ol Chiki letters[edit]

The Ol Chiki gives hand writing letters for fast writing. It is called /usA.ra ol/. The hand writing letters consist of all letters which are vowels and consonants, and the letters which are formed in combination of /IH/ and four semi-consonants, /AG/, /AAJ/, /UD/, /OB/ with Ahad. In normal writing, the combination of /IH/ with Ahad is not found, as it is generally written in a shorter form that is /OH/.


santali digit

Ol Chiki uses decimal system, and the symbol for basic digits 0-9 are as follows:

Origin of Ol Chiki letters[edit]

The great novelties and usages in Santali language are as a result of the natural derivation of the forms for words, where, sounds generating out of actions or movements from animated or unanimated objects or sounds associated with living being and their corresponding words, are robustly approximated. Therefore, Pandit Raghunath Murmu tried to infuse this concept of natural formation of Santali words into Ol Chiki. When Pandit Raghunath Murmu devised the script, he carefully choose the shapes of the scripts from the nature, the surroundings which is long familiar to the Santals, and is close to them. The Santals form a community which has wonderful relationship with nature, and they respect it very well. Santal mythology gives many stories and songs that depict very importance of respecting nature and sense of preserving it. The selection of shapes for Ol Chiki letters is directly based on the shapes of objects or actions which the sounds for the letters represent, or with which the sounds for the letters are in some way associated. Naturally, the sources for the shapes of letters were fire, soil, water, air and sky- an environment that surrounds them. This is an indigenous concept and has multiple objectives. It would greatly help them to remember the letters easily, since they are familiar with the shapes and sounds that can be easily retrieved from the corresponding image from the nature. It can be observed that the shapes of most of the letters are either oval or round. This is due to the nature of origin of letters, whose shapes are often derived from the shape of an object or action of natural environment. For example, the word /AT/ means Earth and the shape of letter /AT/ is derived from the round shape of Earth. Similarly /UD/ means mushroom and so looks the shape of the letter /UD/. Here is the list of meaning of all letters given in Ol Chiki writing system. /A/  : The shape of burning fire. /AT/  : The shape of Earth. /AG/  : The shape of mouth during vomiting which produces thesame sound as the name of the letter. /ANG/  : Blowing air. /AL/  : Writing. /AA/  : The shape of working in the field with a spade. /AAK/  : Sound of Swan or shape of a bird. /AAJ/  : The shape of a person pointing towards a third person with right hand(saying he). /AAM/  : The shape of a person pointing towards a second person with left hand(saying you). /AAW/  : Opening lips. /I/  : Bending tree . /IS/  : The shape of plough. /IH/  : The shape of hand ups. /INY/  : The shape of a person pointing towards himself or herself with left hand. /IR/  : The shape of a sickle used for cutting or reaping(IR). /U/  : The shape of a vessel used for preparing food. /UCH/  : The shape of a peak of a mountain which is usually high. /UD/  : The shape of mushroom. /UNN/  : The picture of a flying bee which makes this sound. /UY/  : The shape of a man bending towards ground to cut something. / E/  : Overflowing rivers changing course. /EP/  : A person receiving with both hands. /EDD/  : The shape of a man with two legs stretching towards his chest and mouth. /EN/  : The picture of thrashing grains with two legs. /ERR/  : A picture of a path that turns to avoid an obstruction or a danger. /O/  : The shape of mouth when sounding this. /OTT/  : The hump of a camel. /OB/  : Curly hair. /OV/  : Nasalized. /OH/  : The figure of a man throwing something with one hand.

See also[edit]