What "foreign language" is on this Dickens poster?

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A few years ago, "KateMonkey" posted this query on Flickr:

What is this language?

This was a poster of a book cover on the wall at the Dickens Museum, and all it said was "foreign language".

Really? You can't do better than that? "Foreign language"?

Charles Dickens Museum, Bloomsbury, London

I took one look at it and — because of the vowel markers and the overall shape of the letters — knew right away that it must be some sort of Brahmic script. Furthermore, because the Dickens Museum in London where this photograph was taken says that it is the poster of a cover of one of the novelist's books, plus the illustration being what it is and the title consisting of two words of certain shape and length, I guessed that the writing must say "David Copperfield". If I had a sufficient amount of time on my hands, I probably could have figured the rest of it out fairly easily. Instead, I asked Daud Ali, the Chair of our South Asia Studies Department, for help. Penn probably teaches more South Asian languages than any other university in the country, perhaps in the world, so I was pretty sure that somebody in the SAS Department would be familiar with this script.

Lo and behold, it only took a few minutes for Daud to contact one of our graduate students, Philip Friedrich, and he identified the script as Sinhala, transcribing it as 'ḍēviḍ koparfilḍ' = David Copperfield!

Here is a description of the Sinhala script. One thing that makes it slightly difficult to recognize the writing as Sinhala is that the font on the book cover is rectangularized. (I should note that the writing on this book cover is mistakenly claimed to be Japanese elsewhere on Flickr and flickriver [the seventeenth photo here]!)

[Thanks to Gianni Wan, Jim Unger, Michael Carr, Fred Smith, Axel Schuessler, Justin McDaniel, Tom Allsen, Jamal Elias, Peter Golden, Allan Bomhard, Eric Henry, Johan Elverskog, George van Driem, and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. goofy said,

    February 2, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

    The first word is ඩෙවඩ ḍevaḍ – the last three letters look almost identical but you can see a slight difference between the second last (v) and the other two (ḍ).

    In the second word I see කොපර kopar and ෆිලඩ filḍ but there's something between them and I'm not sure what it is.

  2. goofy said,

    February 2, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

    I'm wrong; the second half of the second word is using a character for /f/ that according to wikipedia seems to be just the Roman letter f plus the Sinhala letter for /p/ (ප). So the second word is කොපරfපිලඩ?


  3. dainichi said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 5:58 am

    @goofy, looks like you're missing the "hal kirīma"s on "ර" and "ල" to suppress the vowel. I also think the 3 symbols in "David" and the final one in "Copperfield" have the "i"-diacritic. So the first symbol has both the "e" and "i" diacritics, so logically I think it would be "ḍeiviḍi koparfilḍi". But maybe there are rules I don't know about…

    2 things puzzle me, though:

    1. Why is there no "hal kirīma"s on the final ḍs? Maybe only some consonants are allowed in codas?

    2. Looks like Sinhala has a voiced dental stop, "ද". Why is the retroflex "ඩ" used instead for the transcription of "d"?

    The letters on this link might be easier to see:


  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 8:22 am

    Non-phonologists may not be aware that the link provided by dainichi shows the letters of the title of the book in their regular, round, non-rectangularized form:


    Can specialists on Sinhala confirm goofy's speculation that the Roman letter "f" has been incorporated into the Sinhala alphabet? Or is that just a nonce usage here? Have any other Roman letters been incorporated into Sinhala? Into other Indian scripts?

    Can specialists in non-Indian scripts give examples of the adoption of Roman letters into the scripts with which they are familiar?

    See "Creeping Romanization in Chinese" (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4157) and the links therein.

    Also "Zhao C: a Man Who Lost His Name" (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1188)

    and "A New Morpheme in Mandarin" (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3111)

    The best dictionaries of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) all include Roman letter words. Indeed, there are whole dictionaries consisting entirely of wholly or partially Roman letter terms in Chinese (one of the best is by the applied linguist Liu Yongquan).

  5. Gianni said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    Actually Sinhala has adopted Z:


    Therefore it is reasonable that it adopt F, a phoneme used for foreign words.

  6. goofy said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 10:53 am

    dainichi is right, it does look like ඩෙිවිඩි කොපර්fපිල්ඩි ḍeiviḍi coparfilḍi. The first consonant has two separate vowel diacritics, which cannot be represented in Unicode, unless I'm missing something.

    As for dainichi's second question: it's common to use the retroflex consonants to represent English t and d in Indic scripts. For instance this Hindi sign has the words ब्यूटी पार्लर एण्ड बुटिक byūṭī parlar eṇḍ buṭik "beauty parlour and boutique".

  7. goofy said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 10:55 am

    It isn't just speculation on my part about fප. Wikipedia lists it as one of the spellings of /f/, for what it's worth.

  8. goofy said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    Actually, according to the image with the rounded script it's ඩෙිවිඩි කොපර්fපීල්ඩි ḍeiviḍi coparfīlḍi – with a long ī in Copperfield.

  9. goofy said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    Sorry for all the posts. According to Omniglot's spreadsheet, a lot of diacritics change their form depending on the consonant. Long ē can look like a combination of e and i when it is attached to ḍ. So it is ඩෝවිඩි ḍēviḍi.


  10. Philip said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    I can confirm that the Roman letter 'f' has been incorporated into the Sinhala alphabet ('fප'), although I have found ෆ more commonly used. (Traveling with a name like 'Philip' in Sri Lanka, I frequently run into the letter!) I would have to ask more knowledgable friends about the history of these changes, though. I suspect that the introduction of the letter ෆ in preference over 'fප' may be linked to 'pure Sinhala' movements of the 1930s and 40s. The 'fප' / 'ෆ' is used almost entirely for transliterating foreign words into Sinhala (hence its use with names like Philip, or Copperfield, but most often 'pharmacy'), and I imagine that the glaring roman letter in 'fප' would have rubbed Sinhala purists like Munidasa Cumaratunga the wrong way.

    Also, I've noticed that some commentators are misinterpreting the full-stop diacritic with the 'i' diacritic in the Sinhala rendering of 'David Copperfield.' It's easy to miss, but ඩි=ḍi, whereas ඩ්=ḍ (full-stop).The 'i' diacritic is continuous with the letter, whereas the full-stop diacritic is set back from the tip of the ඩ ever so slightly. However, the full-stop diacritic can also function to lengthen vowels when used in combinations with other diacritics. Hence, ඩේ = ḍē, while ඩෙ=ḍe. It's much easier to see in the link to the book that has been pasted. That book cover also makes it clear that it's actually a long ī in David Copperfield – so, the correct transliteration would be 'ḍēviḍ koparfīlḍ'.

  11. goofy said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    I think you're right, Philip. Thanks.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

    I'm wondering if the original labeling as "foreign language" is even accurate, if what we have is no more than a reasonably faithful transliteration of the English title into a nonstandard (in terms of being used for English) script.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

    Well, I take it as "foreign language" describing text of the book that it's a cover for, not just the text on the book cover. So, yes "foreign language" is accurate.

  14. Arjun said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

    Regarding dainichi's second question, I feel like I can offer insight.

    I'm a native-ish speaker of Kannada (another Dravidian language), and to me the dental (I actually seem to articulate it interdentally) stop /d̪/ sounds a lot closer to /ð/ than to /d/.

    In fact, I grew up in the United States, and have a fairly General American accent, but use /d̪/ and /t̪/ in place of /ð/ and /θ/ as a result of what I suspect is mild first language interference (I've actually found this to be true of a large number of Americans who were raised by Indic language speakers, especially in word initial environments). The difference seems to be subtle enough that English speakers don't notice the swap, as the only person to ever comment on it had a background in linguistics.

    That this perception is shared by other Kannada speakers is backed up by the fact that the convention in Kannada when transcribing /ð/ is to use "ದ" (and / as "ತ"). I assume the same is true in Sinhalese

    Thus, since the dental plosives already "map" perceptually to English's dental fricatives, the retroflexes are the only available sounds to represent the alveolar plosives.

  15. Fred Smith said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 11:55 am

    Victor – What threw me was both the f-like character and the squarish script, which is more typical of Tamil, which I can read. Thanks. This was an interesting discussion.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    From Deven Patel:

    …[T]he phenomenon of script hybridity between two or more different orthographic systems is most evident in scripts like Oriya (from the central eastern state of Orissa). Their script follows other Indo-Aryan languages in using some variation of the Devanagari (Brahmi) script but its proximity with Andhra Pradesh to the south, whose script is some form of Dravidian grantha, seems to have influenced the rounded (and not angular) orthography of the Oriya script. Incidentally, the food, religious, and social habits of Oriya society (especially the southern districts) is far closer to South India culturally than to the Bengali-influenced culture of the North.

  17. michael farris said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    I immediately realized it was some kind of alpha-syllabary. My very first thought looking at a couple of letters on top was Khmer (which script I don't know) but the rest looked much too simple. A couple of letters looked like they could maybe be Telugu (whcih script I about half know) but most of the rest didn't. The second letter from the left on the bottom convinced me it must be Sinhala.

  18. Char said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    I realize this is a few months late, but as a Sri Lankan American I thought I would clear a few things up. First of all, Philip is right about the diacritics on the trailing "ඩ", in David and Copperfield as well as the initial "ඩ" at the beginning of David. These are not the same diacritics that signify an "i" sound, but instead diacritics that indicate the lack of a vowel sound. In the case of the initial "ඩ" in David, it is combined with the diacritic for the "e" (ෙ) sound to signify an "é" sound.

    As far as the retroflex "d" being used rather than the dental, I personally think that the Sinhala retroflex "d" and the English alveolar "d" sound identical. I didn't even know they were technically different phones until I started looking up linguistic information just out of curiosity. A Sri Lankan who actually grew up in Sri Lanka might be able to tell the difference, but to me they are the same. The Sinhala dental "d" is quite different sounding, I like to think of it as the "th" equivalent of the letter "d" (except that it is a dental stop instead of a dental fricative of course).

    One final minor quibble, Arjun mentioned that he spoke Kannada, "another Dravidian language". Despite the geographic location of Sri Lanka, Sinhala is actually an Indo-Aryan language, related to North Indian languages. I think it has a lot of borrowings from Tamil due to proximity, but as far as classification goes it is in the Indo-European language family.

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