About 1.6 million people in the north eastern region of India speak the Mundari language. It is spoken by the Munda tribes in the states of Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal. Mundari is closely related to Santali. The script used to write this language is Nag Mundari, invented by Rohidas Singh Nag in the late 80s.
Mundari is also written in Devanagari, Odisha, Bengali and Latin scripts. Children learn to write Mundari with the Nag Mundari script in schools. The state government of Odisha runs the Multilingual Education (MLE) Programme for tribal children to teach children their mother tongue. Mundari is one of the languages covered in their programme.
Unlike most other Indian scripts, Nag Mundari is not an abugida. There are no conjunct forms or vowel signs. All consonants and vowels are written as individual letters. There are only 27 letters in the script, a relatively small number compared to other Indian scripts. Diacritics exist for nasalisation, lengthening of vowels and foreign loan words. Not all of them are used in the present day. The script has its own numbers but Latin, Devanagari, Bengali and Odia numbers are also used.
Figure 1: Textbook to teach the Mundari language and script through Odia language. Available at the Internet Archive.
This script was encoded in Unicode 15.0, which was released in 2022. I had the pleasure of working on the first Unicode encoded font for this script: NotoSans Nag Mundari, and creating keyboards for macOS and Windows machines.
At the time of this writing, there are no other Unicode encoded fonts made for this script. There are, however, fonts made with custom encoding. These fonts are used mostly for posters and banners and some printed materials like text books.
Nag Mundari hand writing
Nag Mundari is written from left to right. Each letter is discrete. In the few samples of handwritten text that I received, there were no cursive connection between the letters.
In the Unicode documents and in printed materials, like the text book in Figure 1, the letter forms sit on a baseline and share a common height. There are no ascenders or descenders. However, in the handwritten text, the strokes do ascend and descend, sometimes quite visibly.
The ascends and descends, however, are not consistent. They could be a result of fast pen movement. This observation can be helpful when designing a handwriting typeface for this script later on.
Existing Nag Mundari fonts
Without an official encoding, like Unicode, it will be difficult to exchange text in an unambiguous way across applications and platforms. Unicode will give each character its own property. With these properties, the characters can be unambiguously detected as Nag Mundari characters. The operating system can then apply the appropriate font to display the text, even when one is not specified. Otherwise, users will have to specifically apply the same font at the receiving end.
Until Unicode 15, Nag Mundari script did not have such a standard. However, like many other language communities who created their own ‘informal standards’ by replacing ASCII characters in the past, the Mundari community had at least 5 usable typefaces made this way. They were created and published as a package called Mundari Bani software by Baidyanath Singh in 2008.
The Mundari letters in these fonts were mapped to similar sounding Latin alphabets. With this mapping, users just need to install the font and type out the text with a regular English keyboard. They need not install any keyboard software. The only requirement is that the text must be set in one of the five fonts. Otherwise, it will appear as garbled text in Latin.
The shape of the letters in these fonts closely match upper case Latin. They sit on a baseline and share a common height. There are 4 diacritic marks. The fonts did not include OpenType tables. The marks are given negative margins in order to appear above or below the previous letter. The position is not perfect, but serves the purpose and does not cause confusion.
Noto Sans Nag Mundari font
I began work on the Noto Sans Nag Mundari font in February 2023. Since this is a Noto Sans font, it needs to match the design of, and metrics used, in other Noto Sans fonts. No serifs and very low stroke modulation. None of the existing Nag Mundari fonts meet this criteria. They are all serifed and the strokes are modulated.
I followed the stroke movements of existing fonts very closely. I used Handwritten samples as reference to ensure that the letters do not deviate from user expectations when I made adjustments for counter spaces. Using the cap-height of Latin as the height, I maintained a consistent height across all letters.
Considerations for bold
Some letters have areas that are congested. This severely affected the bold design. To solve this, I made the smaller strokes, especially the cross-bars, thinner than the overall stroke width – a technique that is quite commonly used.
Spacing and kerning
There was no sample text available in this script. Not even in the custom encoded fonts. I created some random strings and used them as ‘words’ to check and adjust kerning.
While the letters contain curves, the numbers are generally written with straight lines. I maintained this difference in the font. The form of zero in all the custom encoded fonts were elliptic. I drew mine as a rectangle so it harmonises with the remaining digits. The reviewers welcomed this form.
I used GPOS for precise positioning of diacritics. Thanks to the Glyphs app that took care of generating the GPOS for me with the information given in the GlyphData.xml file. I just needed to set the anchor positions.
The shaping engines do not yet understand this script as it’s still very new. So there will not be automatic insertion of dotted circle if the marks appear out of context. Future versions may take care of this, so I did not manually insert the dotted circle.
I created a keyboard for macOS and ported it to Windows as well. The project is open source and it’s repository is here.
Users I communicated with were mostly interested in using this font in their mobile devices for messaging and social media posts. It’s a recently encoded script. Hopefully it will not take too long before iOS and Android include a font for this script in the operating system. That, along with a keyboard will make a million over people happy.
Feedback from the community
I received very good reviews and feedback from the community, especially Himanshu Singh from Bharat Munda Samaj and Biswajit Mandal who wrote the proposal to encode the Nag Mundari script. The proposal was an excellent resource and provided all the data I needed to work on this font.
I thank these people for their passion and hard work!
- Unicode Proposal
- Nag Mundari Script – Wikipedia page
- Unicode standard
- Mundari language and script text book