Once you are trying to learn the Telugu scipt, sooner or later you will have to deal with the issue of transliteration - and this can really be confusing at first. As you have probably already noticed, there are all kinds of systems in use to convert the Telugu script to Roman script. To clear up some of your confusion, here is an overview of the mainly used systems and which seem to be most useful.
First of all, let’s understand what the actual challenges are that Indian languages face regarding transliteration:
The Telugu language, like other Indian languages, makes a distinction between short and long vowels. For example there is a different Telugu letter for a short “a” = “అ” and a long “a” = “ఆ”.
Treatment of inherent “a”
Telugu consonants, like Devanāgarī consonants, include an “inherent a” sound, which must be explicitly represented with an “a” character in the transliteration.
Most Indian languages make a distinction between retroflex and dental forms of the dental consonants. In formal transliteration schemes, the standard Roman letters are used to indicate the dental form, and the retroflex form is indicated by special marks, or the use of other letters. For example in IAST transliteration, the retroflex forms are ṭ, ḍ, ṇ and ṣ. In most informal transliterations, the distinction between retroflex and dental consonants is not indicated.
Telugu like Devanāgarī includes some aspirated consonsants, for example there is an unaspirated “t” = “త” and an aspirated “th” = “థ”.
Three different sibilants
In Telugu there are three different sibilants that are pronounced differently and therefore need to be transliterated differently. (“శ”, “ష”, “స”)
Different Transliteration Systems
All the transliteration systems are attempts to approach the above issues in various ways. There are various different schemes in use - here we want to focus on the most common ones. A comparison chart you can find at the bottom of this entry.
is a widely used standard. The International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) is a subset of the ISO 15919 standard, used for the transliteration of Sanskrit and Pāḷi into Roman script with diacritics.
A standard transliteration convention not just for Devanāgarī, but for all South-Asian languages which was codified in the ISO 15919 standard of 2001, providing the basis for modern digital libraries that conform to the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) norms. ISO 15919 defines the common Unicode basis for Roman transliteration of South-Asian texts in a wide variety of languages/scripts. ISO 15919 uses diacritics to map the much larger set of Brahmic graphemes to the Roman script.
Harvard-Kyoto and ITRANS
Compared to IAST, Harvard-Kyoto looks much simpler. It does not contain any of the diacritic marks that IAST contains. Instead of diacritics, Harvard-Kyoto uses capital letters. The use of capital letters makes typing in Harvard-Kyoto much easier than in IAST but produces words with capital letters inside them. ITRANS is an extension of Harvard-Kyoto. Many webpages and forums are written in ITRANS.
The Hunterian system is the “national system of romanization in India” and the one officially adopted by the Government of India. It was developed in the nineteenth century by William Wilson Hunter. The system has undergone some evolution over time and has faced criticism over the years for not producing phonetically accurate results and being “unashamedly geared towards an English-language receiver audience.” Specifically, the lack of differentiation between retroflex and dental consonants has come in for repeated criticism.
It is a challenge to display the Telugu script with Roman script as there is a larger set of Brahmic graphemes than can be expressed with Roman letters.
There are a few systems in use to convert the Telugu script to Roman script.
The most important thing probably is that once you choose to use one system you need to stay with it and not mix it with different systems as that will become really confusing.
IAST or ISO 15919 are most commonly used in the academic field as an accepted standard.
There are different approaches to transcribe the vowel modifier “sunna”, which will be covered in a separate blog entry.