The Cham script is Indic in origin, the result of contact between Indian traders, warriors and priests, and the Kingdom of Champa, which controlled parts of Vietnam from the 2nd century until 1832. Once a large and powerful empire, the Cham Kingdom came under increasing attack from Vietnamese, Khmer and Mongol forces, until all but one principality had been annexed to Vietnam or Cambodia.
As a result, large numbers of Cham began migrating to Cambodia about 500 years ago, and in the intervening period both the language and the script diverged. Eastern Cham (spoken in Vietnam) is written in a more rounded script, whereas Western Cham (spoken in Cambodia) uses more angular letters.
Most surviving manuscripts related to religious practices, myths and legends, and epic poems. The script was also - and to some extent continues to be - widely used for inscribing magical formulae on amulets. It is suggested that the script may once have performed more mundane functions also, although no such texts exist any longer.
Traditionally, boys were taught the script by rote from about twelve years of age. The Cham zodiac was taught alongside the script. Despite Cham society being matriarchal from the 7th to the 15th centuries, girls were generally illiterate.
In both Cambodia and Vietnam the script is seen as a significant part of Cham cultural identity, and knowledge of Cham writing carries considerable prestige. However, by the mid 20th century it was not being widely used for any practical purposes.
In the 1970s the Vietnamese government launched a project to allow minority language education at the preschool / primary level. By this time however, young people's knowledge of Cham was declining, and in addition, spoken Cham language had diverged so significantly from the language used in traditional texts that study of the script was hampered. The Committee for the Standardization of the Cham Script was created in 1978 to standardize the script.
In 1990 a new set of Cham primers was produced which included some reforms to the script so that it better represented modern spoken Cham. For example, sounds which had been underrepresented (the same letter was used to represent more than one sound), were represented more accurately by modifying some letters. Spelling conventions were also modified to mirror speech more closely.
Further changes to the script have been proposed since the 1990s, although these have not yet been as widely accepted by more traditional groups in the user community.
Doris Blood, The ascendancy of the Cham script: how a literacy workshop became the catalyst. 2008. in International Journal of the Sociology of Language 192 p45-55 (c) Walter de Gruyter
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