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The Tamil Language

Tamil is the first legally recognized Classical Language of India, as formally announced by the then President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam, in a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament in 2004. The name ‘Tamil’ is an Anglicized version of the native name, the final letter usually transcribed as the lower ‘l’ or ‘zh’.

Origins:

A few scholars have linked the origins of Tamil to that of Sanskrit; however, unlike most of the other established literary languages of India, the origins of Tamil are independent of Sanskrit. Tamil has the longest unbroken literary tradition amongst the 4 major Dravidian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam).

Tamil tradition dates the oldest works to several millennia ago; the earliest examples of Tamil writing we have today are in inscriptions from the 3rd century BC, which are written in an adapted form of the Brahmi script (Mahadevan, 2003). Archaeological evidence obtained from inscriptions excavated in 2005 dates the language to around 1000 BC.

Tamil has had its share of borrowing words from other languages, notably that of Sanskrit words during the medieval period. This was, however, removed by many 20th century purists, notably Parithimaar Kalaignar and Maraimalai Adigal. This movement was called ‘thanith thamizh iyakkam’ (meaning, pure Tamil movement). Tamil, thus, in formal documents, public speeches and scientific discourses is largely free of Sanskrit loan words.

While other pre-Aryan languages were happily courting Sanskrit and Prakrit (600 BC-600AD), Old Tamil stood firm in its corner refusing to yield.

Where Tamil is spoken:

Tamil is the official language of the state of ‘Tamil Nadu’ in India. It is also widely spoken in other southern Indian states, the Union Territory of Pudhucherry, North east Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

Dialects of the Language and where they are Spoken:

Twently-two current dialects of ‘Tamil’ are listed in ‘The Ethnologue’ which include Adi Dravida, Aiyar, Aiyangar, Arava, Burgandi, Kasuva, Kongar, Korava, Korchi, Madrasi, Parikala, Pattapu Bhasha, Sri Lanka Tamil, Malaya Tamil, Burma Tamil, South Africa Tamil, Tigalu, Harijan, Sankethi, Hebbar, Tirunelveli and Madurai. Other known dialects are Kongu and Kumari. Although not a dialect, the Tamil spoken in Chennai (capital of Tamil Nadu) infuses English words and is called ‘Madras Bashai’.

Thirukkural:

One of the most notable literary and ethical treatises in the Indian languages, Thirukkural, is written by Thiruvalluvar. There is a general consensus among the historians and literary authorities that Thirukkural was written around 2000 years ago.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Laureate, notes that, “There hardly exists in the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find such lofty wisdom as in Thirukkural”

Dr. G. U. Pope, a Christian Missionary and Translator of Thirukkural in English writes, “The Kural is an integral painting of a civilization which is harmonious in itself and which possesses a clearly recognizable unity."

India’s father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, notes, “I wanted to learn Tamil, only to enable me to study Valluvar’s Thirukkural through his mother tongue itself…. It is a treasure of wisdom…”

Interesting Facts about the Language:

Classical Hebrew terms like tuki and ahalat are close to the Tamil words tokai and akil respectively. Although English words like 'sandalwood' and 'rice' are borrowed from the Greek language, their origin, some claim, is in fact Tamil.

Even the minutest of fractions have a place in ‘Tamil’ language. Some interesting examples include the term immi referred to the fraction of 1/320 x 1/7, one-seventh of this fraction termed as anu, one-eleventh of an anu as mummi and one ninth of a mummi as kuNam.

Tamil’s Love for the Language:

The Tamil speaking people in the state of ‘Tamil Nadu’ in India are very passionate about their language, and feel that if Hindi, the national language of India, enters their land, their classical language and ancient culture/tradition would be no more, citing cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad where the native language is rendered nearly auxiliary.

In an address in 1962, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, C N Annadurai, made the following statements opposing imposition of Hindi: "It is claimed that Hindi should be common language (in India) because it is spoken by the majority. Why should we then claim the tiger as our national animal instead of the rat which is so much more numerous? Or the peacock as our national bird when the crow is ubiquitous?”

Annadurai kept up the rhetoric in Parliament, saying, "Since every school in India teaches English, why can't it be our link language? Why do Tamils have to study English for communication with the world and Hindi for communication within India? Do we need a big door for the big dog and a small door for the small dog? I say, let the small dog use the big door too!"

The language issue still evokes strong passions among Tamils and the words of Annadurai are fondly remembered.

On Why Tamil is a Classical Language:

University of California, Berkeley, holds a ‘Tamil’ Conference annually. Its Chair in Tamil Studies, Prof. George L. Hart, writes, “To qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit several criteria: it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own and not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature. Unlike the other modern languages of India, Tamil meets each of these requirements. It is extremely old (as old as Latin and older than Arabic); it arose as an entirely independent tradition, with almost no influence from Sanskrit or other languages; and its ancient literature is indescribably vast and rich.”

Links of Interest

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