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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > Tamil Language & Literature > Learning Tamil > History of Tamil Dictionaries - Harold Schiffman

History of Tamil Dictionaries

Harold Schiffman, 3 June 1998

[see also Tamil Nation Library - Dictionaries & Reference]

Tamil is the Dravidian language with the most ancient literary tradition in India, dating from the early centuries of the Common Era or before. It was one of the earliest languages learned by Europeans and is the first Indian language to appear in (western-style moveable-type) print (for example, the Vocabulario Tamulico com a Significaçam Portugueza [D255] of da Proença of 1679.) Because of its ancient literature and its spread both in ancient and recent times into Sri Lanka and southeast Asia, Tamil is important as a historical language in the area between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and is studied by non-Tamils to a degree that is out of proportion to the size of its population of speakers.

The non-Tamil who learns an Indian language other than Sanskrit or Hindi is immediately aware of the problem of lack of adequate materials for learning the language, and especially the lack of decent reference works. Dictionaries whose point of departure is the vernacular language (e.g. Tamil to English, Bengali to French) are usually more useful to a westerner than are English-to-vernacular dictionaries, and this is certainly the case for Tamil. Excellent Tamil-English dictionaries of all sorts are available and in print, but English-Tamil dictionaries tend to be of use only to Tamils, since they list obscure English words of all sorts but give little information about the appropriate contextual usage of their Tamil equivalents.

The reason for this state of affairs can be traced to the history of lexicography in India, and in particular to the development of a lexicographic tradition, beginning with da Proença's Tamil-Portuguese dictionary, that departs, not unsurprisingly, from a strictly colonial point of view. This was a one-way dictionary, specifically designed for the use of Portuguese speakers wishing to know some Tamil, but not intended for Tamils wishing to know Portuguese. At no point did it seem to occur to anyone that the needs of Europeans and of Indians to learn each other's languages were mutual, and could benefit from being combined in the same volume. Speakers of `vernacular' languages therefore developed their own dictionaries, and the two traditions never meshed.

After da Proença's initial effort at making the Tamil language more accessible to non-Tamils, other European missionaries followed suit. Beschi compiled (1742) though did not publish a Tamil-Latin dictionary [D247] and a Tamil-French dictionary (1744?) [D237], and de Bourges compiled (18th century?) a Tamil-French dictionary [D238]. These circulated in manuscript form and were widely known among Europeans studying Tamil. Predictably, they followed da Proença in being dictionaries of a one-way nature, i.e. Tamil-European language only.

In 1779 Johann Philipp Fabricius published his Tamil Malabar and English Dictionary, wherein the words and phrases of the Tamilian language, commonly called by Europeans the Malabar Language, are explained in English. [D225] Numbers in square brackets refer to items in Dhamodharan's bibliography of Tamil dictionaries, given in the bibliography. This dictionary formed the basis for several subsequent editions, most recently in 1972, and is still in print under the title A Dictionary, Tamil and English [D221], published by the Tranquebar Mission Press. It remains the best one-volume Tamil-English dictionary available today, although it does not always reflect modern usage, especially not the spoken language.

Fabricius published an English-Tamil dictionary ( A Dictionary of the English and Malabar Languages [D278]) in the same press in Vepery in 1786, and apparently intended that this companion volume would be bound together with the Tamil-English volume (Duverdier 1978) but for various reasons---war in Europe, and a severe paper shortage in India---this hope was not realized and apparently very few of the English-Tamil volumes ever appeared (or perished because of poor quality paper). Today only very few copies of it are extant (Duverdier 1978:192, Shaw 1978:172) and it has lapsed almost completely into oblivion. The fact that the two volumes were never issued as one Tamil-English/ English-Tamil Dictionary is significant and extremely unfortunate, because it established the tradition of publishing dictionaries of South Asian languages as either English-to-vernacular or vernacular-to-English that has persisted to this day.

Usually the vernacular-to-English dictionaries have been prepared by indigenous South Asian scholars as an aid to people learning English. The result is a tradition of lexicography that fails to recognize that a one-way dictionary does not fulfil the needs of anybody, i.e. neither non-Tamils nor indigenous scholars. Following this tradition a number of English-Tamil dictionaries have been produced since the time of Fabricius, many of them building on his work, such as Knight and Spaulding 1842 Knight and Spaulding and Visvanatha Pillai have recently appeared in reprinted editions, by Asia Educational Services, New Delhi, 1989. [D281] (with revisions by Hutchings 1844 and Appaswamy Pillai 1888 [D290]), Ochterlony 1851 [D290], Brotherton 1842 [D 272], Anketell 1888 [D267], Visvanatha Pillai 1888 (revised 1963) [D319], Pope 1906 [D293], Mootoo-Tamby Pillai 1907 [D285], Sankaranarayana Chettiar 1908 (revised in 1909 and 1917 [D305]), Percival 1861 (rev. ed., 1935) [D292], and Chidambaranatha Chettiar 1965 [D273] (commonly referred to as the Madras University Dictionary).

Of these, only Percival and Chidambaranatha Chettiar are still in print but neither is conceived of in a way that takes into account the kind of information non-Tamils need to have access to, i.e., they (and their predecessors) do not give even the minimal information needed by a non-Tamil to determine which of a number of entries is the appropriate one for a specific context. A non-Tamil needs to know of a verb whether it is transitive or intransitive, what class (conjugation) it belongs to, something about appropriate contextual usage, and perhaps some synonyms.

It would also be useful, in the case of verbs, to have some information about case-relations---whether the verb takes an accusative object, a postposition, or no object at all. None of the currently extant English-Tamil dictionaries gives this information---to check a verb's class and transitivity, one must then consult a Tamil-English dictionary such as Fabricius (1972 ed.). Another problem that non-Tamils have with Tamil in general arises from diglossia: The existence of two versions or `styles' of the language, one used for formal, written contexts and the other for informal spoken contexts. Tamils tend to think of the differences between LT and ST as trivial and predictible; non-Tamils see the differences as major, and not just confined to the phonological component of the language, but pervasive throughout the morphology, lexicon, and the syntax.

Since the two `dialects' of the language are different (although related historically and morphophonemically), it is not possible to determine from current dictionaries whether a given verb is actually used in the spoken language as well (e.g. செல் cel `go' is not used in spoken, only poo poo `go,' used in both; கூறு speak, say' is not used in ST, only sollu ( col ), used in both, nor is it possible to determine what their spoken forms might be, and what class they belong to in spoken, since historical and morphophonemic changes have resulted in some verbs switching to another class, or to a class not represented in Literary Tamil. For example, செய் cey `do' is class 1 (past in t /t/) in LT, but class 2 seyyi (with palatalization of nt /nt/ to /nc/, (phonetically [-nj-]) in spoken. Trained Linguists and mother-tongue speakers can figure out the phonological forms from the Literary form, but untrained non-Tamil speakers cannot. Thus there is clearly a need for an English-Tamil dictionary that gives information of this sort.

In Dhamotharan's 1978 bibliography of Tamil dictionaries there are actually some 55 English-Tamil dictionaries or glossaries listed. All of these suffer from various faults, such as being intended for Tamil speakers only, for students (or children or tea planters) only, are extremely brief, or are simply out of print. Many of them list rare English words but do not give simpler or more colloquial items such as `come' or `go', or verb-particle combinations such as `come off', `burn down', etc. None of them gives information on Tamil spoken usage and pronunciation. The most modern and scholarly attempt, the three-volume Madras University English-Tamil Dictionary edited by Chidambaranatha Chettiar (1965), while containing much more information than the others, still does not list verb classes, transitivity status, or any spoken forms.

The importance of transitivity status is, of course, that while English verbs can often be either one or the other (e.g. English `break') in Tamil it must be specified as to whether something breaks of itself (`it broke') or whether an agent caused it to break (`I broke it'). In English the same verb is used, but in Tamil the intransitive verb உடை meaning `break something'. In other cases pairs of verbs with slightly different phonological shapes are found, much like English pairs `fall/fell', `lie/lay', `sit/set'. Examples of these are verbs like திரும்ப tirumbu return (of one's own accord)' vs. திருப்பு tiruppu `return s.t. (tr.)' and ஓட oodu run (under one's own power)' vs. ஓட்டு oottu `run something (tr.)'. Without information about verb class and transitivity, non-Tamils have no way of knowing how to choose the correct form, and may produce such ungrammatical things as உடைகிறேன I break (of my own accord)' rather than the proper உடைக்கிறேன் `I break (something).'

Although it has not been possible for this writer to examine all of the 55 dictionaries listed by Dhamotharan, of the currently available English-Tamil dictionaries, all suffer from the faults mentioned, and none of any of the serious works give spoken forms---only the guides for tea and rubber planters even attempt spoken forms, but in an unreliable English-spelling-based transcription that obscures the true phonetic forms of the Tamil words.

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