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Tamil: An Exotic And Extraordinary Language From
Kumari Kantam, Dr. Subhadra Ramachandran
Tamil: An Exotic And Extraordinary
Language From Kumari Kantam:
Dr. Subhadra Ramachandran, Canada
Language is many things - a system of communication, a medium of thought, a vehicle for literary expression, a social institution, a matter for political controversy and a catalyst for nation building. But no language is as mysterious in its origins, as rich in history, as ancient in form and as copious in literature as Tamil is. Each of us, then, has a stake in understanding something about the nature and use of this language. In the first part of this exposition, I will try to provide some interesting facts about this (according to linguists) exotic language, its origins and history. In the second part, I will discuss in more detail the structure, writing system and grammatical traditions of the language.
A Brief History of the Language
Francis W. Ellis, a British civil servant, first recognised the Dravidian languages in 1816 as an independent family, not tied to the Indo-Aryan languages that were mainly spoken north of the Vindhyas. However, the actual term Dravidian was first used by Robert A. Caldwell, in his epoch-making A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages (1856)- still an important resource for linguists working on Tamil. Of the 23 languages in the Dravidian family, the four literary languages are Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu - with Tamil bearing the longest tradition. The earliest records date from inscriptions from around 200 BC. Three stages appear in the written records: ancient (200 BC to 700 AD), medieval (700 AD - 1500 AD) and modern (1500 AD to the present). Sometime between 800 AD and the turn of the last millennium, Malayalam, a very closely related Dravidian language, branched off and became a distinct language. Tamil has its own indigenous grammatical tradition, independent of that of the ancient Sanskrit grammarians. The earliest text, which describes the language of the classical period, is the Tolkappiyam (dating from around 200 BC.
It may be of interest to note that a number of South Dravidian words, almost all of them geographic and dynastic names, occur in such Greco-Roman sources as
the Periplus maris Erythraei ("Circumnavigation of the Erythraean Sea") of about 89 AD and in the writing of Ptolemaeus of Naukratis of the 2nd century AD. It is even more intriguing that some researchers believe that Western-language terms for "rice", (compare Italian riso, Latin oryza, Greek oryza) and "ginger" (compare Italian zenzero, German Ingwer, Greek zingiberis) are cultural loans from Old Tamil, in which they are arisi and iËËiver, respectively. Most researchers believe that the Tamils were indigenous to the south of India and the Tamil land was roughly divided into five regions or tiNai. They are given as follows: 1) Kurunji, hilly country 2) Paalai, dry, desert-like land 3) Mullai, wooded land between highlands and lowlands 4) Marudam, lower courses of rivers and 5) Neydal, land around the sea-board. The people who lived near the sea were also called the Paradavar, who were fishermen, boat-builders and traders. Extant texts suggest that the Paradavars were adventurous sea-farers who were probably the ones responsible for ancient Tamil influences on other geographically distant languages, among other things. All these conjectures about etymology and source lead to the next logical question about what really are the origins of the language.
Hypotheses about the Origins of Tamil
The subcontinent of India today has two major language-families of speakers: the Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian. However, the circumstances of the advent of Dravidian speakers in India are shrouded in mystery. There are several hypotheses surrounding this question. There are references in ancient Tamil literature to the submerged southern continent in what is now the Indian Ocean, as the original home of the Tamils and as the land where the first two of the three ancient Tamil academies of literary fame existed. There exist bark writings that tell of a gigantic southern part of India, which once connected Australia, cataclysmically sinking incrementally over a long period of time. This legendary piece of land is referred to as Lemuria by Western scientists and as "Kumarikkantam" in ancient Tamil texts. The otter and the black swan, frequently described in ancient Tamil poems, are now said to be found in Tasmania, which once formed a part of Lemuria. One subtle, but perhaps an important piece of evidence, is in the indigenous names of places in Australia which have - oor (Tamil "town") as suffix.
Another hypothesis posits a movement of Dravidian speakers from the northwest to the south and east of the Indian Peninsula, a movement originating possibly from as far away as Central Asia. It's possible that a Dravidian-speaking people that can be described as dolichocephalic (long-headed from front to back) Mediterraneans mixed with brachycephalic (short- headed from front to back) Armenoids and established themselves in northwestern India during the 4th millennium BC. Along their route, these immigrants may have possibly come into an intimate, prolonged contact with the Ural-Altaic speakers, thus explaining the striking linguistic affinities between the Dravidian and Ural-Altaic language groups (Hungarian, Finnish Turkish, Mongol, to name a few).
This hypothesis, about a migration of peoples from various regions of the world, is scoffed at by purists who, perhaps justifiably, believe that the ancient Tamil homeland was where it is today and that it was untouched by any outside influence until the first intrusion of Sanskrit culture that arrived at around the time of Agattiyanar's grammar (posited 1 B.C.). The purists also believe that the Sanskritization of the Tamil language, when the Aryan culture blended with the Dravidian, has inexorably altered the language. It is believed that the uniqueness of the Tamil culture was affected by the inflow of the exotic groups such as the Brahmins, the Buddhists and the Jains, all from the North. Their influence became very much perceptive during the period of the Pallavas (600 A.D.-850 A.D) who were enthusiastic pro-Sanskritists. So the indigenous way of life was affected by the interaction with these new influences that brought in new ideas. The broad and receptive mind of the Tamils, echoed in the saying "Every place is our place and everbody is our next of kin", (Purananuru, 192), welcomed these new ideas. As a result the Tamil religion and society underwent a marked change.
The school of thought that Dravidian spread beyond the confines south of the Vindhyas (where it is now mainly spoken) has been further substantiated by the fact that a Dravidian language called Brahui is still spoken to this day in parts of Baluchistan, Pakistan and Iran. Brahui is the only member of the Dravidian family, which is spoken outside the Indian subcontinent and linguists have not been able to discover the link between the Brahui and the other speakers of Dravidian languages who live thousands of miles away in southern India.
Yet another hypothesis claims that there are linguistic and cultural ties with the peoples of the Indus Valley civilization, particularly the Sumerians (H.R. Hall's Ancient History of the Near East, P.T Srinivasa Iyengar's History of the Tamils). In the 1920s, the British colonists began to concede the antiquity and "copiousness" of Tamil, and its status as a "cultivated" language. Until that time Dravidian languages and its peoples were considered to be "uncivilized" and inferior to the Indo-Aryan languages and peoples as gleaned from this unflattering 1893 Census report.
Dravidian speakers of today, the Census of 1931 admitted, have "a culture of very great antiquity[;] . . . speakers of Dravidian languages [were] the ancient inhabitants of Mohenjadaro and perhaps the givers of culture to India" (Government of India 1933: 454-55). The Census was here alluding to the recently discovered archaeological remains of the Indus Valley in Mohenjadaro and Harappa, which pointed to a sprawling prehistoric urban civilization rivalling Mesopotamia and Egypt. To the delight of many a Tamil devotee, this prehistoric civilization was declared to have been possibly Dravidian by some colonial archaeologists.
Having provided in this part, a summary of assumptions and surmises of the origins of the Tamil people, we will continue to look at some of the linguistic features of the Tamil language in our next issue of Marina, until which time the reader will have had a long enough respite to absorb all of these facts, hypotheses and information. However, whether the Tamils were indigenous to South India or not, suffice it to say that they certainly have a very interesting history, well worth a much more detailed study.