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Deep rivers

Kannan M.
Jennifer Clare

Occasional Papers

Language in Tamil history: change and innovation

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1Nearly thirty years ago, while attending the First World Tamil Conference, I listened to many scholars and lovers of Tamil emphasizing the remarkable continuity, if not the fixity, of the Tamil language, embedded in its first grammar, Tolkāppiyam, and revealed through Caṅkam Literature: something like a monument, so to speak, such as the Brhadisvara temple in Tancavur. Today, people are more concerned with the future than with monuments of the past and are prepared for drastic changes. They have come to know that our societies are multifaceted and never stable, and that our excellence will, in competition in the new world order, be measured against international standards through international networks that imply new communication technology. If only to survive, we must become interactive and international, and internet or e-mail addicts; and the next international Tamil Conference-Seminar may be on the net.

2Nevertheless, language remains a monument. So, let us also look at it through the analogy with the Great Temple of Tancavur itself, as revealed by the architectural study conducted during the last decade by the Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient, in cooperation with the IGNCA in New Delhi. It has been shown that this building signified something of a revolution in Cōḻa architecture since the construction of a monument six times higher than the currently existing ones created an acute need for totally innovative solutions as well as a fruitful revision of the architectural and decorative traditions. The ceremonies which accompanied the consecration in 1010 A.D. were no doubt in tune with the magnificence of the achievement. Nevertheless, only twenty years later, the construction of the Gangaikontacolapuram temple by Râjendra, the very son of Râjarâja, challenged the revolutionary lessons of Tancavur, improving upon the proportions of the tower through a rigorous grid system, and transforming the superstructures "by combining an innovative design with a return to the Cōḻa architectural tradition": another revolution, within an even shorter time than it took our colleague and friend Prof. Schiffman to recast a new version of his grammar of Standard Spoken Tamil he was talking about yesterday! But still, ignoring the architectural problems, and unconcerned with the transitory fate of political power, we admire both these temples as one and the same unique symbol of the achievement of Cōḻa culture.

3This allegory invites us to set up our reflection over a long period of time. By so doing in the field of language, we will discover that there are peaceful, if not silent, revolutions taking place every day, through which Tamil creative writers keep on reacting positively to the stimuli of cultural changes. Therefore, though language remains perceived, and even worshipped, as a monument, it is endlessly reshaped by trial and error, even while standing as a permanent symbol of tradition and conservatism.

4Let us look at literature from its very beginnings in the Caṅkam Age. There is a recurring tendency to brand the authors of Tirumurukāṟṟuppatai and the religious songs of Paripāṭal as fifth columnists who surreptitiously introduced Sanskrit Bhakti into secular Caṅkam literature. We know, however, thanks to the works of F. Hardy on The early history of Krishna devotion in South India, and a few others, that they in fact succeeded in expressing, for the first time in Tamil literature, feelings of personal devotion as linked with the temple, and with the puranic culture at the root of the Bhakti movement that was due to explode in Tamil just a few decades later, thus placing Tamil poetry in the forefront of the world’s religious lyrism. How can we be so proud of the songs of the Tēvāram trio or of the Āḻvār, which literally sang into existence, the medieval temple landscape of Tamil Nadu, as A. K. Ramanujam once put it, if we do also not admire the great poets who during the Caṅkam period itself, or immediately after, such as the author of the invocatory song of the Kalittokai, began to sing of Cevvēḷ, Murukaṉ, Tirumāl or even the Goddess Koṟṟavai? It is indeed only through their linguistic creativity and poetic achievements that a rich stock of images and symbols were made available to the great hymnologists and their devotees, for singing naturally of divine lore and love in their Dravidian mother tongue, and they must be praised for this.

5Nor can we stop there, as far as devotional literature is concerned. The doctrinal content of the Saiva Bhakti hymns is amazing to explore. But how are we to credit the poets of the Tēvāram with so much knowledge of agamic and vedic lores without remembering that this is the result of the tremendous, though often anonymous, task accomplished by those who, like Tirumūlar whose name evokes the mūlam, the fundamental agamic corpus he is supposed to have compiled, or like the lesser known Vākīca Muṉivar who wrote the Ñāṉāmirtam, have made a doctrinaire literature flourish on the faith maintained among the mass of devotees by the Tēvāram, which not only predates the texts of the Meykaṇṭa śāstra by several centuries but perhaps sometimes the hymns themselves too?

6During centuries of Saiva faith in this country, Sanskrit agamic literature might have remained the core of the doctrine, had not a process of tamilisation been at work simultaneously, amongst the obscure sectarian missionaries in the maṭam and amongst the greatest poets, thus developing a healthy bilinguism which culminated with the great saint and scholar of the 16th century, Maṟaiñāṉacampantar, who wrote a compendium of Saivism for the layman, the Civatarumōttaram, in the form of a beautiful Tamil version of an upāgama, adapted from Sanskrit but drawing from the poems of the Tēvāram only the finest literary vocabulary, suited to this type of treatise and likely to satisfy the demand of the Tamil literati. Is it exaggerating to say that it is thanks to those many centuries of nurturing the non-brahmin Tamil elite on the fold of Saiva culture, that Tamil was upgraded to be a successful substitute for Sanskrit in all the disciplines, from grammar and logic to theology and ritual, that are closely connected with this particular type of culture? Lexicographers are often lacking in historical vision, otherwise such a rich corpus of technical vocabulary would be their priority in a proper evaluation of the linguistic impact of that cultural and militant attitude. On the other hand, our vision of social history has yet to comprehend the resources of socio-linguistics properly.

7Vaishnavism was certainly not lagging behind in terms of language innovation, but there was a fundamental difference. While the Tēvāram remained poetry to be sung outside the Sanctum, the hymns of the Āḻvār were acquiring the status of a revealed religious text. For the first time in India, the current of ubhayavēdānta gave to a language other than Sanskrit equal importance with regard to religious revelation. Some American scholars, such as Patricia Y. Mumme, recently re-emphasized the socio-historical context of the two medieval schools of Vaishnavism, the "northern" and the "southern" thus leading to a better understanding and a much more positive assessment of the language known as maṇipravāḷam, which cannot be carelessly dismissed as some hybrid jargon. It was, in fact, quite an imaginative and revolutionary answer to the challenging attitude of a cosmopolitan intellectual milieu, like the one in Kanchipuram, where philosophical arguments against the tenets of other doctrines forced the inheritors of the Tamil Āḻvār to fight, using a more prestigious and universal arsenal, borrowed from Sanskrit but made more accessible locally through the linguistic device of manipravāḷam, which acted as a sort of counter-culture.

8The corpus of that "Vaishnava prose" collected by S. Rajam (1904-1986) and enlarged later by the French Institute Indology Department (and yet to be extended to Jaina commentaries and occasional Saiva glosses), far from being some kind of alienated patrimony, somewhat neglected as being foreign to the common language inheritance, establishes itself as indisputable evidence that the medieval Tamil speakers struggled to recover and reclaim some essential cultural (and not only cultural) domains which otherwise were mostly to remain the privilege of those who had learnt Sanskrit. And further, it constitutes one more untapped source of fine Tamil intellectual vocabulary, along with a treasure-house of cultural details pertaining to what must be seen as the folk culture of the period.

9While the actuality of maṇipravāḷam may not be perceived spontaneously, the Kuṟaḷ remains familiar to all of us, but only through the commentary of Parimēlaḻakar. How many of us are aware, however, that this most highly praised commentator, who belonged to the very same cultural milieu of Kanchipuram in the 13th century as our staunch Vaishnavas, has kept performing for generations of readers a wonderful trick of code-switching between the five Tamil akattiṇai of the Caṅkam literature and the theory of Bhoja's Sanskrit Śṛṅgāra prakāśa on sambhoga and vipralambha, 'enjoyment' and 'separation', respectively identified with kaḷavu and kaṟpu: all that only through the 'interface' of puṇarcci and pirivu? Such subtleties of terminology were in no way evidence of his having taken a distance from Tamil tradition. On the contrary, they were indeed intended to boost the fame of the Kāmattuppāl beyond the language barrier of Tamil, for the benefit of a new, wider, and more cosmopolitan audience. This was a real exercice in communication, perhaps not so different from what foreign Tamil scholars aim for when translating and introducing the Kuṟaḷ into their own language.

10Parimēlaḻakar's metalanguage is an invitation to study a fundamental problem of the history of Tamil grammatical tradition, the solution of which remains a crucial issue. A programme for a Grammatical Encyclopaedia of Tamil is in progress between the Centre of Indology of the French Institute in Pondicherry and a Unit of the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris dealing with the History of linguistic theories; its first output has been the thesis of Jean-Luc Chevillard, a critical study with translation and indices of Cēṉāvaraiyār's Commentary on Collatikāram. A few other monographs are under preparation; one, by Ulrike Niklas, on the portion of Vīracōḻiyam devoted to literary ornaments, develops a detailed comparison with Dandin's Kāvyādarśa and Tamil Taṇtiyalaṅkāram.

11The philosophy behind that programme is derived from the double articulation of the Tamil grammatical discourse within which the main text, the Tolkāppiyam, is accessible only through the commentarial literature it has generated. On the one hand, it remains rooted in a language and a poetic tradition derived from Caṅkam poetry, while, on the other, it receives new inseminating impulses from the pervasive prestigious Sanskrit tradition. The first direction takes us through the successive legacies of Tamil commentators and grammarians, enriching the Tamil grammatical vocabulary as well as, over the centuries, modifying some of its values and content by endless paraphrasing and reshaping. The second, which it is more difficult to identify and to measure properly, takes in from time to time a terminological influx of concepts borrowed from vyākaraṇa and also from other Sanskrit disciplines, nyāya or mīmāṃsā, if not from Jain or Buddhist schools. Borrowing is also a way towards inheritance and reclamation; thus the project does not intend to oppose two traditions which should be considered as equally legitimate, but aims only at the proper description of the succeeding coherent phases. A figure of the ideal Tamil scholar seems to emerge: a cultured person who has mastered several disciplines of Sanskrit expression and proposes, in his mother tongue, his own synthesis, as might a Frenchman, immersed in an English dominated world culture, but still deeply rooted in a history which remains his own and is still expressed in French.

12I have sketched out that historical retrospect, remembering how, yesterday, in his plenary lecture on "A new Paradigm for Tamil Development" Dr. E. Annamalai rightly deplored that " though we have a fairly good knowledge of the social history of the Tamil country we do not have knowledge of the social developments that had a bearing on language development". I also wonder, like him, why our modern lexicographers do not seem to comprehend the indigenous tradition of the nikaṇṭu. These are both formal inventories and encyclopaedic compilations, whether purely technical, in their full socio-historical dimension, or more concerned with enriching the literary vocabulary of would be readers or writers in classical Tamil. Being auxiliaries of other disciplines, the nikaṇṭu can only be evaluated within such disciplines as indicators of general trends, in which they themselves are but one element in the formal expression of a general or a specialised culture. But a proper holistic approach to their various specific vocabularies would certainly call for a more epistemological evaluation of their content and “general” lexicographers are not equiped with the necessary literary culture to do it.

13From the moment Tamil bilinguism switches from Sanskrit to the impact made by European languages, and is linked to overseas expansion, the task, paradoxically, seems to have attracted more attention, and the history and theories of Tamil lexicography can now refer to a few bibliographical works such as A. Dhamotharan's, or Gregory James'which need to be improved upon, but not duplicated.

14Keeping such material in mind as reference, I would like to make a few random remarks. My first observation concerns a peak period in the modern development of the Tamil language, in Jaffna during the second half of the 19th century. Interestingly, two attitudes were in conflict, both of them resulting in Tamil development. The first one is the specific highly technical and professional stand taken by the American Mission to create scientific linguistic tools in Tamil to impart the technological progress they believed in: dictionaries, manuals etc., from mathematics to surgery. The second is the very positive determination of Tamil traditional scholars who, like Arumuka Navalar, put all their energy into taking over, for the benefit of their native Saiva faith and culture, the entire new intellectual arsenal the foreign missionaries had built up with the intention of converting them to Christianity. A rather similar creative impulse was seen again in Jaffna when, after Independence, the Government of Sri Lanka, like the Tamil Nadu Government, started issuing, on all possible subjects, lists of newly coined technical vocabularies. These might have been received as a boon by their counterpart in Madras, had they been better known and made use of. Is it out of place today to welcome one more bold and original contribution from Lanka, that of the present Sri Lankan Tamil writers, in and outside Sri Lanka, to Tamil poetry, fiction, critical or historical essays, as one more piece of evidence of this ever creative and innovative answer of the Tamil language faced with a new cultural challenge?

15Another important observation is that, whatever may be the degree of emotion involved in the process of linguistic innovation, it does not succeed as long as it remains abstract and artificial to the users. In the thirties, every one was sharing the same dream, from the brahmin nationalists to the Dravidian Movement, from the Government of Madras to the Head of Tiruppaṉantāḷ maṭam, from Madras University to Travancore University: everybody looked on in admiration, as did the rest of Asia, including Indonesia, at Turkey where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was modernising the nation as well as its language. For the first time, romanisation of the script was seriously considered by people other than foreign missionaries.

16However, after so much enthusiasm and hot disputes, and during such a creative period in terms of literay achievements, from Putumaippittan to Mauni and La. Sa. Ramamirtham, the list of technical and scientific terms born of it which gained real currency was smaller than expected, no doubt because these terms were created in vitro without context and could hardly survive the test of actual usage: their insertion into the meaningful continuum of common parlance. Nowhere in the world, can words be coined merely to appear in alphabetical or even taxonomical order. In front of those lifeless official lists, the superiority of the ancient nikaṇṭu, though not acknowledged by modern foreign lexicographers is evident; they are laid out in the way they were used and arranged, operating over a long time within their own historico-cultural order, if only for literary purpose.

17The best counter-example is the history of Tamil musicology during the very same decade. Even the Music Academy, founded in 1928 soon started to welcome some Tamil compositions, along with Sanskrit and Telugu ones. And the College of Music, attached in 1932 to the University of Annamalai, also became more and more Tamil under pressure from Periyār. Around these, the debate over a true Tamil musical language arose; a prize was inaugurated by the Raja of Chettinad for the best Tamil manuscript to be used as a manual for the diploma course of music; the Tiruppaṉantāḷ maṭam also participated in donations, and soon publications on music started appearing. Works, not merely words, were produced, by the pioneers, Abraham Panditar and Vipulananda, followed by the dissidents, S. Ramanadan and P. Sundaresan. Before the controversial publication of Pañcamarapu, a real Tamil musical language had thus been created. On the fertile ground of a strong emotional and imaginary Tamil current, namely for the Tēvāram music, a unique phenomenon was inscribed in a theoretical Tamil framework with a Tamil technical vocabulary of its own. It is with such inner complicity on the subject between speakers and listeners that language proves innovative.

18We can offer another example, not artistic and even quite down to earth. It is not from any thick volume on the jargon of banking, such as actually exists, but only from the columns of the small pamphlets, regularly issued nowadays to initiate the small share holding layman into the intricacies of the stock exchange, that the lexicographer can pick up the Tamil vocabulary which, in that field, is quickly gaining currency today. This illustrates how the most self-interested approach is nonetheless at the same time the most effective in shifting from English to the mother tongue!

19So, a dictionary is not a list of words, it is the result and the reflection of some state of the society or of some trend of culture which may be implicitly considered as its database, wether the authors are aware of it or not. One cannot speak of a dictionary without seriously thinking about a database and it is appalling to note that only one dictionary of contemporary Tamil can claim today to have been compiled on that authority. Linguists and lexicographers, and many are present here, know of various computer programmes to deal with archives, corpus and database, how to extract words from the dailies, weekly and monthly magazines, and to compile and manipulate them easily. These are mere technical problems to be discussed in different sessions of this Conference.

20But a database is only a selection of data. Therefore, our next and major concern must be that it will always be suspected of arbitrariness and its authority will be questioned on that ground. Obviously most of the Tamil writers of the last few generations belonged to the brahmin or upper non-brahmin categories of the society; therefore, any database straightforwardly drawn from their literary production is bound to reflect this phenomenon in its outcome, through some kind of Sanskritic overload. On the contrary, any other emphasis, for example on popular magazines or on technical literatures, would affect the selection accordingly. From another angle, it is only very recently that the vast silent majority of the population made its voice perceived through some form or other: fixed written records, regional or folk-literature, or, more recently, a few not so well circulated samples of so-called Tamil Dalit literature. Further, modern devices for collecting data now make it easier to explore more thoroughly and systematically the oral resources of the media, press, radio, TV, cinema etc. As a result, both quantitative and qualitative re-evaluations of the basic Tamil contemporary vocabulary are bound to take place as we enter the 21st century. It is interesting to identify already, though tentatively, some of the new elements in the contemporary creative literature which are likely to influence the databases and hence the language, of tomorrow.

21Roughly speaking, the average consumer of literature and other media being a middle class urban reader, the most common fascination will come to him from the prestige of a superior stratum of the society or of his culture: some scientific vocabulary with a mild dose of popular English, as in the usual works of Sujata, are quite likely to please him and satisfy his curiosity for things unfamiliar to him. As well, a flavour of dialectal Tamil flatters his nostalgia for his own rural roots from which he feels alienated. First K. Rajanarayanan, then Nancil Natan, and even Pumani for connoisseurs, should be able to cater to such needs for the sake of the urban cosmopolitism of Junior Vikaṭan readers. A few echos from the cēri, conveniently aseptized by Jeyakandan, revamped by Bama, but still grammatical without forgetting the agraharam and the cinema studios of Asokamitran, and the city revisited through Balakumaran's eyes, would complete the picture. It is therefore predictable that the next contemporary dictionary will be open to a wider range of dialectal words, attentive to all the newly coined general scientific vocabulary and even indulgent to some of those sober English borrowings linked with the gadgets of everyday life and against which Tamil is helpless, or even French in France! And of course, a dictionary of idioms is long overdue, which may appear as a treasure-house, if not an archaeological museum, of many utensils, arts and occupations now lost and only remembered through some enigmatic and often misunderstood expressions which we must rescue quickly before they disappear unrecorded. This does not mean that the higher standard of the language should decrease. The same popular audience remains eager to participate in classical culture through the magic and the charismatic language of the great mass leaders of the Dravidian Movement, (leaving aside the political recuperation of Periyar's secularism by marxists today): the core of their ideological vocabulary is likely to stand.

22Another form of unfamiliarity, which implies less complicity and more sense of experimentation, and keeps a mysterious attractive substance, is translation. Here should come a hymn to the creative virtues of translation, with ample quotations from Walter Benjamin, and a lament about the lack of proper attention the problem of translation usually receives. These are commonplaces, but unfortunately still true and useful to meditate upon. You could find some of them two weeks ago, along with a powerful plea in favour of all Indian languages interacting amongst themselves, in the 12th Anniversary Special issue of The Week (25-12-94) under the name of Dr. U. R. Ananta Murthy, the latest Jnanapith winner and now President of the Sahitya Akademi. But I cannot help remembering that the very same message and proposals were strongly, vividly and humorously expressed in Tamil as early as 1981 by Sundara Ramasami in J. J.: cila kuṟippukaḷ. The relevant passage is precisely translated into English in the recent issue of the Sahitya Akademi's journal, Indian Literature, devoted to "Tamil writing today" (May-June 1994).

23While the translations and transcreations we are advocating are certainly, as Ananta Murthy wishes, "encouraging sophisticated thought in Indian languages", the problem remains that we gradually shift from lack of familiarity towards a more and more exerting alienation when, after struggling through textbooks and technical literature, we reach the avant-guardist attempts to transpose into Tamil foreign ideologies and debates which are all the more alienating in that they are not introduced through authentic integral translations but by way of summaries, adaptations or dubious interpretations. It would be only too easy to pick up examples from any small magazine, (such as Vityācam "A quarterly journal of poststructuralism/modernism in Tamil"), but it would be most unfair to forget the very positive aspect of their researches: the regular transfer of the most successful coinages from the small magazines to journals enjoying a wider circulation, like Tiṉamaṇi katir. Further, another form of extreme alienation for the reader might well be generated by some of the "Pure Tamil" publications of which the reevaluation formulated some years ago by the late K. Kailasapathy remains relevant. These most extreme steps are in any case less ambiguous for linguistic purpose than a magazine such as the Tamil version of India Today where the two idioms, English and Tamil, clash, in terms of language as well as of content, to the utmost confusion of its readers.

24As a matter of fact, language is felt to be everyone's property, and the distinction between popular and standard usage remains at stake here. It has too many implications for a clear picture to be given, while it is an important clue to evaluating a work or for selecting entries in a contemporary dictionary. Often there is no ambiguity. Naturally, when the frequency and the notoriety of a word show that it is stabilized in the language, it becomes compulsory to accept it as a standard form. For example, words which were already in existence some years ago in the administrative language, such as viṭuppu, iḻuppaṟai, kōppu, taṭṭaccu, eḻuttar, have by now definitely eliminated from the Tamil standardised prose their English equivalents, leave, drawer, file, typing, clerk (or kumāstā). But a large number of popular words are still prone to fluctuations and uncertainties, even if they seem to have acquired a wider audience than the more standardised forms. For example, if the word kaṇippoṟi is now a standard word for 'computer', its English equivalent still remains more catchy in common usage... In order to translate soft-/hard-ware, Sujata prefers to meṉ/vaṉ poruḷ, which are mere copies, uyir/mey poruḷ which pretend to appeal more to the intellect. But will Sujata also succeed in substituting for pālvīti, the accepted name of the Milky Way, a more poetic expression richer in other cultural connotations, such as ākāya kaṅkai? To end with a lighter example of the clash between "popular" and "standard", today, thanks to the charisma of one Chief Minister, the word cut out has reached the most remote villages, where no one is aware of its English origin nor cares to coin any Tamil substitute. Therefore, all sociolinguists and historians will be inclined to record it, as it is genuinely popular and offers a very good example of what has been termed the "poster culture", but will any normative dictionary ever accept it as standard Tamil?

25I can only conclude that language has a life of its own, which scholars can hardly control, but which creative writers can influence and history can shake. So, in order to promote the language or to decide about it, one must keep a close watch on these two factors. A literary sensitivity (if not the capacity to be a creative writer) and a solid background in history, (which today means social history, cultural geography, history of mentalities, etc.) must be the prerequisites to deal with the language, at least as much as the capacity to face the fast growing computerisation of traditional philology or linguistic analysis. The intellectual acumen and the cultural investment required to keep one's distance are, no doubt, enormous.

26But what is at stake is no joke either; it is the awakening and development of a more enlightened linguistic consciousness, which means more strength and more freedom to build one's future. Given the presence in the everyday Tamil landscape of "Ayyan" Tiruvalluvar and the ration card that stands as a symbol of identity, let us hope that a dictionary will also reach such a position in every family as it is a symbol of adulthood and democracy.

27This communication was delivered at the Eighth International Conference/ Seminar on Tamil Studies Plenary Session, Tamil University, Thanjavur, 4th Jan. 1995.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2009

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