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Tamil - A historical and linguistic perspective

'Tamil' is placed linguistically and ethnically in the same group as a Malayalee or a Telugu or a Kannadiga. Yet the strong linguistic and cultural identity exhibited by a Tamil has often times not been understood in a proper perspective. This is an attempt to cast some light from a historical and linguistic perspective, such that the Tamil ethos can be understood a little better. The history of the Tamils start well before 2000 Years. There are epigraphical evidences to these assertions. The history has also been documented in the works and poems of Tamil writers, not necessarily in any structured continuity. In the same time era when the North was dominated by the Mauryan and Gupta empires, and other medieval dynasties, the deep souths history was being carved by the Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava dynasties. The Pandyas and the Cheras dominating from pre christian era to about the 3rd century CE, the Pallavas from the 5th to the 8th and the Cholas between 9th and 12th century. The grandest of them all was the Chola kingdom, reaching their zenith in the 10th Century, with perhaps the first Naval fleet of any Indian king.

The Tamil kingdoms were a product of their times and was warring in nature. Yet they were great patrons of fine art and culture. Music and Dance flourished even during early Tamil Kings of the Sangam period. 'silapadikAram', written by the prince poet Ilango, in a narrower perspective, can potentially serve as an encyclopedia of then existing system of music built on 'pann' (loosely equivalent to Ragas ??), various dance forms and plethora of musical instruments. The roots of todays 'Carnatic music' and 'bharatha Natyam' can be traced to these beginnings as expounded in this great Tamil epic 'silapadikAram'. The Temple gopurams all over Tamil Nadu and the stone edifices that challenge the shores at Mamallapuram, are standing testimony to the Tamils mastery of fine artistic sculptures. The bronze works that were produced by the Cholas are national treasures now and coveted with intensity by international art community. Yet the biggest contribution of Tamil Culture, to the colorful diverse Indian heritage, is the rich linguistic traditions of the Tamil language.

Tamil is one of the two classical traditions of India, the other being Sanskrit. Tamil is the oldest living language in India. Madurai, the capital of Pandyas, is usually associated with fostering and developing the language, more than any other, due to the traditions of the Tamil Sangams (an academic gathering for the poets and the writers) that was hosted in Madurai. Although there is this tradition of three Tamil Sangams having existed in different time eras, there has been no works that has come to us from the first Tamil Sangam. The only work, if any, to have come to us from the second Tamil Sangam, which is placed just before the Christian era, is the Tamil Grammar 'tolkAppiyam'. There is another school of thought, which dates 'tolkAppiyam' around 5th to 6th century CE. The third Tamil Sangam works, which is placed around 1st to 3rd century CE, is the one that is traditionally referenced as Sangam Literature. This is a rich compilation of poems from multitude of poets, giving us a glimpse of daily life and thoughts, as it was about 2000 years ago.

The crown jewel of Tamil Literature is 'thirukuRaL', also known as the 'kuRaL', which is placed anywhere from 1st to 5th century CE. Authored by the saintly Thiruvalluvar, these are a collection of 1330 couplets, divided into three sections. 'kuRaL' can be viewed as a code of ethics, that is secular in nature. Very few works are eternal, not constrained by the world you live in and the time era that is reflected. 'kuRaL' is one such. 'kuRaL' is an eternal gem with a universal message.

Tamil has five great epics, the most famous and the first being 'silapadikAram', which is placed around 1st to 6th century CE, chronologically after 'kuRaL'. Couple of the epics are not complete, with some works having been lost in time.

It would be accurate to say that the Bhakthi Movement and the devotional spirit of the Indian psyche was inspired by the 63 Nayanmar saints and the 12 Azhvar saints of Tamil land, who lived from 6th to 11th century CE. These are the saints who gave us 'thEvAram', 'thiruvAsagam' and 'diviyaprabandam'.

Tamils have their own rendering of 'ramAyanam' by 'kampan' of 12th century CE and of 'mahAbhAratham'. Tamil 'ramAyanam' is known for its sheer poetic beauty. There have been some europeans who have contributed to the richness of Tamil literature. The most famous among them being a christian missionary who gave us 'thEmbAvani'. Finally the pre-modern era has given us saint Ramalingars 'thiruarutpA', Bharathiyars nationalistic poems and Bharathidasans song with a social conscience.

Even with all these treasures ingrained in it, Tamil richness is barely recognised outside its sphere of usage. With this rich heritage, a Tamil is eager to contribute to the kaleidoscope that is India and share with the world community that is a just a global village.

Tamil speakers make up the majority of the population of Tamil Nadu state and also inhabit parts of Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh states, all situated in the southernmost third of India. Emigrant Tamil may be found in some parts of the Malagasy Republic, the Malay Peninsula, Myanmar (Burma), Indochina, Thailand, eastern Africa, South Africa, the Fiji and Mauritius islands, and the West Indies.

The Tamil area in India is a centre of traditional Hinduism. Tamil schools of personal religious devotion (bhakti) have long been important in Hinduism, being enshrined in a literature dating back to the 6th century AD. Buddhism and Jainism were widespread among the Tamil in the early Christian era, and these religions' literatures predate the early bhakti literature in the Tamil area. Although the present-day Tamil are mostly Hindus, there are Christians, Muslims, and Jains among them. In the recent past, the Tamil area was also the home of the Dravidian movement that calls for the desanskritization and debrahmanization of

Tamil culture, language, and literature.

The Tamil have a long history of achievement; sea travel, city life, and commerce seem to have developed early among them. Tamil trade with the ancient Greeks and Romans is verified by literary, linguistic, and archaeological evidence. The Tamil have the oldest cultivated Dravidian language, and their rich literary tradition extends back to the early Christian era.

The Chera, Chola, Pandya, and Pallava dynasties ruled over the Tamil area before the Vijayanagar empire extended its hegemony in the 14th century, and these earlier dynasties produced many great kingdoms. Under them the Tamil people built great temples, irrigation tanks, dams, and roads, and they played an important role in the transmission of Indian culture to Southeast Asia.

The Chola, for example, were known for their naval power and brought the Malay kingdom of Sri Vijaya under their suzerainty in AD 1025. Though the Tamil area was integrated culturally with the rest of India for a long time, politically it was for most of the time a separate entity until the advent of British rule in India.

Tamil, language spoken by tamilians, inhabitants of Tamil Nadu. Tamil is among the four oldest languages in the world apart from Greek, Latin, and Sanscrit. Founder of the language Sage Agasthiya came down to Earth to spread this beautiful language, on the request of Lord Shiva. He wrote first Tamil grammar book Agathiyam. It was the first grammar book written for any language in the world. Unfortunately, no copy of this book is known to exist now. The version written by Agasthiya's disciple, Tholkaapiyar, nearly 5000 years ago, still exists, and is accepted as the oldest grammar book in any language. This book is called Tholkaapiyam, after its author. Thirukkural a tamil book on philosophy and life in general, was written by Thiruvalluvar, a sage and philosopher, about 2000 years ago. It is one of the greatest and most succinct books ever written, by popular and critical opinion. After Bible, the Thirukkural is the book which has been translated into the most number of languages.

Tamil grammar has remained the same, probably for 3000 yrs, maybe more. (Also, many of the words that were used a long time ago are still used today, making Tamil a living ancient language. Tamil is still spoken the same way it was spoken a long time ago. I don't think any other language can claim that. Not Chinese, not Latin, not Sanskrit, not Greek, not Hebrew.)

Tamil is a major member of the Dravidian family of languages, which, in terms of their recorded history at least, are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent -though affinities with languages spoken elsewhere have, with some degree of plausibility, been suggested. In modern times, Dravidian speakers are concentrated in the four southernmost states of India - Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu - though there are significant pockets of Dravidian speech as far north as Bihar (Malto), Nepal (Kurux) and Pakistan (Brahui). Second to Telugu with respect to its number of speakers, Tamil is of particular importance as being the member of the group with the longest continuous written history, the earliest extant literature belonging to the beginning of the Christian era or earlier, and as being in certain respects the most typically Dravidian, in that with respect to historical change both autonomous and through contact situations Tamil can be shown to be more conservative than any genetically related language.

Dialectical Conventions

There exist slight regional differences in the spoken Tamil of the people living in various parts of the Tamil country. In the nineteenth century, in the absence of transport facilities, dailectical differences would have been more pronounced than it is now. Now they are on the decline because of increased transport and educational facilities. Besides mass-media, such as daily newspapers, journals, radio and television are also contributing factors. However, there are some differences between the Tamil spoken at Tirunelveli and Coimbature. These two dialects differ distinctly from the Tamil spoken in Thanjavur and Tiruchirappalli. The Tamil spoken in the city of Madras on the other hand differs from all of them, because of the liberal borrowing of words from Telugu, Urdu and English languages.

Similar differences exist in the phonetics also. The vowel consonant ca ( ) is distinctly pronounced in Tirunelveli, whereas in the northern part of Tamil Nadu it is pronounced as sa ( ) at the beginning of words. The letter za (), which is unique to the Tamil language is pronounced differently from one district to another. In the southern districts it is pronounced as la ( ), in Salem as ya ( ) and in the city of Madras it is pronounced in both the ways. The verb izu () is pronounced as icu ( ). In spoken language vaazaippazam (š ) is pronounced to the detestation of scholars as vaaLappaLam (š) and Vaayappayam (š). Certain classes of people pronounce the verb irukkiratu (츢) as irukku (). Others pronounce it is irukkutu () and the illiterates as kiitu (). The verb ceytuvittaar (|Ţ*, has done it) is pronounced in spoken language as ceynjiTTaar, cenjiTTaar and cenjipuTTaar (|*, |ﺢ*, |ﺢ*). Likewise the verb eTuttukkoNtan (|*, has taken it) is pronounced as etuttukkinan, etuttukNan, and etuttukkittan (츢ɡ, ɡ, 츢*).

Some words have altogether a different meaning in the Tamil used in Sri Lanka. The known meaning for the word aRutalaka (*ġ) is comforting. But in Sri Lanka 'calmly' and 'leisurely (amaitiyaaka and kaalataamatamaaka) (*¡, **). The Tamils in Sri Lanka use the word kataippOm (*) instead of pecikkoNTirappOm (|) which means 'will be talking'. Likewise they use caTanku (*, rituals) for tirumaNam (**, marriage); kaNakka (*측, heavy or weightly) for niRaiya (, full); vaTivaai(š, beautiful) for nanRaaka (ȡ, better or well); and kantOr (*, office) for aluvalakarn (ĸ, office).

Foreign Loan Words in Tamil

Words borrowed from English are phonetically changed and used as such in Sri Lanka. For example pan (bun) is written as pan (); kappi (coffee) as koppi (), kOrt (court) as kot (); Sart (shirt) as set (|), taarc (torch) as rOc and taval (towel) as tuvaai. Likewise many Tamil words are phonetically changed and used as such in spoken and written Tarnil of Sri Lanka.

English and Hindi words are used in spoken Tamil of the people who live in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu. Such loan words are not phonetically changed but written in the same way as they are pronounced in the concerned languages. For example such words as bus, cycle, car, office, late, post, bank, and coffee (pas/S , caikkil/츢, kaar/, apis/S, let/, post/S, pank/ and kaappi/ respectively) are written in Tamil characters in the manner they are pronounced in English. Script writers, novelists and short story writers use these Tamilised forms in their writings. Some of them use such loan words frequently in their writings,.while others use them only when their Tamil equivalents are non-existent. Although in spokon Tamil such English words as leave, stamp, rail, station and telephone are commonly used, in written Tamil their equivalents vitumuRai (ŢӨ), tapaaltalai(**), pukaivaNTi nilaiyam (Ҩ ) and tolaipEci (|*ħ) respectively are used. Some Urdu words like calam and capacu found place in the devotional poems of saints Arunakirintar and Kumarakuruparar, who lived in the seventeenth century. As a result of North Indian's contact some words from the Hindi language are used in the present-day spoken Tamil. For the same reason many sweets prepared in hotels of Tamil Nadu bear Hindi names.

From time immemorial a few Sanskrit words had been intermixed with Tamil. Prior to the second century A.D., and during the Cankam period only one per cent of Sanskrit words intermingled with Tamil. This increased to three to five per cent in the devotional songs of Alvars and Naayanmaars who lived in the seventh and eighth centuries respectively. During the period of the epics also the intermixing of Sanskrit words with Tamil continued to increase. It reached its high water mark in the thirteenth century when the maNippravaala style became popular. As a result the number of Sanskrit loan words increased phenomenally in the religious prose works of the Jains and the Vaisnavites. But the commentators of grammatical and literary works wrote in chaste Tamil with the least number of Sanskrit loan words. As a result the maNippravaala style fell into disuse. However in the Puranas, Talapuraanas, Ulaas and Kalambakams the percentage of Sanskrit loan words continued to remain at five to eight per cent. In the subsequent centuries the frequency increased with the advent of certain new types of versifications like yarnakam, ciletai and matakku. They, however, became obsolete in course of time. Most of the devotional songs of Raamalinka Cuvaamikal contain very few Sanskrit loan words. Their percentage is very high in his prose work. Certain new usages peculiar to the Christians found their place in the Bible. A new translation of the Bible in chaste Tamil is now available. Certain Arabic words were frequently used by Muslim writers in their works. Even today stories written on Muslim families contain some words of Arabic origin. Stories about anglicized families or families living in metropolitan cities contain many words from English to reflect the spirit of their spoken Tamil as well as to give realism to the story. Though foreign loan words were used in Tamil in lesser or greater degree for various reasons and at different periods of time, the Tamil language itself retained its individuality. It can be said that among the living languages of India, it is the Tamil language which has the least number of foreign loan words.

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