Tamil: Its Assets & Current Needs
Dr. R. Jegannath
"...Interestingly, the Tamil word for vowels,
Uyir means life, and the word for consonants, Mey means both body and
reality. Neither life nor body can exist without the other. .."
1. Tamil is a more logical language than most other languages.
a) there is no arbitrary assignment of gender to inanimate things as in
Latin, French or the Sanskrit-based languages. Just imagine having to memorize
whether a stone or a book is masculine or feminine!
b) declination of verbs: the verb-ending in Tamil depends on the number,
gender and person, invariably. The middle depends on the tense. In most other
languages there are too many categories of verb-endings, which one simply has to
memorize. (English, of course, has hardly a method to its madness in this matter
and rightly dubbed as one of the most illogical of languages by Bernard Shaw)
c) all case- endings follow similar sets of rules; eg: when the word is only
two-letters-long and starts with a short letter, it inserts a vowel or doubles
the consonant in all case- endings, so that the identity of the word is not
lost. Eg: Avan becomes avanai or avanaal, but Kan, instead of becoming
kanai or kanaal, becomes kannai or kannaal
d) common alteration of vowels and consonants leads to an ease of production
by the vocal apparatus and to a euphonic sound. Consonant clusters such as seen
in the Scandinavian languages are clumsy and call for a bit of gymnastics by the
vocal apparatus. The Japanese language is very particular about this, always
alternating the vowels and the consonants. Even when it borrows words from other
languages, it naturalizes them suitably: eg. Pikkunikku (the cn calls for an
awkward jump), domokurashy .
Tamil too generally does this, avoiding the gymnastics of Prakriti,
naturalizing it into Pirakiruti.
Interestingly, the Tamil word for vowels, Uyir means life, and the word
for consonants, Mey means both body and reality. Neither life nor body can exist
without the other.
Uyir by itself, such as aeoui, will be all ethereal, with no solidity, while
consonant clusters such as brkjtp will be all hard and lifeless as stones
without the enlivening vowels. So the logical need for their alternation.
e) not ending a word with a plosive consonant (like k,ch,t,p etc) which would
entail the effort of a sudden break .and stiffness. (Even languages which allow
it often add a vowel at the end while singing, which promotes relaxation: Dost
dost na raha becomes Dostu dostu na raha)
f) avoiding insertion of plosive sounds in the middle of a word _ for
instance, the normal tendency of the language will be to pronounce ê as Sedhu
rather than as Sethu.
Nasal consonants are followed by the corresponding consonant that originates
at the same location in the vocal apparatus: nga (back of the throat –
guttural), nja (palatal), nda (tongue bent on palate), mba (bilabial-both lips)
and so on, again generally avoiding the need for vocal gymnastics. (These four
tendencies of the language given in d, e, f and g give the euphonic sound to
g) Tamil has perhaps the most extensive, scientific and intricate system of
prosody. While the Sanskrit prosody is much more extensive and intricate than
that of English, it pales in comparison to that of Tamil.
2. In spite of being spoken by a whole race of people including the illiterate
among them, Tamil has maintained such a continuity and uniformity that
literature written 2000 years ago can be understood by the educated readers of
the present. This is unusual.
Languages spoken by the common man generally undergo a great deal of change
from region to region and with the passage of time. For instance, English
changed so much in a thousand years that the works such as those of Chaucer's
need to be almost rewritten in order to be understood by the readers of today.
This is not applicable to Latin and Sanskrit, since they have always been
languages of the court and scholars only and not of daily usage by the people.
In this respect, Tamil has managed to keep the cake and eat it too, by keeping
the written form unchanged while the spoken has been changing with time, and in
addition has variations based on region and community. The result is a spoken
language markedly distinct from the written. This is a source of great trouble
for non-Tamils who wish to learn to speak and read Tamil, but can be overcome by
learning the written form and then the general lines and principles on which it
is distorted when spoken. However, the aforesaid great advantage remains,
namely, the written form does not change too much with time.
3. The great difficulty faced by those who do most of their learning through the
medium of Tamil is the difficulty in consistently representing certain
alien sounds in Tamil. It is not unusual to hear some of them say Bagisdhan for
Pakisthan or gaali when they actually want to say kaali (empty), a word
naturalized into Tamil.
The unfortunate thing is that to use B or G at the beginning of a word is
entirely alien to the Tamil language, yet many Tamils whose learning of these
words is through the medium of Tamil, make such errors because of confusion. The
word Pakisthan illustrates their plight: written in Tamil, the first consonant
could be B or P, the second G or K, and the third Th or Dh, leading to eight
possibilities in pronouncing the word written in Tamil.
When our Tamil medium students need to communicate with those of other
languages in later life, they frequently encounter such pitfalls as Bagisdhan
for Pakisthan. Thus, they are exposed to ridicule by others and lose all self-
confidence and start getting a feeling that their language is in some way
In this age when we are constantly in contact with matters pertaining to the
whole world, if we do not address this great difficulty, those who learn in
Tamil medium will face a great disadvantage. In due course of time, when the
Tamil parents realize this, they will not want to send their children to Tamil
medium schools; the language will languish. That would be a pity, since Tamil is
such a wonderful language and can be practically effective in the present world
too if it overcomes this limitation.
A simple scheme and some guidelines are proposed in this connection and I
hope that it will lead to a wider discussion and action in this matter. (sorry,
not yet written down)
4. The representation of Tamil through the English alphabet:
It can be shown that the representation naturally followed by a Tamil is
logically superior to that followed by the Sanskrit based languages, which were
obliged to adopt that scheme because of the aspirant sounds in their alphabet (kha,
chha, pha etc}.
Writing Geetha is certainly more logical than Gita or Geeta, from the point
of view of English and Tamil, and to a large extent, even from the point of view
of Sanskrit. The current scheme was proposed for Sanskrit, probably by the
missionaries, with a view to accommodating the aspirant letters even there they
woukd have done better to keep t for ì and th for î .
The current scheme is not in accordance with the natural sound pattern of
Tamil, or English and is not the best even from the Sanskrit point of view. The
Sanskrit-based languages use the same letter, t for two different vargas or
categories, namely, for î and for ì. In any case, the representation th as in
think gives a sound more akin to î than does the letter t.
The Tamilians' writing of words such as Dhivya, Dheepak, Ajith, Sumathi, Thaj
is thought by many North-Indians to be owing to ignorance, but it is they who
need to be enlightened. Unfortunately we have accepted the representation handed
to us by those who formulated it for Sanskrit and continue to write Tamil
instead of Thamil; is it too late to do anything about it?
5. We Tamils need to have a clear understanding of the way our language
works. Most of us go about it instinctively, but at times, it leads to avoidable
a) At the beginning of a word the hard consonants are always
hard, unless it is a word from another language that starts with a soft sound
and is not yet fully naturalized into Tamil: thittam (plan) should not be
pronounced as dhittam, nor kudhirai as gudhirai since they are original Tamil
words. While gunam or bayam may be pronounced as such, since it is from the
Sanskrit word of that sound and has not yet fully naturalized into kunam or
b) When we represent Tamil words in English, the Tamil rules of sound must be
respected. For instance, the letters க, த, ட, unless
preceded by a வல்லினம் மெய், is always pronouned as ga,
dha or da and not as ka, tha or ta. So புதிய, செந்தில், மகன்
should always be pudhiya, sendhil, and magan and not puthiya, senthil or makan.
One will not hear them normally spoken thus, and the sound of the word must be
represented, not that of each letter.
c) The choice between நand
ன shuld be clear. ந is used at the
beginning of a word and ன at other places. There are 2
i) with the combination of ந்த, ந்து etc.
(ii) when a word starting with ந takes a prefix
to supplement or reverse or modify its meaning. In these cases, either
ந or ன may be used, ie. either
following the original rule or indicating the root of the word. Therefore, we
may write அநீதி or அனீதி,
விநாயகர் or வினாயகர், அந்நியன்
or அன்னியன் (This is from Sanskrit, niyam meaning self, or
one's own, anniyan being the antonym.). There is a recent trend to write
இயக்குநர், ஓட்டுநர் etc., instead of
இயக்குனர், ஓட்டுனர். The tendency should be discouraged.
6. A living language must change and grow in order to survive and thrive, or
else it will lose usage and become extinct. Why is it that such a logical,
euphonic, ancient yet living language with a rich literature is today facing the
ignominy of the elite of its own people preferring to educate their children
through an alien medium? This is not so in Japan, Russia, Germany or China.
The primary reasons are two.
i) The difficulty of articulating alien sounds as outlined above. Though
Tamil in itself may be able to express most concepts without the aid of other
languages, in the present world, it is increasingly necessary to communicate
with people of other languages, and consistent representations of sounds unusual
to Tamil is an inevitable necessity.
This is easily attainable; we need a discussion on this to arrive at the most
practical solutions. Tamil can weather these minor modifications and take them
in its stride. The changes introduced into the Tamil script by the European
missionaries have not jeopardized the language in any way; nor have the changes
introduced by Periyaar to achieve unifornity in the representation of lai, nai,
naa, raa etc.
ii) Coining of new words as necessary. Here a few points are worth keeping in
a) If there is an existing Tamil word that would be naturally suitable for a
new concept, we should jump at it and use it.
b) If there are naturalized substitutes from other languages already
established in common use, they should be readily accepted as a part of the
language, without any qualms such as those felt by Thanithamil Iyakkamists.
Tamil has the capacity to absorb, digest and assimilate them all without being
lost in them. (Such willingness and flexibility is the only reason why a
comparatively primitive language that English was a thousand years ago, has now
become a very rich language.)
c) while coining new words, we need not always follow the line on which the
original word was coined; if an innovative, short, apt Tamilic form can be
coined, that would be more acceptable even if it is not a literal translation of
the word but represents the object better.
d) no need to make lengthy explanatory descriptions instead of new words
because of the fear that people may not understand what thy stand for. No need
to underestimate people, they are capable of arrving at the right target in due
course of time, quicker than we think, if the coinage is apt.
மென்பொருள், வலையம், கணினி are some beautiful examples.