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Mdeii Life - Anand Krishnamoorthi's blog

Monday, July 05, 2004

Unhealthy Linguistic Rivalry

I have always thought that academic rivalries are good for developing scholarly insights, but when you bring in chauvinists into the picture, things turn sour. I am a native Tamil speaker and for various reasons am proud of my language. I was also born in Karnataka, and most people from my mother�s side of the family speak fluent Kannada. Cauvery+ have been such huge headaches these days, that it is unwise to continue any academic debate on this topic as loud parochialisms can take over reasonable moderation, eventually detracting from the truth.

I do not want to judge anything, but from what I know of Tamil literature, Sanskrit literature, spoken Tamil and spoken Kannada, I have come to some understanding (however prejudiced, uninformed or unwise). Classical written Tamil has a large non-Sanskrit vocabulary that is offered as an alternative to the currently heavily Sanskritised versions. (At least the one I speak in Sanskritised to a good extant). But the level of Sanskritisation I find in currently spoken Kannada is equal if not greater.

To say that Tamil (as it is currently classicised, and spoken) alone is the inheritor of a great Dravidian linguistic heritage would not be that convincing a statement either. All the sources of Tamil/South Indian history that I have access to, are in someway related to the Dravidian politics of the past so many decades. Despite Dravidam, being a rather inclusive (only as far as South India is concerned) philosophy, Tamil chauvinism and hegemonial intentions are undeniably and ironically linked to it.

Tamil chauvinism was initially directed against Hindi and thereby at anything north-Indian and related to Sanskrit. The political ideologies associated with it included among other things rationalism, atheism, and left-wing anti-upper caste ideologies. In an interesting conversation I had with a friend in Loyola, I was called a north-Indian simply because I was a Brahmin and my brand of Tamil was impure and Sanskritised. I have always thought that I was a South Indian. But is South Indian equal to Dravidian? Then, I have always thought that I was Dravidian because I speak what I was told is a Dravidian language. The whole South Indian / Dravidian identity issue seems to be too complex and reminds me of a Tamil platitude that goes UzhakkukkuLLa kizhakku MeeRku

The Tamil I am used to, just like the Kannada I am used to, can hardly be called classical. (In another debate, I can argue about how there is more pure Sanskrit in later South Indian languages that in it so-called offshoots in North India.) All I can say now is that I am proud of being Tamil simply for the things that I see in it, and its literature and history. I might even be referring to an impure Tamil and impure history and literature. If there is an unsullied form of a Dravidian language, then it must be classical; but can it be called Tamil? As far as the current status of the South Indian languages are concerned, none of them can be seen as purely Dravidian. Now, is the classical language status accorded to one that is most Dravidian and consequently least Sanskritised? Or is it given on the merits of literature and body of work? Someone with a better understanding can give a better answer. But are there any non-chauvinistic scholars?

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Comments to Unhealthy Linguistic Rivalry

hey mdeii. i am still in assam. when you leaving?!!
and the whole blog looks smokin'!
though whose the ugly bloke in the background?

posted by Blogger v 

12:27 pm, July 06, 2004

Dear Anand...your fears as to whether there are any balanced views on this issue of Kannada and Tamil languages being accorded classical status, in particular and relations between the 2 people, in general, are very well founded. This is a complex issue and fraught with tension. If its not handled carefully and solved amicably, it could lead to well entrenched prejudices between the two people. A pity, really. God knows we call ourselves Tamilian/Kannadiga etc not realising we are Indians, first and foremost. So much for 'Thai Manne Vannakkam'! As you might be aware, I'm a Tamilian from Bangalore and have just landed here on account of my job being transferred. Everyone knows there is a sizeable Tamilian population in Bangalore. By and large, relations between the Tamilians and Kannadigas are fraught with mistrust and underlying hatred. Partly, historical reasons can be attributed. One of them being that Tamilians insist that Bangalore is what it is now because of a large-scale migration into Bangalore during the early & mid 1900's, particularly, when PSU's were established. Kannadigas, by nature being gentle and peaceful, resent Tamilians as more aggressive, domineering, given to loud mouthing, disrespectful of local customs and incapable of adapting to local traditions and language (partly true - look at the anger that Hindi, as a language, evokes here). What's my personal take on this? We in Tamil Nadu have to show more growth, development and progress in Chennai as our capital city & the common man in TN before we start chest thumping! And look at the level to which politicians stoop themselves to. I refer to 'prostrates' before Amma and Karunidhi being treated the way he was! As they say, actions & results can speak louder than words! Ravi @

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

9:11 pm, July 07, 2004

IMHO, a Language has two uses, 1) to communicate (to speak, to write & to read) & 2) Poetry.
Beyond those, anything is a selfish propaganda in the name of the Language, they claim to glorify.

- hemanth

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

3:12 am, July 08, 2004

Your understanding is really not prejudiced or uniformed. Tamil is independent of Sanskrit. They both existed at the same time.
I don't understand what you mean by "currently heavily Sanskritised versions". Agreed, current Tamil has few words of Sanskrit origin, but no way "heavily sanskritised".
"tamizhan endru sollada!
thalai nimirnthu nillada!"

posted by Blogger kvman 

10:49 am, July 16, 2004

Hi Manjunath,
I refer to the Tamil that I speak, which is heavily Sanskritised. Of coure, as you say there is absolutely no denying that the Dravidian group of languages evolved independent of Sanskrit. But what I am not too pleased about is a blind belief in many unsubstantiated claims that blur the truth.

posted by Blogger Anand 

3:57 pm, July 16, 2004

Are you a literature student?There is no matter in a language war.A language represents the people who lives by it.I am no indicating writers; but those who express their needs through language.They are the authority to tell about it.
how is current literature in tamil?
Have you something read in nowadays?
what is beyond Charu nivedita?

posted by Blogger viju02ap 

12:55 pm, July 17, 2004

Does a language have to be free of external influences to e classical? Both Sanskrit and Latin contain borrowings from Proto-Dravidian and Greek respectively.

I think a classical language is any language in which there is a sufficient depth of vocabulary to create a literary classic. By such a definition, most Indian languages would qualify.

posted by Blogger Kingsley 

3:31 am, July 20, 2004

There is one other perception which can be employed to understand langauge. And that is it's function as a cultural or sub-cultural indicator. This is reason enough to indicate the prevalence of the multivarious dilects in Tamil and even in hindi. When looked upon as a cultural indicator, we will not give in to the naive arguments of isolating political ideologies from langauge. There simply cannot be a pedigree language which is immune to cultural or political ideologies. For, like culture, langauge is susceptible to evolve and take the shape of the existent social/civic institutions which use it to define themselves. Therefore the Tamil I speak is ofcourse different from the tamil spoken to me by my milkman or an auto rickshaw man.

My point is: These are but reverberations mirroring inequalities amidst the different strata existent in society. And what is classic literature anyway? Again indicators of the culture and institiutions existent in the writer's imagined world, which most often than not imitates the real world that he lives in. If not, then the modes of behavior between the players will at least bear testiment to the times of the writer's day. What about all of the classic literature that has been erased or censored because they were considered too incitful? And who classifies what as classic literature? On the basis of what fucntion? Shoudl it be catered to the masses or the elite intellectuals?

Americans hold "english" (the lang) very precious, as part of their unique past and history. Literary classics authored by the english (the people) will most often be juxtaposed (in the academic context) by other great American stalwarts. Even today, certain british phrases are almost Taboo in American rhetoric. Yet, in certain british circles there is an obvious superority complex regarding the birth place of the language. English therefore witnesses a reincarnation in America and although related, reinvents itself to the American context.

Similary the Turkish language which was characterized by the arabic script in order to cater to the almost 100% muslim population was revamped completely in the early 1920s. Islam was ignorantly regarded as synonymous to social and economic retardation. In an effort to valiadate this, the then political elite ordered the turkish langauge to be re-written using the phonetic alphabet (as used by the english language. When this happenend, the langauge lost some of its classics and in one day the whole nation was rendered illiterate! Ofcourse, as time passed the language reinvented itself in accordance with the institutions which gradually began to define it.

I guess what Iam saying is: The dravidian argument about the Tamil language seems but pretentious when one cares to look at the social stratification theories that have been swept under the rug of language for sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo long! This because, more than anything, language is a cultural indicator. Therefore by itself it cannot cater much towards "sour" arguments. Most often, it is what it stands for or the group of people that define it, or imagine ownership of the same.

posted by Blogger Mitochondria 

1:17 am, July 22, 2004

Mitochondria: Very interesting observation for a complex protein. :p
What you say is absolutely true, subject to my complete and proper understading of what you've written; and from what I have understood, I agree with the argument about good literature being whatever was spared from the flames, or whatever pleased the powers that were. This is true in the context of a single language and its people.
However, if you take the overall Indian context, Tamil itself takes on a subaltern role. When you take the dominant ideology, linguistic/hegemonial identity of India as being North-Indian, Sanskirt, Aryan, etc (though, as many would say, these are man-made, artificial divisions), anything Tamil, Dravidian etc is in the larger scheme of things, a hitherto unrepresented or underrepresented linguistic/cultural heritage.
This also takes significance when put in the context of recent Tamil political history where there has been a deliberate attempt to identify Tamil and Dravidian as non-Sanskrit. While this is fundamental in providing the "unique identity" (that Ataturk took away from Turkish), on the filpside, this can also go into a denial of any cross-cultural, para-cultural links. So much like communism, in opposing a dogma, another one is created in its place.
This is in the context of Dravidian vs Aryan (entirely arbitrary names) cultural linguistic conflict.
But, as I infer from your points, there are also those intra-linguistic conflicts that create dominant ideas and supressed ideas within one linguistic group. If one were to consider either a Darwinian or a Dialectic arangement in such a situation, one thing that is acknowledged is the sheer inevitability of dominance and hegemony of one group over another.
This being the case, for the sake of the so very cherished notions of justice and democracy, it is convenient, if not justified to selectively alter our range of view to see and encourage the underdog in the larger Indian context.
Smphrewzxt!.. this makes more sense!

posted by Blogger Anand 

11:56 pm, July 22, 2004

Anand: In my opinion, both under-dog and Hegemony are contextually relative terms. In Sri Lanka, (Dravidian) Tamil is a hegemonic factor within the context of the existing Sri Lankan Tamil population who are (as you cared to put it) a subaltern genre yearning for independent linguistic identity. The case exists even among the Hispanic and Spanish peoples in America where in the former Spanish speaking people demand an independent recognition within the larger gamut of the Spanish speaking countries in the world. They are therefore careful before integrating Spanish classics into their own history and traditions, lest it serves in the dilution of their unique identities. What�s more? A simple thing as a dialect can bear testimony to intra-linguistic rivalries. Delhiites disdainfully regard the hindi spoken in Bombay to be tainted with local marati dilects, sometimes endangering social integration.

The following explanation may not simplify an issue as complex and encrusted as the Dravidian argument, but a professor of mine simplified the variables crucial in deciphering some of it at least:

The sanskritization of the Tamil language was initiated with the Brahmins (case also holds good for Madhwa, Namboodhiri and Telugu brahmins) who integrated a Sanskrit vocabulary into daily parlance. This was the natural sequence of events where (according to traditional Jajmani systems) brahmins took pride in internalizing sanskrit scriptures and transmitting them to subsequent generations. As you may already be aware, intermingling of spoken tongues lead to a hierarchical discrimination of the language. Naturally, the Brahmins (Aryan descendents) regarded their dialects to be superior because of its association with the language of the gods; in other words Sanskrit. This in turn created a counter-defensive wave among the other castes who in an attempt to intricately concretize their identities with the Tamil language, revisited (not concocted) Dravidian theories which gave them a firm standing upon which to base their ancestral legacies. This gave rise to the severing of dravidian and brahmin identities. Now it is necessary to accept that as far as ancestry is concerned, according to vox-populi, pedigree is always superior to hybrid. This is why even now several Brahmin families (and strictly adherent caste members) shy away from exogamous marriages. I personally know Brahmins who are comfortable with marrying Telugu,Kannada or north Indian Brahmins rather than wed a tamilian belonging to another caste.

Arguing inversely, it is only natural that Dravidian-tamil-activists should regard Tamil Brahmins with hybridized dialects as outcasts. A variation of this argument could also illumine the common perception of Tamil in the Indian context. I don�t know if I would go as far as regarding Tamil as an underdog, as much as maybe bunching all of the major south Indian languages as bearing the brunt of the same negligent attitude. In my opinion this originates from the individual, almost independent reign of south Indian kingdoms years before the Mughal invasion and to a certain extent even after their arrival. It was almost as if it was a subcontinent within the subcontinent�A progressive attempt to integrate these factions into the mainland created several political ideologies, one of which is linguistic superiority.

So, coming full circle, I don�t really know if it is �justified to encourage an underdog in the larger Indian context� as the term itself is so elusive that it evades a unilateral understanding. My Nagamese friend, a stalwart in naga literature cries for recognition and public appreciation of her beautiful language, which in her opinion is hidden amidst clouds of obscurity to serve certain political causes. However, one thing for certain: we didn�t start this fire�it is always burning since the world�s been churning�.

posted by Blogger Mitochondria 

1:55 am, July 23, 2004

Mitochondria: I have to mostly agree with you on that argument. However, we can also go on and on about it and keep the fire burning.

posted by Blogger Anand 

11:35 pm, July 23, 2004

Anand: How do you say Tamil is also heavily sanskritized. any examples?. I am not to say that what is spoken now is what was spoken 2000 years ago. but it is still more close to that day. take thirukural for e.g., I guess every one would agree it is 2000 years old.
"karka kasdara kattravai kattrapin
nirka atharku thaga"

karka(learn) kasadu(impure) ara (without, e.g., aravae olikka vaendum) kattravai (learned) kattrapin ( after learned ) nirka (stand) atharkku (for that) thaga (thaguntha maathiri)

in the above kural, all the words are still in common use.

I can give so many examples of old poems, how it can be still understood.

and also pls be aware that what ever brahmins speak is not sanskrtized. in fact I have noted many words spoken by brahmin sect are more pure tamil. e.g., aathula means agathu ullae ( other tamilians call it as veedu, which is sanskrit ?!?! ) ... brahmins call milk sweet as thiratu pal ( thiratiya paal ) others call it as pal kova ( hindi ?!?! ).

just my 10 cents. pls correct me, if you guys any thing wrong with my ideas/facts.

I agree current tamil works are inferior to kannada or malayalam in South India (only racer I know of, we have is Charu Nivedita). I think the post by prof George Hart makes a reasonable argument.

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

8:39 am, January 20, 2006

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