Streams of Language:
Dialects in Tamil
This volume is the outcome, independent, extended and enlarged, of an international conference, “Dialects in Tamil” held on August 23-25th 2006 at the French Institute of Pondicherry.
“Dialects in Tamil emerge from a configuration of the following elements shared by people: caste, region, landscape and the material culture which sustains them...
This book is arranged in sections with the idea that rays of light from different fields will fall on the single subject before us. The order in which the sections are arranged indicates how the problematic of dialects in Tamil has been addressed in different contexts (from international scholars to linguists to Tamil creative writers). This arrangement also underlines the holistic, multidisciplinary approach undertaken in this volume. Tamil papers contain English abstracts and vice versa, so that both Tamil and English readers can benefit from the volume.
The book unfolds like a Chinese fan into a series of dialogues emerging between the papers and between the sections: between a French scholar and an Italian scholar, Francois Gros and Alberto D. Formal; between a comparative philologist and an Historian, Herman Tieken and Iravatham Mahadeven; between a linguist and an epigraphist, Velupillai and Y. Subbarayalu, B. Gopinathan Nair and M.R. raghava Varier; between a modern grammarian and a traditional Tamil Pulavar, Jean – Luc Chevillard and T.V. Gopal Iyer; between an anthropologist and an expert in manuscripts, S. Bhakthavatsala Bharathi and Jayadheer Tirumala Rao; between a lexicographer and some modern Tamil writers, P.R. Subramanian and Perumal Murugan, Kanmani Gunasekaran; and between non Dalit and Dalit writers, Perumal Murugan, Kanmani Gunasekaran and Alakiya Periyavan, Imaiyam, to mention only some. We also have the lone voice of a contemporary historian of practices, Senthil Babu questioning the obsession of Tamil culture with language in every field.
It is our hope that the reader will hear these voices and their dialogues as a polyphony evoking the fluidity of the dialects in Tamil and this volume will serve as a position paper. At present we see Tamil as an expending- the Tamil Diaspora, its activities on the net, digitization of all kinds of Tamil, new forms of Tamil arising from the technical, technological fields – and contracting – the ever pervasive influence of English, stereotypes and clichés masquerading as authenticity and “nativity” from ever increasing SMS messages, FM radio stations and satellite TV channels, rapidly disappearing landscapes, ecosystems and material culture which created and sustained the dialects and their variations due to urbanization and development – universe, where we float around the islands in the deep rivers of language which structure us from inside outwards, and the reverse, with a hope that words of this volume will rise (see the poem by Piramil that opens the book) and navigate the streams of the living language.”
What is a Tamil dialect? To begin with, several basic facts:
First, dialects in Tamil are not separate languages; among native Tamil speakers the various dialects are mutually intelligible, differing mainly in intonation, speed of delivery and vocabulary. In general, while native Tamil speakers have an overall understanding of dialects, this understanding lacks depth.
Secondly, Tamil is a diglossic language, in which the spoken is quite different from the written. We encounter Tamil dialects mostly orally (for the use of dialects in literature, see below).
Lastly, dialects in Tamil emerge from a configuration of the following elements shared by people: caste, region, landscape and the material culture which sustains them. Born out of a strong material culture, dialects in Tamil, generally speaking, lack abstract words. To understand how a ‘stream of language’ without abstract words could become “a way of thinking” we need to go into the realm of contemporary Tamil.
It should be noted that the question of the relationship between the tribal languages of Tamilnadu and dialects is beyond the scope of this volume.
Dialects and contemporary Tamil
Let us begin with an example. A child is born and brought up in Coimbatore district (west of Tamilnadu). His mother belongs to a village near Nagarkovil, and his father to a town in nearby Tirunelveli (both in the far south of Tamilnadu). His parents are the first generation in his family to move to a town from an agricultural area.
Within the family, in the house, what he hears and eventually learns to speak is a mixture of the dialects which his parents speak. When he goes to school he picks up words from the dialect spoken in the immediate neighborhood of his small town. From the announcements and news broadcasts on the state-owned channel of his radio, he listens to a Tamil, well rounded, and fully formed, a written Tamil, spoken aloud, the same formal Tamil taught to him at school, mediated through the spoken Tamil of the immediate region. The Tamil newspaper which his father buys, the Tinattanti, gives him a slightly different Tamil, a formal Tamil fused with many features of the spoken language not specific to the region, but supposed to be common to all Tamilnadu, a formal spoken Tamil. Furthermore, his non-Brahmin family actively participates in popular Tamil culture by regularly buying two or more widely circulated popular Tamil magazines (Kumudam and Ananda Vikatan). Through these magazines, he comes to know two other kinds of Tamil, Brahmin Tamil, which was at that time used predominantly in short stories and serialized novels, and, to a lesser extent, Madras Tamil (coarse and colloquial, actually a dialect of the then Arcot districts, spoken mostly by migrants from that region settled in the slums of Madras, a curious mix of rural and urban culture).
Around him, in the air, are the public orations of the Dravidian political parties, a formal Tamil rhetoric suffused with citations from classical Tamil literature (this is where he has first taste of classical Tamil literature apart from what he is forced to memorize in the Tamil classes at school), devoid of any dialectal shades. At the same time, he hears orators from the same political parties use chose pejorative terms from colloquial, dialect Tamil in their speeches against their opponents.
Another important influence is his exposure to different forms of Tamil in popular Tamil cinema. Since its beginnings, Tamil cinema has used formal spoken Tamil as its main discourse, relegating colloquial and dialects to the servants or comedians (quite naturally according to the classical drama conventions of India; when dialects were used, it was mostly Brahminical). Then in 1977, a film called 16 Vayatinile- At the age of sixteen, made by the debutant director Bharathi Raja, was released to have a huge success. This was the film said by the film critics to take Tamil Cinema from the studios in Chennai to a ‘real’ Tamil village. The film itself was curious; despite being shot in the surroundings of Coimbatore, the characters spoke in every variety of Tamil dialect, (from Coimbatore, Madurai Tamil to formal spoken Tamil). This film opened wide the gates for the entry of dialects into Tamil cinema, introducing stereotyped forms of Tamil dialects spoken by all characters from the hero to villains (made easy with the facility of dubbing), manipulated by the directors to give “nativity” to their films.
Against this cultural background the child in our example grows up, goes to college (where he picks up the jargon filled Tamil prevalent among the students, and constantly changing), get a job in Chennai (where he has his first direct contact with Madras Tamil), and later moves to Pondicherry to make a living (where he hears a Tamil dialect sprinkled with Tamilized French words). Now he speaks a Tamil unspecific to any particular area in Tamilnadu, full of markers from different dialects to which he has been directly or indirectly exposed. His mind is structured with stereotypes by which he identifies people of different regions and their dialects: Nagarkovil Tamil with its ennapove, Tirunelveli Tamil with its etti and elei, Coimbatore Tamil (considered to be the most respectful of Tamil dialects), with its usual –nka marker of respect, the verb potu which is used as an auxiliary with almost any word, Tanjavur Tamil with its empalatu (“eighty”, enpatu), Arcot Tamil with its isu (“pull”, ilu), Madurai Tamil with its ankittu inkittu (“here and there”), Madras- Chennai Tamil with its Inna, Innamme, kisnail, nasta (“kerosene”, ”breakfast - tiffin”), universal lack of respect in addressing people (considered to be the least respectful of all the Tamil dialects), Palghat Tamil with its atippan (“I’ll beat you”, atippen), kettiyo Mysore Tamil with its auto pannintu ponko (for “Please take an auto rickshaw”), Sri Lankan Tamil with its distinct drawl and vocabulary (mostly heard through Ceylon Radio), Brahmin Tamil with its connel, ceyvel, varuvel, Vaishnava Brahmin Tamil with its cattamutu, tirukkannamutu (“rasam”, “payacam”), the list goes on and on.
But does the knowledge of this grown man extend beyond this sprinkling of charming linguistic idiosyncrasies? This cultural milieu and the linguistic typecasting it provides are the building blocks of his commonsense notions about Tamil, yet his understanding of the significance behind this linguistic diversity is remarkably shallow. Is it possible to go beyond such a superficial perception of Tamil dialects, and to know whether these dialects in fact indicate a “way of thinking”? To address this question, we now enter the world of contemporary Tamil literature.
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