[lg policy] Interesting article about the 'linguistic identity' of Tamil speakers

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Aug 29 14:37:55 UTC 2014

Tamil Nadu: where the masses set the normKamini Mathai
| Aug 27, 2014, 06.41 AM IST

Word is that Tamil is a language like no other. And researchers at the
People's Linguistic Survey of India have several reasons to offer. Their
decadelong research presented in a book on the languages of Tamil Nadu
-which will be released next month -shows that linguistically, the state is
a "unique cultural zone."
"In Tamil Nadu, it is the `Tamil' of the working classes that is
predominant, unlike most other parts of the country and the world where it
is the language habits of the so-called upper classes of society that have
become the norm," says GN Devy, chairperson of PLSI. "This reflects on the
inclusiveness of the language and is possibly why Tamil will continue to
grow," he says, adding that the book documents 28 living languages in the

But linguist V Gnanasundaram, who co-edited the book along with linguistics
professor K Rangan, adds a dampener. He says that their evaluation also
shows that Tamil is flourishing at only the lower levels of administration,
judiciary and education, but as one goes higher up the pyramid, the
language appears to lose out to English. "Both at the district and the
taluk levels, all the official records are maintained in Tamil. But at the
secretariat level, around 40% of the official correspondence is in
English," says Gnanasundaram. "All the correspondence addressed to courts
other than the village courts, are in English. Statutory instruments such
as notifications, orders and rules are published in Tamil along with
English translations. Recruitment rules are also mostly in English," he

Their book also states that at the "offices subordinate to the secretariat,
95% of the noting and drafting are done only in Tamil while at the
secretariat level this percentage drops to less than 40 and whenever an apt
Tamil word is not found, a relevant English word is used".

"Linguistics has a socio-cultural aspect to it," says Gnansundaram. "After
Independence, states were re-organised based on languages, so principles of
democracy can reach the common man. English was looked at as the language
of colonization and the government wanted everything to be in a language
known to the people of the state," he says. But the experience in Tamil
Nadu shows that the intent of linguistic states may not have been realized.

Rangan adds that this can have one of three sociological explanations. It
could be that there is a greater number of non-natives in the
administration, or administrators are trained to use English and not the
concerned local languages.Yet another reason could be that in terms of
attitude, English is still looked at as the language of the elite or the

As a result, more parents want to switch their children to Englishmedium
schools, which can ham per the growth of the language, says Rangan. But he
believes that judgments like the recent Madras high court one directing all
lower court verdicts and orders to be written in Tamil are ways to help the
language grow.

On the bright side, the research also shows that many Tamils have a double
linguistic identity, which is found only in two other areas in India
-Orissa and the north-east.Popular non-indigenous languages are English,
Urdu and Telugu.

Their language equips Tamils to be in tune with the 21st century, PLSI
researchers say. They say that the Tamil linguistic structure encourages
scientific thinking, unlike other languages like Persian that are prone to
hyperbole."The Tamil language tunes the speaker to stay close to fact. It
is not as metaphoric as Persian or Urdu," says Devy .



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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