Language of the Month: Tamil

Late last month, Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-CA) was a minor sensation in India for her use of the word “chithis,” or auntie. Harris, who has visited Chenani, a town in the Indian Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, before to learn more about her mother’s side of her family, with her father’s side being Jamaican, suddenly brought the language of the Tamil to the national, and truthfully, international stage.

Tamil, one of the 22 official languages of India, and one of the longest surviving languages in the world, is a Dravidian language spoken by the 67.5 million Tamil people throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Singapore, with an additional 6 million L2 speakers. In addition to these countries, it can also be found spoken in the USA, France, and Malaysia. 

A syllabic language, there is evidence of the written form of Tamil dating back as far as 300 BC, with the spoken language dating back even further. Interestingly, as an example of environment affecting language, the language’s soft curves and strokes may actually derive from the fact that the language was originally written on palm leaves; it was a necessity to have gently written language in order to avoid tearing or ripping the leaves when trying to write. Although it has standardized and modernized, mainly to conform to typeset, it is still largely similar to what would have been found on the original palm leaves.

Being a syllabic language, Tamil features 26 vowels and 18 consonants, representing not only vowels but also their pronunciation and stresses, in addition to numerals, non-standard vowel combinations, and granthas, or letters that represent consonants originally from Sanskrit, but now also commonly used to represent English words. 

In addition to its longevity as a written and spoken language, Tamil also holds the distinction of being the first printed and published language of India; Portuguese missionaries published the Thambiran Vanakkam, a Tamil prayer book, and the University of Madras (the previous name of Chennai) published a dictionary, the Tamil Lexicon in 1923. 

As we have seen, although Harris brought it back to an international stage, the Tamil language has been an enduring one for quite a long time now. Several publications, both online and in print, are still created daily in Tamil, and it is recognized as the official language of the Indian state of Puducherry, and the language crosses international and religious borders, ranging from being a language of education in Malaysia to spoken by Muslims in Pakistan. We can even see its influence in English, the Tamil word kari is seen in any grocery store under a slightly different spelling, curry, and a few aisles down you may see māngāi, or mango.

Here is a short video of the 1st article of the Declaration of Human Rights spoken in Tamil. 

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