Arts, Culture & Media

Tamil Language Trying to Keep Up With the Times

Tamil is one of 22 official languages in India, and the fifth most widely spoken language in the country. It's used by more than 60 million Indians, about the same as the entire population of France.

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Another 10 million speak a different form of the language in Sri Lanka.

In south India at least, Tamil is at a crossroads.

It has 'so many problems,' says Mr. Ramakrishnan in Chennai, formerly known as Madras.

"Problems in terms of meaning. Problems in terms of forms of a word. Problems in terms of syntax."

Ramakrishnan is a man on a mission: to standardize modern Tamil.

"We don't have a comprehensive grammar of modern Tamil. The last grammar was written in the 12th century," he says.

That's not to say Tamil is an endangered language. All those millions of people aren't going to suddenly stop speaking Tamil anytime soon.

Still, it is struggling.

Written Tamil is different to the spoken Tamil people use every day. Tamil shares that feature with several other languages, notably Arabic.

For many, writing in Tamil can be off-putting. Ask someone to try and they'll respond, "'Oh no, I can't write Tamil'," says Ramakrishnan.

"The reason he says this is because subconsciously he thinks if he writes it should conform to the classical standards."

Sadanand Menon is a well-known writer in Chennai. He argues that Tamil has become lost in a sense of nostalgia which does not enable it to be a modern language.

Menon says that after the British left India, local politicians used the centuries-old classical Tamil of epics and royalty to define a proud regional identity.

Since then politics has moved on. But day-to-day Tamil hasn't.

"So like if we were discussing this instrument that you're holding, in Tamil, then just about everything that is part of your radio equipment—recorder, your microphone, your earphones–for everything I'll have to use English words. Tamil has got locked in the past and hasn't found a device to describe what is happening around them at the moment," he says.

That's reminiscent of the challenge Hebrew faced at the turn of the 20th century. It couldn't describe the modern world either.

Now it's a fully-functioning modern language—and classical Hebrew is a different animal altogether.

Arguably it took the building of a nation to produce such a radical shift. But there's no such impulse for Indian Tamils, who got their own state within India in 1969: Tamil Nadu.

Besides, now they're hungry for something else: English.

English words are scattered across Tamil movies and songs. Sadanand Menon rolls his eyes as he recalls choruses like this:

"Shakalaka baby, shakalakababy, will you fall in love with me?"

But it's not just pop culture. English is infiltrating everyday life too.

Ramakrishnan worries that people in Tamil Nadu—especially the poorly educated—know neither English nor Tamil very well, and get by only with a limited mash-up of the two.
He says you can't even give directions to a local cab driver without using English.

"So today if I tell my driver 'turn right' in Tamil, he will not understand. I must use the words 'right', 'left' and 'straight'," he says.

The local government has been trying to improve Tamil's status. A new law requires business signs to be written in Tamil as well as English—the same kind of thing happened years ago in French-speaking Quebec.

And official committees have invented thousands of new words—although it's not clear they're being used.

Then again, between Tamil and English, people are getting on OK. English words often gain new meanings in Tamil: 'assault', for example, has come to mean 'casual.'

Plus, in the last couple of decades there has been an explosion of contemporary Tamil fiction—those books are written in an updated form of the language.

But that kind of writing is the exception. The general standard of written Tamil isn't very high.
And so, in purely economic terms, its value is limited. The language can't take your business around the world, like English, or even across India like Hindi.

To do that, Ramakrishnan says, Tamil needs clarity and consistency.

"We don't have a grammar, we don't have a thesaurus, we don't have a good English-Tamil dictionary. We need so many things."

For years he's been building his own Tamil dictionary, painstakingly charting the modern use of the language. Take the word for 'put'. That one word and its 54 shades of meaning in Tamil took him weeks.

And Ramakrishnan wonders, "If you have to spend nearly one month on one word, what word do you call it except madness?"

Maybe, maybe not. No language can be modernized in isolation. Along with the challenge of English, the Tamil spoken in India has to contend with, say, how the language is used in Sri Lanka, and how it's morphing online.

But as Ramakrishnan ticks off elements of Tamil grammar, it's hard to argue that a few rules along the way can help.