History of Tamil Language


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       Tamil language has roughly about two thousand years of History. Though the Christian missionaries printed the first Tamil book before the end of sixteenth century, it took some time for the printing press to be firmly established in Tamilnadu and till about the nineteenth century, books printed were almost exclusively of the Christian missionaries. The writing material in Tamilnadu consisted of dried Palmyra leaves called Olas and Stylus. Palmyra Olas could be preserved for manyu centuries in cold climate like that of Tibet or Europe. In Tamilnadu, these Ola manuscripts could at the maximum, last two or three centuries.  It is well known that Tamil has preserved literary documents of about two thousand years. But this statement should be modified to read that literary documents in Tamil exist for the past two thousand years. These documents exist because they were copied and recopied again and again periodically. This type of preservation will lead to errors and modifications, as can be easily guessed. But this was the only type of preservations of literary documents available in Tamilnadu. 

            We are all grateful to the pioneers who underwent so many difficulties to collect manuscripts, compare them, correct them and print what they considered to be the correct text. C.W. Damadarampillai, U.V. Swaninathaiyar and others have done yeoman service to classical and medieval Tamil. Textual criticism, the methods of arriving at the correct text, have developed in the West recently. Our pioneers had the enthusiasm and they had put hard work. But, textual criticism had not been well developed in their time and there is no reason to believe that they even dept in touch with what might have been available in this field in contemporary West. But in the conditions then existing, it is expecting too much from them. 

            Further, even when going through the introductions of these pioneers to their editions of classics, we come across references to the negligence of Tamil scholarship in the country, to the availability of very few manuscripts for certain texts and to the very poor state of preservation of some of the manuscripts. So, many Tamil classics of the Ancient and Medieval times have been edited and published in this background.  So, inscriptional Tamil is a more dependable source than literary Tamil as a source for the History of Ancient and Medieval times. Its is true that inscriptions have sometimes been wrongly read. But the originals of inscriptions (as they were written, at the time they were written) and their estampages and sometimes their photographic plates are available even now for verification. But we don’t have this facility in regard to literary documents.

            Another point, which we should note, is that literature mainly preserved the literary dialect. It is true that the literary dialect of Tamil has undergone changes in course of time. But the rate of change was slow. Folk literature and language have exercised some influence in the Bakty poetry of the Pallava period. But up to sixteenth century at least, Tamil literary dialect has not undergone marked and significant changes. This state of affairs should not be interpreted to mean that Tamil language had not undergone marked changes in the period for it is an accepted fact now that every living language changes. The absence of marked changes in literary language could only mean that the literary language could only mean that the literary language had become fossilized and spoken language could only penetrate it little by little. This fact also becomes evident from a reference to inscriptional Tamil. It should be noted that even inscriptions are not written entirely in spoken Tamil. A few inscriptions are written entirely in literary dialect. But most of the inscriptions have preserved spoken Tamil forms to a greater lesser degree. So, inscriptional Tamil serves as a better source than literary Tamil for the History of Tamil Language.

            For all neighbouring languages of Tamil – Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Sinhalese – inscriptional language is the only source for the early portion of their ‘history of language’. Sri Lanka has inscriptions in a dialect of Prakrit, sometimes referred to as Sinhalese Prakrit or Old Sinhalese in Brahmi script, roughly contemporaneous with the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. Except for Sigiri Graffiti ( i.e., graffiti by visitors to the hill to view the famous frescoes) which had been dated on Paleographical grounds, the earliest extant Sinhalese literature could be dated only in the twelfth century. There are inscriptions of Asoka both in Andhra Pradesh and in Karnataka. Some Telugu proper names started appearing in inscriptions from the second century B.C. Telugu inscriptions make their appearance from the fifth century A.D. The earliest extant Telugu literature is available from the eleventh century A.D. Kannada inscriptions make their appearance in the sixth century A.D, while the earliest extant Kannada literature is dated in the nineth century A.D.

There is a problem regarding Malayalam, Kerala, the land of Malayalam, was a part of Tamilnadu and actively participated in the production of Tamil literature from the Sangam Age. But Malayalam literature proper makes its appearance from the sixteenth century A.D. While inscriptions with characteristically Malayalam forms (these inscriptions almost look like Tamil inscriptions; these inscriptions also used the same vatteluttu script of the Pandya inscriptions) begin to appear from the tenth century. For all the four languages surrounding Tamil, the early portion of their history of language has to be based on the language of inscriptions. But in Tamil, it is not very clear which source is earliest. The Tamil Brahmi inscriptions, the Sangam literature and Tolkappiyam there are still many protagonists advocating the theory that each of them is anterior to the other two. In Tamilnaduj, many scholars still hold on to the theory that Tolkappiyam was the earliest. In Sri Lanka, many scholars hold on to the theory that tolkappiyam  was later than Sangam literature. Historans and Archaeologists usually put the case of the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions forward. Even if Tamil Brahmi inscriptions were accepted as the earliest source, there is very little material to work on. Unlike the standardized elegant language of Sangam literature, the language of the Brahmi inscriptions reflects a non-standardised stage, If Sangam literature and Tamil Brahmi inscriptions were to be taken as almost contemporary, Tamil Brahmi inscriptions should be taken to represent a dialect distinct from the dialect or the dialects of Sangam literary language.

Dr. Suresh B. Pillai, in the discussion on the previous lecture, raised an important point on the shortcomings in the survey and publication of epigraphical records. From his expressions in exploration work throughout Tamilnadu for ten years, he claimed that outside Colanatu, archaeological surveys to collect epigraphical records have not been properly conducted and many thousands may still await collection. We are not able to comment on this point. But we have to agree with him that of about twenty five thousand inscriptions, collected from Tamilnadu, only about five thousand have been published, The pace of progress is very slow and it is not known why they republish the published ones when there is such a big backlog. In the mean-time, thousands of inscriptions collected in the form of estampages get crumbled and unusable in course of time. Some of these records will be lost forever as building in which they are found may collapse and temples may get renovated without action being taken to preserve these records. We are aware of the working of the Office of the Government Epigraphist for India. It is a very small office. The number of staff officers is very small. Epigraphical assistants who were recruited on a small salary have no incentive to put on maximum work. The Government of Indian ma have to spend many times of the present amount to expand the office and to revamp the administration if the pace of work were to quicken substantially.

 The Government of Tamilnadu State Department of Archaeology seemed to be on the right track when it started intensive surveys and publications of the inscriptions of Madras City and Kanyakumari District. It does not seem to be pursuing the work on this line now. If the Central Government is unable to take action for some reason or other, the state Government should take urgent action. It should be explored whether a computer could be made to decipher the collected inscriptions. Otherwise, there is a danger that many of them might be lost forever

Inscriptional Studies in Tamil in the background of Dravidian

To have a better perspective of the study of inscriptional Tamil language, it is better to view it with knowledge of such other studies in the other Dravidian languages also. Besides Sanskrit and Prakrit, of course, Arabic, Perisian and Urdu, exclusively used by later Muslim rulers of India, the only languages to have been used for inscriptions in India are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam of the Dravidian family. 

Two languages with vast amount of epigraphical material seem to be Tamil and Kannada. It has been reported that twenty five thousand inscriptions have been collected from Tamilnadu and that twenty thousand records have been collected from Karnataka. It is very doubtful whether other languages have such vast storehouse of epigraphical material. And curiously enough, the first serious systematic studies of inscriptional studies of the south began at the same time. A.N. Narasimhia worked on Kannada language inscriptions and K. Kanapathipillai worked on Tamil language inscriptions The school of Oriental studies of the sixth and seventh century Kanarese inscriptions and submitted his thesis for the Doctorate in 1934.1 Kanapathippillai worked on the language of the Tamil inscriptions of the seventh and eighth centuries and submitted his thesis for the same degree one year later. Both of them had Turnour, an Indo-Aryan expert as supervisor. Some years ago, the Deccan College Post – graduate and Research Institute in Poona brought out a Felicitation Volume in honour of Turnour. Narasimhia returned to Karnataka and worked as Principal of Maharaja’s College. Kanapathippillai returned to Sri Lanka and joined the University college became University of Ceylon in 1943.The foundation of the Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute in Poona in 1939 is an event of great significance in advanced studies in India. It was there that importance of studies like epigraphical studies was first realized. Though Poona is in Mahastra, the boundary of Karnataka comes very close to it. So, it is Kannada inscriptions again that become a subject for systematic study. G.S. Gai works on Historical Grammar of Old Kannada, based on Kannada inscriptions of eighth, ninth and tenth centuries A.D. He received ‘advice and valuable help from Narasimhia. Gai acknowledges Narasimhia’s work as the model for his work. Though there is considerable difference in approach between Narasimhia and Gai, the latter, in a cultured manner, acknowledges his indebtedness to the former. Through Narasimhia, Gai was able to get a copy of Kanapathippillai,s thesis. So, Gai was able to get a copy of Kanapathipillai for permission to make full use of his thesis. Abbreviated as K.P., this thesis has been profusely quoted in comparative studies of G.S.The Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute has also produced another Doctorate thesis – this time on early Malayalam inscriptions. A Chandra Sekhar has worked on evolution of Malayalam language, based upon inscriptions from tenth to thirteenth centuries A.D. His approach was not exactly that of G.S. Gai but he has also generous enough to acknowledge Gai’s work as his model. So, Narashimhia’s thesis had served as the model or basis for two other doctoral theses in Dravidian languages. Sekhars’s work was published in 1953.

There is no sign that Tamilnadu scholars were awake to realize the importance of these studies even after the publication of three theses:- two on Kannada and one on Malayalam. In 1934, Kamil zvelebil, the Dravidiologist from Czecho – slovakia published an article on the importance of Tamil epigraphy in the journal of Tamil culture, edited by Rev. Fr.X.S. Thani Nayakam, a Sri Lankan and published from Madras.

Slowly, the importance of Tamil epigraphical studies in relation to language seems to have dawned on Professor T.P. Meenakshisundaram. He should be given credit for having taken up the entire field of Tamil epigraphy and assigning, to various research scholars, portions of it, for language studies. The University of Madras produced the first M. Litt. Thesis on a study of the language of the Tamil inscriptions form the seventh century, up to the middle of the eleventh century. Mrs. V. Jayakumari submitted this thesis in 1959, almost a quarter century after Kanapathipillai submitted his thesis in London in 1935.

T.P. Meenakshisundaram went to Annamalai University as Professor of Linguistics and carried on much useful work there. In fact, his hard and enthusiastic work in Annamalai University earned for that University the Centre of Advanced study in Linguistics. Coming to his contributions for epigraphical studies, research scholars continued to work under his supervision and produced two M. Litt. Thesis. Kumari S. Baghirathi worked on the language of the Tamil inscriptions and submitted her thesis in 1962. Though this last thesis claimed to be working on the language, the word index alone has become a bulky volume. The candidate has got this work index typed, submitted it under the title ‘language of inscriptions’, and obtained her Degree of M. Litt. Noting the unsuitability of the title, Professor S.V. Shanmugam has referred to this thesis as ‘ The word index of the inscriptions of 1250-1350 in some of his later publications. S.V. Shanmugam himself has selected Tamil inscriptions from the middle of the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century, the last portion of Tamil epigraphy, according to the scheme of T.P. Meenakshisundaram. But the later left Annamalai University to become the first Vice-Chancellor of Madurai University, S.V. Shanmugam had some years of teaching experience as lecturer in C.A.S in Linguistics and able guidance from Prof. S. Agesthialingom and other scholars. So, his Doctoral thesis has come up with many good features.

Before S.V. Shanmugam submitted his thesis, he had a fine opportunity to present his ideas on epigraphy and Tamil linguistics in the Seminar on Inscriptions, 1966, organized by the Tamilnadu State Department of Archaeology. We were gratified to note that he had mentioned K. Kanapathippillai as the pioneer in the study of the language of Tamil inscriptions. Though this is only his due recognition, it did not come to him easily.

We made the next significant contributions in the field. We worked on the language of Tamil inscriptions of Jatavarman Sundara Pandya and Maravarman Kulasegara under the Supervision of Professor K.Kanapathipillai and submitted our Doctoral thesis to the University of Ceylon in 1962. It was, of course, modeled an Kanapathipillai’s thesis. This was later published. We had been working on the language of Tamil inscriptions of the period 800 to 920 A.D. under the supervision of Professor T.Burrow and submitted the second Doctoral thesis to the University of Oxford in 1964. T.Burrow who suggested to me to base my thesis on the same model commended Kanapathipillai’s approach. We also edited Sri Lanka Tamil inscriptions in two parts, Ceylon Tamil Inscriptions, Part I, and Part II in 1971 and 1972 and in those parts, we have commented on the language of those inscriptions. We have also published a book in Tamil, Cacanamum Tamilum in which and chapter deals with the language of Tamil inscriptions.

The Dravidian Linguistics Association of India have given us a good opportunity to make a significant contribution in this field. We were invited as Senior Fellow of the Dravidian Linguistic Association for the year 1973-74 and the title of the study of the dialects in inscriptional Tamil was suggested to us. We worked on regional, social and stylistic dialects in inscriptional Tamil for the period 500 A.D. to 1200 A.D. The last four hundred years of this period, we are grateful to Professor V.I.Subramaniam and the Dravidian Linguistics Association for giving us this opportunity.

In 1969,another doctoral thesis on the Tamil inscriptions of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries A.D. appeared. R.Panneerselvam was the author of this thesis and he worked under professor V.I.Subramaniam. This is a good thesis and we made full use of it when we were working on the D.L.A. project Panneerselvam has also worked with the Scandinavian institute of Asian studies when they were attempting decipherment of Indus valley incripstions.a question can be raised why Panneerselvam has to work again an early period of Tamil inscriptions when Panapathipillai (1935) and Jayakumari (1959) had already worked on the same period. As none of the earlier works had been published and as professor V.I Subramainam was very interested at that time working out the history of  language, he might have suggested this have title to Panneerselvam.

The Dravidian linguistics association has decided to publish the thesis of Panneerselvam. We welcome the decision as this book will serve as one of the success for those working on history of Tamil language and also as a model for language description of records like inscriptions. Kanapathipillai’s thesis was unpublished. Professor Kanapathipillai is no more and the cannot be published without revision. It is already forty-five years since he submitted his thesis and presentation will have to be modified in a few places. When he presented his thesis, the published inscription are few. After that time, a number of new inscriptions of the same period have been published. It is not good to bring out a publication now, leaving out all the newly published inscriptions.

      No one, of course, will recommend jayakumari’s thesis for publication. The thesis is in two volumes for the second part of the thesis, there is no transliteration proper, i.e., and diacritical marks are missing. Not that she is following a system transliteration without diacritical marks. She seems to follow the madras lexicon system, but the typist has not carried to type the diacritical marks and she has not cared to correct them atleast in the copy kept at the library of Madras University. About a quarter century before Jayakumari, Kanapathipillai was able to collect thirty-seven inscriptions for study in London. For the period covered by Ganapathipillai’s thesis, Jayakumari could collect much less from madras. So Jayakumari’s thesis also suffers from the defect of having worked on less material for study of the early period. It should be admitted that is quite difficult to select inscriptions in a chroaological order from the present available publications of Tamil inscriptions. A very good sense of south Indian history of basically necessary to select and arrange inscriptions. Mrs. Jayakumari seems to have had a very poor sense of history. Long after Prof. K. A. Nilakanda Sastri Published tow editions of the Cotas and the History of South India, Jayakumari makes blunder in collecting inscriptions centurywise. Besides leaving out many published epigraphs, she assigns eleventh century inscriptions to tenth century; as for examples see her numbers 88, 90, 92 and 93. Her number 89actually belongs to the twelfth century but she has included that also as a tenth century inscription.

Mrs. Jayakumari also made misuse of the thesis of Kanapathippillai. T.P. Meenakshisundaran is one of the few Indian scholars who has mentioned contracts with Sri Lanka for a long time; he is also the first South Indian to be awarded an Honourary D.Litt. Degree by the University of Sri. Lanka in 1979. So, he was able to obtain a copy of Kanapathippillai’s thesis and handed it over to Mrs. Jayakumari. She was probably not aware that she should recognize Kanapathippillai’s work as a pioneer study, Instead, she has contributed a chapter no criticism of Kanapathippillai’s work and most of the criticisms appear quite silly as she could comprehend his work.

            Kumari S. Bhagirathi’s thesis, we have to admit was an improvement in all respects. She says at one place, ‘ This study in not concerned with criticism of Kanapathippillai by Jayakumari’. Kumari S. Kausalya’s thesis as we have seen earlier, is no thesis at all on the language of the inscriptions. In this contest, the decision of the D.L.A. to publish Pannerselvam’s thesis has to be welcomed.

            Some other notable contributions in Dravidian language epigraphical studies have to be mentioned. Kamil Zvelebil has published a booklet at Tamil in 550 A.D. in 1964, basing his analysis on Pallankovil copper plate inscription, which has been edited by T.N. Subramaniam. He has also published a paper on the Brahmi Hybrid Tamil inscriptions in 1966 but he based his analysis on the readings of Tamilnadui cave inscription by K.V. Subramaniya Ayyar. K. Mahadeva Sastri has worked on Historical Grammar of Telugu for his D. Litt. degree and published his work in 1968. Professor S. Agesthialingom and S.V. Shanmugam have utilized the word index of Kumari S. Kausalya to bring out a publication on the language of Tamil inscriptions of the period covered by her. There is also another publication in Linguistics from Annamalai University, Howda Kannada of K. Kushalappa Gowda. This thesis studies the Kannada language of certain districts of Karnataka of the period, subsequent to that covered by G.S. Gai.

            Professor T.P. Meenakshisundaramis a pioneer in writing a History of Tamil language on modern lines and in properly integrating inscriptional Tamil language studies in a comprehensive history of that language. His visiting Professorship at the University of Chicago gave him a fine opportunity to bring out in lecture from both a History of Tamil Language and a History of Tamil literature. A number of publications on history of Tamil literature are available. But nobody has ventured on a proper history of Tamil language. When discussing sources for his work, he had given proper weightage to inscriptions but unfortunately it was based on the readings of K.V. Subramaniya Ayyar. For the study of the language of the Pallava and the Cola periods, he has relied on Tamil epigraphical material only.