Health of the Tamil language: American and French Perspectives ((Mixing English Words into Tamil)

Gerard A. Pelletier
Nathalie Dedella

TAMIL TRIBUNE, April 2004 (ID. 2004-04-01); Updated 2017-02-01
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1. An American Perspective (by Gerard A. Pelletier)

In September 2002 and again in January 2003 I went to Chennai (Madras) to participate in volunteer projects, for a total of six weeks. I had studied Tamil in preparation for these trips, but I did not really have a sense of it as a living language because I only knew it from books and language instruction tapes. When I got to Chennai, I was thrilled to see signs in Tamil everywhere, to hear it spoken by ordinary people, and to try speaking it myself (I found the most difficult part was understanding what people said back to me).

However, I was a little shocked to realize the encroachment English had made into Tamil. For example, while reading street names and billboards, I realized that many of them were actually English, but written using the Tamil alphabet. I was also "corrected" on a number of occasions when I tried to use what I considered to be the correct Tamil word, and was told to use an English word instead! All living languages borrow words from other languages, so I am not suggesting that Tamil speakers attempt to purge Tamil of all words that are not "pure" Tamil (which is probably impossible in any case). But I would caution that a point comes when a language begins to lose integrity if its core grammar and vocabulary are subjected to too much "borrowing". I hope the Tamil people realize that their language and its literature are a precious possession, and that they do everything possible to preserve it.

2. A French Perspective (by Nathalie Dedella)

I am a French born Tamil student brought up and living in France. I am 21.

I have just read the article "Health of the Tamil language: An American Perspective" by Mr. Gerard Pelletier [Reference 1]. I understand perfectly well what he must have felt. The first time that I came across these English words modified by Tamil pronunciation I was surprised, but not shocked in the sense that we are doing the same thing here in France. We are "borrowing" English words and adding a French accent to it. It sounds ridiculous for any English native speaker or even people like me studying English. And as Mr. Pelletier says it can be dangerous if a language looses its integrity. 

One has to bear in mind that India underwent centuriess of colonization by the British. And contrary to other states such as Bengal or Punjab, Tamil Nadu came up with few martyrs like Tilak just to quote one. I know that Tamil nationalists will hate me but Tamil people were too "loyal" and "too passive" toward the British. Moreover few mutinies, rebellions took place in Tamil Nadu.

This is, according to me, one of the reasons why English language has such an undue influence on Tamil language.

I do not want to hurt anyone but this needed to be said.

13. Editor's Response

We are extremely glad to hear from an American gentleman who lived in Tamil Nadu a short time and a French-born lady with Tamil heritage. We agree with both that Tamil people are mixing too many English words with Tamil. These perspectives from abroad add to our understanding of how people see us from the outside. They look at it from their own experience living in another culture and we can learn from it.

I like Mr. Pelletier's description "encroachment of English into Tamil". I remember the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister C. N. Annadurai saying, "One needs to wear a hairpiece (wig) only if he/she does not have naturally beautiful hair. Why should we use foreign words for which we have pure Tamil words in use for centuries?"

Ms. Dedella points out that both the French and Tamil languages are borrowing words from English. I understand that France has taken some steps to at least partially stop unnecessary borrowing from English. I often thought that Tamil Nadu State Government should take some such measures to "protect" Tamil language from English inroads into the language. 

Ms. Dedella writes, "I know that Tamil nationalists will hate me but Tamil people were too "loyal'" and "too passive" toward the British....I do not want to hurt anyone but this needed to be said." I assure you Nathalie, no Tamil nationalist will hate you for what you wrote because you wrote what you honestly believe on the basis of the books you read. Actually, I appreciate you writing your views honestly and openly. That gave impetus for Thanjai Nalankilli to write an article on how the history of South India is ignored or downplayed in Indian history books [Reference 1]. Please read that article for better understanding of the history of Tamil Nadu.

(SUMMARY: An American temporary resident in Tamil Nadu and a French lady of Tamil ancestry concerned about mixing English words into Tamil. An interesting discussion.)


1. Hidden History of Tamil Nadu (South Indian History Ignored in Indian History Books) (by Thanjai Nalankilli), TAMIL TRIBUNE, May 2004 (17 KB)


2. Anglicization of Internet Tamil (by Inia Pandian), TAMIL TRIBUNE, July 1999 (9 KB)

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