Sanskrit and Tamil as classical languages in India

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Recognition of Tamil as a Classical Language by Government of India - Questions and Answers

TAMIL TRIBUNE, June 2004 (ID. 2004-06-f2)
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I read the article "Indian Government Denigrates the Tamil Language (by Thanjai Nalankilli)" with great interest [Reference 1].

Though I could grasp some major aspects as to how any language can be called and recognized as a classical language, I don not understand what the parameters are for such recognition.

What are the languages so far declared as classical languages by the Indian Government or some other body? How do they measure up to be recognized as classical languages?

I learned that former Indian Government Human Resource Development Minister, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi told that only dead languages could be declared as classical languages. Is it true? Are all the languages so far recognized are dead languages?

Could you also tell me what the dead languages of the world are? How are they different from extinct languages?

Why do we want recognition of our mother tongue Tamil as classical language? Is it just for the purpose of upholding its dignity? What are the advantages Tamil would get in case it is recognized as classical language by the Indian Government?

Have we really made out an unassailable case for recognition of Tamil as a classical language? If so, would you inform me about it?

Are there any unbiased and impartial world-class linguists to take up our case?

Actually, my friends and I have been discussing these aspects in our meetings. But I would like to have authentic information on all these points.

Aiswarya
May 12, 2004


RESPONSE

Thank you for the e-mail about Tamil as classical language. You have raised some pertinent questions. To our knowledge some of these questions were neither raised nor answered in a public forum so far. Her are your questions and my response.

1.
What are the parameters for recognizing a language as classical language?

I am not a linguist. So I will simply quote Professor George L. Hart of University of California, Berkeley, United States of America (USA): "To qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit several criteria: it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature. Unlike the other modern languages of India, Tamil meets each of these requirements. It is extremely old (as old as Latin and older than Arabic); it arose as an entirely independent tradition, with almost no influence from Sanskrit or other languages; and its ancient literature is indescribably vast and rich. ... The status of Tamil as one of the great classical languages of the world is something that is patently obvious to anyone who knows the subject." [Reference 2]. Professor Hart's qualifications are noted in Section 7.

I am of the opinion that whether Tamil is a classical language or not should be decided by language scholars and not by politicians. Unfortunately this question has now become a political issue. Politicians should not be in the business of deciding what is a classical language, it should be left to scholars. By the way, the demand for classical language recognition was taken over by Tamil Nadu politicians only within the past few years. Being totally impotent to do anything to stop the continuing Hindi imposition, Tamilnadu politicians diverted people's attention by bring to the forefront the demand for classical language recognition. As we will show in Section 6, there is very few benefits to Tamil being recognized as a classical language by Government of India. Tamil and Tamil people's future (from an economic and cultural perspective including job opportunities, job performance, job promotions, etc.) are not threatened by whether Tamil is recognized as a classical language or not but the threat comes from Hindi imposition and Indian Government's official language policy. While we appreciate Tamil Nadu politicians taking an interest in this classical language demand, they should concentrate more on the official language question. It is Dravida Munnetra Kazhagan (DMK) founder and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister C. N. Annadurai who said, "If Hindi were to become the official language of India, Hindi-speaking people will govern us. We will be treated like third rate citizens". Changing India's official language policy and stopping the continuing Hindi imposition should be our politicians' priority. Whatever leverage they have with the principal ruling party at the Central Government of India should be used primarily towards that end. What I am afraid of is that while Tamil Nadu politicians are concentrating on the classical language issue, they and the people of Tamil Nadu will be sidetracked from the Hindi imposition problem.

2.
What are the languages so far declared as classical languages by the Indian Government?

Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit.

With Hindian dominated political parties (such the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)) relying more and more on Members of Parliament from Tamil Nadu to come to power, the Indian Government may declare Tamil as a classical language if there is sufficient lobbying from Tamil Nadu. At the time of this writing, soon after the May 2004 election, the political party that has the largest number of members of parliament is the Congress Party. With support from its coalition partners and others, it has put together a working majority in parliament. The Congress Party and its allies have won all 39 seats in Tamilnadu. Under these circumstances, the Congress Government may be amiable to recognizing Tamil as a classical language. It is much easier to recognize Tamil as a classical language than to put a break on continued Hindi imposition. There are some in the north who are opposed to recognizing Tamil as classical language but there is not going to be any major political showdown if the new Congress-led Government recognizes Tamil as a classical language. On the contrary, any slow down to increased Hindi use in Indian Government offices, undertakings and television (that is, any slow down in Hindi imposition) would result in major political rebellion from Hindi members of parliament. So, with so much noise about the classical language demand, there is about a 60% chance that the new Congress-led Indian Government may recognize Tamil as a classical language. This is an easier way to appease Tamil Nadu politicians and continue with Hindi imposition.

3.
I learned that former Indian Government Human Resource Development Minister, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi told that only dead languages could be declared as classical languages. Is it true?

As far as we know Dr. Joshi did not make such a statement. His statement is, "The case of Tamil (as a classical language) would be helped by the fact that there were two forms of the language: ancient Tamil and modern Tamil. Antiquity and richness were the criteria for declaring a language as classical." I want to make it very clear here that there is only one Tamil. No linguist has ever said that there are two Tamils, and Dr. Joshi is neither a linguist nor does he know any Tamil. He should not make statements on subject matters that are beyond his knowledge. It was an intentionally mischievous statement by Dr. Joshi. A more detailed rebuttal to Dr. Joshi's statement may be found in Reference 1. Any one who has even the slightest doubt if there are two forms of Tamil should read that reference.

4.
Are all the languages so far recognized as classical languages dead languages?

No. India has recognized Arabic and Persian as classical languages. These languages are alive and well, spoken by millions of people in many countries. Also, Greek is recognized internationally as a classical language. It is also alive and well, spoken by millions.

5.
Could you also tell me what the dead languages of the world are? How are they different from extinct languages?

I do not know what the dead (or extinct) languages of the world are except for Sanskrit. In my opinion an extinct language is a dead language. My definition of a dead or extinct language is one that is not used by people in day-to-day living.

6.
Why do we want recognition of our mother tongue Tamil as classical language? Is it just for the purpose of upholding its dignity? What are the advantages Tamil would get in case it is recognized as classical language by the Indian Government?

There are very few tangible benefits. Though many linguists familiar with Tamil think that it is a classical language, the official recognition by the Indian Government may bring some additional prestige to Tamil. At least a couple of dozen universities around the world, for example, the Yale University, University of California at Berkeley and Pennsylvania University have already recognized the antiquity and richness of Tamil and teach Tamil. (We do not have a complete list of universities teaching Tamil.) Knowledgeable linguists do know what Tamil is and what it is not. If the Government of India recognizes Tamil as classical language a few more universities may pay attention to Tamil. Other than that I do not see much of a benefit. That is why TAMIL TRIBUNE did not write much about this issue but concentrated on India's official language policy and Hindi imposition; these are knives at the throat of the Tamil people's future. (We did briefly touch on the classical language issue in June 2001 in Reference 1. But the primary emphasis of that article was a denigrating statement made by Dr. Joshi.)

There are some who think that sizable Indian Government funds would be allocated for Tamil development and propagation if it is recognized as a classical language by the Indian Government. They come to this conclusion because India has recognized Sanskrit as a classical language and Sanskrit programs are lavishly funded. I can make a categorical statement right here that the Indian Government will not allocate funds for Tamil comparable to funds it allocates for Sanskrit. I have a suggestion to Tamil Nadu politicians. Ask the Indian Government not only to recognize Tamil as a classical language but also make sure that any Indian Government order or legislation on Tamil as classical language also stipulates that Indian Government's annual budget for Tamil development would equal the budget for Sanskrit. If Tamil Nadu politicians can get that done, then it is something to celebrate. Without such a measure, merely passing an order or legislation that Tamil is a classical language does not bring much benefit to Tamil. I am 99% certain that the Indian Government would not bring such a legislation or order on budget for Tamil development.

7.
Have we really made out an unassailable case for recognition of Tamil as a classical language? If so, would you inform me about it? Are there not unbiased and impartial world-class linguists to take up our case?

As I stated before, whether Tamil is a classical language or not is a scholarly question and not a political question. Professor George L. Hart is a Tamil Professor at University of California, Berkeley, United States of America. This is an internationally renowned university. Professor Hart is not only a Tamil scholar but also a Sanskrit scholar. He also knows Latin and Greek, both classical languages. He knows French, German and Russian also. He is teaching Tamil at the university for over a quarter of a century and has published several books. He is an internationally recognized Tamil scholar. He is NOT a Tamil. He had stated the case for recognizing Tamil as a classical language very eloquently. He states, "It seems strange to me that I should have to write an essay such as this claiming that Tamil is a classical literature -- it is akin to claiming that India is a great country or Hinduism is one of the world's great religions. The status of Tamil as one of the great classical languages of the world is something that is patently obvious to anyone who knows the subject. To deny that Tamil is a classical language is to deny a vital and central part of the greatness and richness of Indian culture." [Reference 2]

I am not asking the Indian Government to recognize Tamil as a classical language without proper endorsement from a committee of recognized experts. In fact, making a decision on the basis of scholarly recommendations rather than political horse-trading is the proper approach. This is what Reference 1 has to say about this matter: "We have no problem with the Indian Government setting up a committee of expert scholars to decide if Tamil is a classical language or not. These scholars should have no political affiliations or in the employment of the Indian Government or the Tamil Nadu State Government. We would prefer that at least some members be internationally renowned language scholars from outside of India whose mother tongue is not Tamil. The committee should be established immediately and asked to submit a report within one year. Committee's recommendation should be binding on the Indian Government. That is, if the committee concludes that Tamil is not a classical language, Indian Government should not declare Tamil a classical language; if the committee concludes that Tamil is a classical language, Indian Government should declare Tamil a classical language within six months. The situation is that the Indian Government is not setting up such a committee but simply procrastinating. Indian Government made a decision to produce nuclear bombs in far lass time than in even setting up a committee to study if Tamil should be declared a classical language." [Reference 1]

REFERENCES

1. Indian Government Denigrates the Tamil Language (by Thanjai Nalankilli), TAMIL TRIBUNE, June 2001.

2. Statement on the Status of Tamil as a Classical Language (by George L. Hart), University of California at Berkeley, April 2000.

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