Sanskritization of Tamil

Fri May 22 13:11:24 UTC 1998

In Indology, there was a statement about Tamil's sanskritization.
I tend to differ and will explain why.

In the following discussion, when I discuss which language is more
Sanskritized than some other language, I am not making any value judgement for
speakers of those languages. It is the right of the speaker to decide how to
speak. I have my preference. Others may have theirs. Also, collectively a
language community may decide how to continue its tradition. Again, it is the
right of that community to decide and not for other communities to criticize

When Tamils think that Tamil is less influenced by Sanskrit than other
languages, it is not just out of intuition. The first reason is the alphabet.
Except Tamil, all other literary Dravidian languages reproduce all the
Sanskrit sounds. 

Secondly, with respect to other Dravidian languages borrowing more words from
Sanskrit, the opinion of Tamils is not due to any ill feeling or intuition. It
is based on the opinion of the father of Dravidian linguistics, Robert
Caldwell, who said in "A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian
Family of Languages", 1974, Third Editionand Revised and Edited by Rev. J. L.
Wyatt and T. Ramakrishna Pillai, p.45, "It is true it would now be difficult
for Telugu to dispense with its Sanskrit: more so for Canarese; and most of
all for MalayALam:-those languages having borrowed from Sanskrit so largely,
and being so habituated to look up to it for help, that it would be scarcely
possible for them now to assert their independence. Tamil, however, the most
highly cultivated ab intra of all Dravidian idioms, can dispense with its
Sanskrit altogether, if need be, and not only stand alone, but flourish
without its aid."
Caldwell also noted that "a Tamil poetical composition is regarded as in
accordance with good taste and worthy of being called classical, not in
proportion to the amount of Sanskrit it contains, as would be the case in some
other dialects, but in proportion to its freedom from Sanskrit." Noting the
employment of more Sanskrit loans in the religious field than other fields of
Tamil literature, he compared the relative use of loans in the Tamil
translation of Ten Commandments and the English version. He found that "in the
department of nouns, numerals, and verbs, the amount of the foreign element is
in both instances the same-viz., as nearly as forty-five percent. In both
instances, also, all the pronouns, prepositions, adverbs, and conjuctions, and
all the inflexional forms and connecting particles are the property of the
native tongue
Though the proportion of Sanskrit which we find to be contained in the Tamil
version of the Ten Commandments happens to correspond so exactly to the
proportion of Latin contained in the English version, it would be an error to
conclude that the Tamil language is as deeply indebted to Sanskrit as English
is to Latin. Tamil can readily dispense with the greater part or whole of its
Sanskrit' and by dispensing with it rises to a purer and more refined style;
whereas English cannot abandon its Latin without abandoning its perspicuity
the Ten Commandments were expressed in the speech of the lower classes of the
Tamil people, the proportion of Sanskrit would be very greatly diminished; and
if we wished to raise the style of the translation to a refined and classical
pitch, Sanskrit would almost disappear
 In the other Dravidian languages,
whatever be the nature of the composition or subject-matter treated of, the
amount of Sanskrit employed is considerably larger than in Tamil; and the use
of it has acquired more of the character of a necessity. This is in
consequence of the literature of those languages having chiefly been
cultivated by BrAhmans. Even in Telugu the principal grammatical writers and
the most celebrated poets have been BrAhmans. There is only one work of note
in that language which was not composed by a member of the sacred caste; and
indeed the Telugu Zudras, who constitute par excellence the Telugu people,
seem almost entirely to have abandoned to the BrAhmans the culture of their
own language, with every other branch of literature and science. In Tamil, on
the contrary, few Brahmans have written anything worthy of preservation. The
language has been cultivated and developed with immense zeal and success by
native Tamilians; and the highest rank in Tamil literature which has been
reached by a BrAhman is that of a commentator.*(p. 46-48)" The editors
footnote "*This is not strictly accurate. Brahmins have contributed also to
Tamil literature, devotional as well as philosophical."

N. Ganesan

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