Cleansing Tamil: Language and Purity
One evening, when she was barely thirteen, Nilambikai was taking a stroll in their garden with her famed father, Maraimalai Adigal (who at that time still went by his Sanskritic name, Swami Vedachalam). He began to sing a verse from Ramalinga Adigal’s famous Tiruvaruṭpā but when he came to the second line of the verse, Vedachalam stopped and said to his daughter: “Is it not wonderful that Ramalinga Adigal has sung this song so beautifully in pure Tamil (tūyattamiḻ)? But, instead of using the Sanskrit word tēkam in the second line, would it not have been better if he had used the pure Tamil (taṉittamiḻ) word, yākkai? Because Sanskrit words have been allowed in Tamil, it has lost its beauty and Tamil words have gone out of use.” Father and daughter resolved, from that day on, to speak and write only in taṉittamiḻ (lit., “exclusively Tamil,” but more generally glossed as “pure Tamil”) (Nilambikai 1960: iii).
This incident is cited as the originary moment of what comes to be called taṉittamiḻ iyakkam, the “pure Tamil” movement, and is dated by most scholars to 1916, though the roots of Maraimalai Adigal’s own personal predilections in this regard may be traced back to the late 1890s. The movement has invited considerable criticism and resistance, even within the devotional community. Nonetheless, it still continues to have its share of enthusiasts who publish books and journals advocating its virtues, and who seek, with varying degrees of success, to make taṉittamiḻ into an everyday habit in contemporary Tamilnadu. For the ardent purist, there is no difference between “Tamil” and taṉittamiḻ good Tamil is always already taṉittamiḻ, the only language in the world that is capable of flourishing without the aid of other languages (Nilambikai 1960: 40-51). This has meant that for purists, even their fellow devotees who do not follow the ideals of taṉittamiḻ are, by definition, enemies of Tamil; they are not the true “sons” of their language/mother (Ilankumaran 1991: 130-36, 168-69). “Those who oppose taṉittamiḻ are murderers of Tamil,” the purists declare unequivocally (quoted in M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 520).
Soon after the incident in the garden, Vedachalam Tamilized his name (and those of his children), and from then on referred to himself, at least in his Tamil publications, as Maraimalai Adigal. Vedachalam was not the first to do this. A few years earlier, in 1899, another Tamil enthusiast, V. G. Suryanarayana Sastri, had published a collection of sonnets in which his name appeared in its Tamil form as “Paritimāl Kalaiņar.” Although this was the only occasion in which Suryanarayana Sastri used his taṉittamiḻ name, his act is much-cited in purist circles, not just because of his fame as a Tamil scholar but also because he was Brahman (Tirumaran 1992: 118-23). Since that time, many of Tamil’s adherents have Tamilized their given Sanskritic names and have bestowed taṉittamiḻ names on their children (Kailasapathy 1986: 30). The pure Tamil movement, however, advocates more than just symbolic acts such as the Tamilizing of personal names and, by extension, the names of towns, streets, deities, temples, and so on. It is equally concerned with transformations in written and spoken Tamil, with the conscious refusal, in both public and domestic contexts, to rely on words that are deemed non-Tamil. As early as 1906, the Tamil scholar and Murugan devotee Pamban Swami (1851-1929) published a book of verses called Cēntaṉ Centamiḻ, in which care was taken not to allow even one Sanskrit word to appear (Tirumaran 1992: 123-26). And with the more concerted efforts of Maraimalai Adigal and his followers, this trend picked up momentum from the 1920s—with varying degrees of success, of course (Maraimalai Adigal 1930a: xxv-xxvi, 1934: 11-12). It has been estimated that even at the height of Maraimalai Adigal’s enthusiasm for taṉittamiḻ in the 1930s, at least 5 percent of the words in his texts continued to be Sanskritic (Nambi Arooran 1976: 345-46). Nevertheless, even impressionistically-speaking, the marked decline in the use of foreign words, especially of Sanskritic origin, in Tamil literary, scholarly, and even bureaucratic circles over the past half century is quite striking. The taṉittamiḻ movement, however, has paid less attention to excising foreign syntactic patterns and Sanskritic rules of compounding and suffixes, Sanskritic phraseology, and so on, all of which have arguably had a more enduring impact on Tamil literary and speech styles (Annamalai 1979: 48; Kailasapathy 1986: 30-31).
Even the most ardent of purists would readily admit that it has been impossible to totally cleanse Tamil, not least because no real criteria have been developed to determine what constitutes a “pure” Tamil word. Purists castigate the continued use of non-Tamil words in short stories, novels, newspapers, and cinema, and they lament that the earlier enslavement to Sanskrit has now been supplemented by dependence on English, especially in popular speech and culture. Such laments remind us that language purification efforts, not just in Tamilnadu but elsewhere in the world, are elite literary enterprises. Typically, they appear as an imposition of a norm from above, rather than as a manifestation of a need or sentiment from below. Purists like Maraimalai Adigal even insisted that it is indolence and lack of discipline among its speakers that was responsible for Tamil’s “corruption,” and that it was the duty of disciplined, alert literati to rectify this “problem.” “Defiling one’s speech by mixing up with it extraneous elements simply indicates laxity of discipline, looseness of character, and lack of serious purpose in life,” he scolded (Maraimalai Adigal 1980: 32). Not surprisingly, when couched in such terms, language purification efforts have certainly not caught the popular or populist political imagination, and they are frequently chastised for going against the flow, for trying to set the clock back, and for reviving archaisms (Jernudd and Shapiro 1989; G. Thomas 1991). As one critic declaimed in the Madras Mail in 1927:
A shortsighted nationalism compels such folk to strive to keep all immigrant words out.…Fortunately such purists do not control the growth of a language. That is the work of the common people. The purists may frown at slang, they may grumble that the language is being debased by slipshod and lazy talkers and writers, but fifty per cent of what they condemn eventually finds its way into the language, to be defended by a later generation of purists as violently as the earlier fought for its exclusion. Language cannot be successfully cribbed, cabined and confined.
All the same, these movements have emerged with such frequency all over the modern world because they are rarely concerned with language alone. Instead, they are crucially intertwined with questions of identity, of definitions of self and other. Maraimalai Adigal, for instance, deplored the habit of “imitation” among his fellow speakers, especially those belonging to urban upper castes. This habit had led them to use Sanskrit words instead of their Tamil equivalents. Such imitation was only a linguistic reflection of the social and religious enslavement of Tamilians to Sanskritic Brahmanism. Carrying this logic further, taṉittamiḻ adherents who follow in Maraimalai Adigal’s footsteps, such as Nilambikai, Devaneyan, Ilakuvan, and Perunchitran, proposed that Brahman power in Tamilnadu would be subverted if Tamilians stopped using Sanskrit words in Tamil writing and speech.
Yet efforts to cleanse Tamil have not always been directed just against Sanskrit; nor have attempts to use pure Tamil necessarily been motivated by hostility towards other languages (Varadarajan 1966: 99-130). Indeed, the range of opinions offered by Tamil’s devotees about the feasibility, the desirability, and the necessity of taṉittamiḻ captures quite effectively the multiple imaginations about the language that prevailed among them. The taṉittamiḻ movement associated with Maraimalai Adigal and his followers was largely an expression of contestatory classicism and radical neo-Shaivism. Their efforts to cleanse Tamil were propelled by hostility towards Brahmanism and its literary and ritual vehicle, Sanskrit. Even among them, however, numerous differences prevailed (Ilankumaran 1991: 129-37, 189-90; Tirumaran 1992: 153-208). For instance, the neo-Shaiva support for pure Tamil was linked to a religious project of Tamilizing Shaivism and of a return to pre-Sanskritic rituals and worship (Nilambikai 1960; Swaminatha Upatiyayan 1921). On the other hand, contestatory classicism’s secular concern with purifying Tamil emerged from its agenda of restoring literary Tamil to its imagined state of pure classicality. Indeed, for contestatory classicism, the medieval religious texts which are the foundational scriptures for neo-Shaiva revivalism were themselves responsible for the flood of Sanskrit words that inundated Tamil literature after the pristine Tamil of the Canḳam poems (Devaneyan 1972; Tirumaran 1992: 189-204).
Dravidianism, too, lent its support to the contestatory classicist project, motivated principally by the political imperative of countering (Sanskritic) Indian nationalism. However, given its own populist agenda, it was cautious about unilaterally embracing purification efforts with their inherently classicizing, archaizing, and prescriptive consequences. Thus Dravidianist prose eliminates Sanskrit words wherever possible, but not at the cost of distancing Tamil from the everyday language of the people. Indeed, among many in the Dravidian movement, like Ramasami and Annadurai, there was even hostility to pure Tamil advocates and their attempts to impose scholastic, high caste linguistic norms on the populace (Sivathamby 1979: 71-73).
But this is the not only reason that Maraimalai Adigal’s taṉittamiḻ movement has not been greeted with cheering enthusiasm by many Tamil scholars and adherents. For some proponents of compensatory classicism, attempts to cleanse Tamil of Sanskrit words was not just unnecessary but even undesirable (Swaminatha Aiyar 1991d: 52-53; Vaiyapuri Pillai 1989: 4-6; see also Tirumaran 1992: 274-77). And here, one may recall an interesting 1941 essay in which U. V. Swaminatha Aiyar defended the use of Sanskritic terms for food, such as pōjaṉam and nivētaṉam, instead of their Tamil equivalent, cōṟu, on the grounds that the former constituted the true “Tamil tradition” (tamiḻ marapu). Swaminatha Aiyar’s argument certainly betrays an overtly classist and paternalistic stance, for he proposed that while it was all right to use the Tamil word, cōṟu, with a poor servant, it was not appropriate to do so with a notable (Swaminatha Aiyar 1991a). Not surprisingly, this essay elicited an angry response from at least one fellow devotee, K. A. P. Viswanatham, who was clearly anguished that the venerable Tamil scholar appeared to be more devoted to Sanskrit than to Tamil (Viswanatham 1941: 360). At one level, Swaminatha Aiyar’s essay is clearly in line with compensatory classicism’s agenda of presenting Tamil and Sanskrit as twin contributors to an Indic literary civilization. At another level, this exchange also shows that purists had to struggle against both upper-caste (Brahman and high “non-Brahman”) and upper and middle-class linguistic dependence on Sanskritized Tamil.
Absence of explicit hostility towards Sanskrit also marked Indianism’s efforts to cleanse Tamil (Ramalinga Pillai 1953; Sivagnanam 1960). Between July and November 1915, a little prior to Maraimalai Adigal’s explicit “conversion” to the pure Tamil cause, Subramania Sivam, Chidambaram Pillai, and others whose tamiḻppaṟṟu found its expression in imagining an Indianized Tamil advocated the need for a taṉittamiḻ style that would be free of foreign words, including Sanskrit and English; they even announced a prize (of five rupees) for anyone who would submit essays in pure Tamil. One of their statements specifically targeted Sanskrit as the “first enemy” of Tamil. Ironically—and showing the Sanskritic inflection of Indianist prose—their appeals continued to use the Sanskrit word for language, pāṣā, rather than the pure Tamil moḻi and were replete with other Sanskritic words. These appeals by Sivam (and other Brahmans) have been interpreted by some apologists as proof that devotees who were nominally Brahman were not necessarily enamored with Sanskrit to the detriment of Tamil (Sivagnanam 1970: 91-93). All the same, Indianism’s attempts to overcome the marked dependence on Sanskrit words was motivated less by religious, antiquarian, or political imperatives, as was the case with neo-Shaivism, contestatory classicism, and Dravidianism, than by its populist concern with supporting the “language of the people” (Sivathamby 1979: 48-67). But the Tamil of most Tamil speakers for much of this century has been shot through with Sanskrit (and words from other languages). So, since Indianism also sought to ensure, like Dravidianism, that the “natural,” “living” language of the people prevailed, it did not fetishize the elimination of Sanskritic words, confining itself instead to the discontinuation of arcane literary terms, both Sanskrit and Tamil, favored by orthodox pandits and scholars.
Further, in contrast to Maraimalai Adigal’s taṉittamiḻ movement, Indianism’s call for cleansing Tamil was clearly anticolonial rather than anti-Brahman. Its predominant concern was with ridding English words from Tamil, and the expunging of Sanskrit was put on hold, for the time being at least. Indeed, responding to a criticism by a “Son of India” published in the nationalist daily Cutēcamittiraṉ, and realizing that essays submitted to his prize competition were unable to disentangle themselves from Sanskrit, in November 1915 Subramania Sivam went back on his earlier declaration of July 1915:
We have only insisted that we should write in a Tamil that is free of English. We have never said that we should have a taṉittamiḻ that is free of Sanskrit.…There is little doubt however that Tamil is a unique language (taṉipāṣai). Nevertheless, because of the interactions between Tamilians and Aryans for a long time, Tamilians have become habituated to innumerable Sanskrit words. If we thought it was possible to easily write essays these days in a taṉittamiḻ that is free of Sanskrit, would we announce that we would reward someone for this?
Thus, for Indianism the elimination of colonialism and its language, English, took precedence over the task of de-Sanskritizing Tamil. In direct contrast, Maraimalai Adigal explicitly declared in 1927 at a presentation to the Karanthai Tamil Sangam that liberation from Aryanism and its language, Sanskrit, constituted the first “cuyarājyam” (“independence”) for Tamilians (M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 528). Years later, Devaneyan Pavanar also insisted that Tamilnadu did not win its freedom with the withdrawal of the British. Only the withdrawal of Sanskrit would constitute true independence for Tamilians (Devaneyan 1972: 339). Contrary to what their critics may claim, however, these purists did not support the intrusion of English words into Tamil. Nonetheless, for them, unlike the Indianists, Sanskrit was the more enduring foe.
All these conflicting agendas for cleansing Tamil of “foreign” words came to a head in the 1930s, when its devout started to seek state patronage for the creation of appropriate vocabularies and glossaries for pedagogical purposes, and especially for instruction in the sciences (Nambi Arooran 1976: 339-40). As early as 1916, several devotees in Salem town had organized themselves into a Tamil Scientific Terms Society, and the first issue of its journal, edited by C. Rajagopalachari, confessed: “The greatest difficulty that confronts those who wish to produce books in the languages of the country…is, we believe, the absence of adequate and precise terms for scientific ideas and the chaotic state in which attempts to build up such terms are left to remain” (quoted in Irschick 1969: 303-4). Faced with this “difficulty” and “chaos,” many turned, to the dismay of purists, to Sanskrit as the source for new scientific vocabularies. So, in 1932, the state sponsored glossary of scientific terms (kalaiccol) for pedagogical use was highly derivative from Sanskrit and also relied heavily on English. This only confirmed the purists’ suspicion that the state was in the clutches of Brahmanical elements who were enemies of Tamil (Ilankumaran 1991: 191-93; Tirumaran 1992: 244-46).
The release of this glossary galvanized many purists to organize, and in 1934, under the auspices of the Ceṉṉai Mākāṇat Tamiḻc Canḳam (Madras Presidency Tamil Sangam), based in Tirunelveli, they formed a collective called the Kalaiccolākkak Kaḻakam (the Committee for Scientific Terms). They organized several conferences, ran a short lived journal called Tamiḻttāy, and in 1938 published a glossary with around ten thousand technical terms in physics, chemistry, mathematics, geography, and other subjects. Along with coining taṉittamiḻ terms, the glossary also eliminated the special grantha letters that had been incorporated into the premodern Tamil script to register Sanskritic phonology. Although the 1938 text was a real triumph for the taṉittamiḻ cause, the state’s glossaries and vocabularies for the next two decades continued to be dependent on Sanskrit and English (Ilankumaran 1991: 194-97, 202-6; E. M. Subramania Pillai 1951-52). Not surprisingly, into the 1950s purists lamented that “even though taṉittamiḻ has the approval of the common people, it has not secured a place in government” (Tirumaran 1992: 167). Some DMK legislators even suggested that under cover of creating new administrative terms, the (Congress) government had given a new lease to Sanskrit words and erased authentic Tamil words from the people’s life. Struggling under the sheer weight of centuries of administrative routines, the state’s lukewarm response to taṉittamiḻ efforts was undoubtedly motivated by its primary concern with ensuring bureaucratic efficiency and convenience of usage. At the same time, the party in power, the Congress, favored an Indianized Tamil and was especially hostile towards any anti-Sanskrit purification attempts.
This became particularly clear during the debates in the later half of the 1950s and the early 1960s over the Tamilization of the language of administration. Allapichai, a Congress legislator in the council, warned the government to keep out of state committees on administrative and pedagogical terminology “linguistic fanatics,” who would only create vocabularies which might please ancient grammarians and purists, but would be incomprehensible to “the people.” C. Subramaniam, the Congress minister for education, indeed put the ball back into the court of the purists by declaring in 1956: “The Tamil language has power (cakti). Those who allege that exposure to the words of other languages will lead to its destruction, will block its development, and will tarnish its excellence must have no faith in the power of our Tamil language.” Devotee cum legislator Muthukannappan responded, “We cannot forcibly bring in words from another language.…[I]f we do so, Tamiḻttāy is powerful. She will destroy these words, or she will subdue those other words. Everybody should recognize her power.” Nonetheless, through the 1950s the Congress-led state put up a good deal of resistance to demands for ushering in the reign of (taṉi)Tamil. These included the replacement of the Sanskritic term ākāśvāṇi for radio by the pure Tamil term, vāṉoli, and the Tamilizing of personal honorific terms, śrī and śrīmati, as tiru and tirumati.
It was not until the DMK came to power in 1967 that such demands were fulfilled, and the pure Tamil cause received a boost, although purification efforts are not particularly high on the agenda of either the Dravidian movement or the Dravidianist idiom of tamiḻppaṟṟu. Among the DMK government’s first actions was to put up a giant sign, appropriately illuminated with neon lights, on the ramparts of the secretariat building in Madras, which read, in pure Tamil, tamiḻaka aracu talaimaic ceyalakam, “head offices of the government of the Tamil land.” The state motto in Sanskrit, satyemeva jayate, was translated—although not replaced—as the (taṉi) Tamil vāymaiyē vellum, “truth always triumphs” (Ramanujam 1971: 26). Sanskritic designations for various government officials, members of the state legislature, state departments, and so on were all replaced with pure Tamil equivalents, and today, in public functions conducted by the government as well as in official publications of all kinds, it is rare to encounter obviously Sanskritic or English words (although they are not entirely absent). Since 1967, the Tamil that one hears on the radio, as well as on television, is comparatively free of non-Tamil words. State committees appointed by the DMK government for creating pedagogical and administrative terminologies, as well as for producing textbooks, have been dominated by purists, thus ensuring that pedagogical Tamil and bureaucratic Tamil are as pure as they can be (Annamalai 1979: 50). And indeed, the 1971 glossary of administrative terms released by the state seemed at last to be taking the right step in the direction of fulfilling the purist’s dream that in the streets of Tamilnadu, it is (taṉi)Tamil that ought to reign.
What are some of the implications of the taṉittamiḻ movement for the pursuit of tamiḻppaṟṟu? Most immediately, it offers another striking example of how discourse about Tamil in the devotional community has translated itself into practice, and how this process has been plagued by so many problems, not least because of the multiple notions about the language that concurrently prevail. Tamil’s devotees who have participated in the movement attempt to cleanse their own speech and writing styles; they use Tamil instead of Arabic numerals, and they follow a putative Tamil dating system that commences with the birth date of Tiruvalluvar, fixed by Maraimalai Adigal at 31 B.C.E. Over the past few decades, many have conducted public campaigns among merchants and shopkeepers in cities like Madurai and Coimbatore to Tamilize the names of commercial establishments (Tirumaran 1992: 255-56). In 1987, the state joined in this campaign by issuing similar orders (see Tamilkudimagan 1990 for the public response to this). Critics wonder if such efforts to Tamilize life and culture in Tamilnadu is akin to fighting a battle that has already been lost—first to Sanskritization, but these days more enduringly to Anglicization and westernization. They parody the neologisms of taṉittamiḻ and criticize them for getting in the way of the “real” tasks of modernizing education, restructuring the economy, erasing social inequities, and so on. And they question its tyrannical and homogenizing tendencies that spell death for the creative and “natural” flow of language and literary culture (Tirumaran 1992: 273-320).
Yet, such criticisms notwithstanding, the pure Tamil movement has succeeded in disabling all those who had claimed that Tamil was incapable of expressing thoughts that could only be expressed in Sanskrit or English, and who maintained that Tamil cannot flourish without the aid of other languages; conversely, it has enabled those who wanted to use Tamil words but had been unable to do so because of the domination of words of other languages. From the 1930s on, taṉittamiḻ adherents have published dictionaries and glossaries of “pure” Tamil words (including both neologisms as well as rehabilitated ancient ones) for use in public as well as domestic contexts. They have also provided Tamil speakers with lists of pure Tamil personal names as well as names for their houses, suggestions on how to write letters and publish invitations for special occasions without resorting to non-Tamil words, and so on (Nilambikai 1952).
All this does not minimize the reality that Tamil speakers of all class, caste, and professional backgrounds by and large continue to depend on words borrowed from other languages—Sanskrit, Telugu, Persian, Arabic, Hindustani, and English—for the myriad tasks of modernity. This only foregrounds the tragedy of not just the pure Tamil movement but of language purification efforts everywhere in the world. In seeking to cleanse languages, such movements attempt to resist and undo the reality of hybridity that characterize the societies in which they emerge (Vaiyapuri Pillai 1989: 4-12). Not surprisingly, it is this attempt to homogenize and singularize the language to conform to some imaginary pure originary moment that has invited the displeasure of critics. So, V. Ramaswamy, the well-known essayist and founder-editor of the literary journal Maṇikkoṭi, asked: “What is Tamil? paccaittamiḻ is Tamil, so too is vulgar (koccai) Tamil. Marketplace Tamil is Tamil as well. A child’s youthful prattle, too, is Tamil. Even the mixed maṇipravāḷa [Sanskritized] Tamil is Tamil” (quoted in Tirumaran 1992: 280).
But for the taṉittamiḻ devotee, such a suggestion would be sacrilegious, as would be the corollary to this statement: the speakers of all these various forms of the language have the right to call themselves “Tamilians.” Indeed, the taṉittamiḻ movement attempts to transform Tamil speakers not just into subjects of Tamil but into subjects of a particular kind of Tamil—taṉittamiḻ—that is deemed to be its only right and possible form. If Tamil devotionalism aims to ineluctably connect the subjectivity of Tamil speakers to the language, taṉittamiḻ goes further and links this subjectivity to a particularly narrow and rigid definition of Tamil. The taṉittamiḻ project is thus concerned not merely with cleansing the language but also with singularizing and homogenizing the subjectivity of its speakers, for ultimately, it is only the speaker of pure Tamil who is worthy of being called a Tamilian.