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Tamil and Kannada linguists A Question Of Antiquity

A Question Of Antiquity

Tamil and Kannada linguists array themselves on opposite sides to lay claim to a classical status. Is the battle pointless, given that both languages are derived?

A Question Of Antiquity
When the UPA government released its Common Minimum Programme, it included a line that appeared to be the only apolitical insertion in a document loaded with politics. It was to accord classical language status to Tamil. But the initial assumption of the issue's apoliticalness is being proved totally incorrect as it is gradually stirring passions in Karnataka.

Kannada intellectuals and language activists now want to know why Kannada should be denied classical status when it has "all the qualifications, and more". In the past few decades, the Cauvery water-sharing issue has made of the two linguistic communities warring Dravidian factions, the stridency of their respective linguistic identities rooted in a violent, chauvinistic history.

The two key issues that determine whether a language is classical or not are its antiquity and the body of literature that supports and brings respectability to the age of that language. And this is precisely why Kannada, along with Tamil and Sanskrit, "technically" qualifies to be a classical language, according to renowned Kannada playwright and former chairman of the National School of Drama, Chandrashekara Kambar.

"From the point of view of the language's sheer ability and the quality of its literature, Kannada should be accorded classical status before Tamil. Like the way Sangam poetry brought about refinement in Tamil culture, Sharana literature brought about a similar grand experience in our culture," argues Kambar.

Jnanpith laureate U.R. Ananthamurthy does not grudge the classical status to Tamil, but recognises the assertiveness of the Tamils in getting it: "Kannada is a great ancient language and it should also be accorded classical status after Tamil. Tamils and Bengalis always foreground their language identities, their caste and other identities only follow their linguistic identity, but it is not so in the case of a Kannadiga," he rues.

Girish Karnad, playwright and another Jnanpith awardee, dismisses the whole issue as sheer political gimmickry. "It does not in any way alter the status of the language and its literature."

Eminent linguist and Kannada University vice-chancellor K.V. Narayana deems the very idea of according classical status to a living language as foolish. "The languages that we normally agree to be classical tongues—Greek, Persian, Sanskrit or Latin—do not currently exist in their spoken varieties," he says. "So, it is very strange that Tamil seeks classical status. It is like attributing morbidity to a language that is alive and kicking. Also, if Tamil is called classical, which variety of Tamil would they designate so? The one spoken by Vanniyars or Devars or Goundars or Mudaliars or Chettiars or Nadars?"

For a majority of Kannada scholars, the issue is not as simple. Highlighting the complexities involved, they say a classical language cannot be derived out of another language, it should be of independent origin. On this count, both Tamil and Kannada disqualify as classical languages, because both have a proto-Dravidian parent. "It is a well-established theory in Dravidian linguistics that it is out of this parent language that Tamil, Tulu, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and several other variants were derived at different points of time, in fact it can be argued that Tamil and Malayalam branched out at about the same time," says cultural anthropologist Prof K.V. Rajagopal.

Prof M. Chidanandamurthy, linguist and one-time colleague of the legendary A.K. Ramanujan, goes further to challenge Tamil's stake to classicaldom: "Tamil scholars have always indulged in the glorification of their language. They make it appear as if all the world's languages have originated from Tamil. Once a Tamil linguist had told me that he could trace the etymology of any word to Tamil.This is sheer arrogance. We have to distinguish between pride and historical reality".

Picking on the antiquity issue, he argues that Kannada and Tamil are equally old. "Kannada's antiquity is proved by the 1st century AD Ashoka edict found in Brahmagiri of Coorg, where the Kannada word 'Isila' is mentioned. Then there is the Halmidi edict of the 5th century. By 9th century we have Kavirajamarga, a full-fledged treatise on Kannada poetics, this matches the achievement of Tamil grammar work of Tolkappiyam," he says.

Prof Rajagopal also points to the research of eminent Kannada writer, botanist and native Tamil speaker B.G.L. Swamy: "Many Tamil scholars take the Sangam poetry back to the BC era, but Swamy proved through flora and fauna references in Sangam poetry that placed it not before 6th or 7th century AD. This brings Tamil antiquity on par with Kannada's."

At an official level, B.M. Idinabba, chairman of the Kannada Development Authority, in a letter to Union HRD minister Arjun Singh, has argued that since Kannada has evolved more "scientifically", it should be the first to be declared classical. By scientific, Idinabba is pointing to the sophisticated grammars written for the language; monumental lexicographic work that has taken place (thanks to German missionary Ferdinand Kittel and legends like Shivram Karanth) and the way the language has adapted itself to the IT age with word processing software, a rational keyboard plan, database of a million words that would aid an online thesaurus and dictionary. "Let alone Tamil, in these aspects we're ahead of all Indian languages," says a member of the authority.

Activists who have been reacting to the issue read this as one big attempt to assert Tamil hegemony in South India. "It has nothing to do with love for language, but is all about pride, prejudice and the big funds that the human resources ministry doles out," says a Kannada journalist, recalling how Veerappan, when negotiating actor Rajkumar's release, had demanded that Tamil be declared second language in Karnataka. Another faction of Kannada activists see the classical status to Tamil as an attempt to recreate interest in the Tamil language internationally and especially in American universities. They suspect that the LTTE issue has harmed the language's prospects.

But linguist Prof S.N. Sridhar of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, says this is not true. "Tamil Studies had peaked when A.K. Ramanujan was at Chicago, but when federal funding for languages declined there was an overall slump. I've never heard of Tamil being targeted. In fact, now there is a new impetus to study Indian languages because the Indian diaspora has come of age. The language is being taught at Berkeley, Penn, Texas and even Yale," he says.

Probably, for the two languages with complementing cultures and histories but with a difficult contemporary passage, we need more cultural unifiers like Ramanujan who translated classical texts in both Kannada (Speaking of Siva) and Tamil (The Interior Landscape and Hymns for the Drowning) than divisive politicians.

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