Rangesh Sridhar
Will Tamil take to Latin?
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

Editor’s Note : Jeyamohan, a well-known Tamil novelist and writer has kicked up a storm in the Tamil literary circles. In a column he wrote for the Tamil Hindu he called for a debate on using the Latin script for Tamil instead of the current script. This, he proposes, may make it easier for children in schools to pick up Tamil easier than the present condition where they are forced to pick-up multiple scripts. Further, he also suggests that if the Latin script were used it would lower the entry barriers for non-Tamils seeking to learn the language.

Jeyamohan supports his argument by pointing how Tamils have used different scripts in different periods of time. Scripts such as Brahmi, Grantha and vaṭṭeuttuh have been used in the past. Even the current script has undergone massive changes.

Using Latin scripts is, according to Jeyamohan, a means to ensure the continuity and survival of Tamil as a living language. He warns the readers that should Tamils not adapt their language to the demands of modern age it runs the risk of stagnating and may, like Sankrit, become a ‘protected’ albeit dead language which interests only those who are academically inclined.

The following is a reaction to Jeyamohan’s column by Rangesh, a friend of CRI.

As usual, Jeyamohan knits together multiple layers of complex arguments to make his point. Wonderful style. I am sure the usual suspects can be relied upon to raise their red flags on this! 

Some of his arguments are very intuitive and ‘common-sensical’ – like the ease with which kids can pick multiple languages written in the same script. But, I am not sure about his other assertions. 

1) That a common (Latin) script will enthuse more folks to take to Tamil (or other “regional” language) literature, and hence foster it, is at best an assumption. I believe script alone is not the biggest hindrance to the reach of Tamil literature today. The problem also lies in the fact that Tamils, as a group, have become less interested in literature in general, and serious literature in particular over the past 100 years.

This is of course in comparison to their neighbors in Karnataka and Kerala. Jeyamohan himself has rued this trend of relative disinterest in “vAsippu” (reading). One may conjecture that the roots of this might lie in the fact that popular literary scene had been inextricably linked to cinema, hence driving down people’s interest in reading books. After all, watching movies is much easier than reading books! If this could be a major factor in lower audience for Tamil literature, changing the script will make no difference. 

2) English script as a common link between languages – yes, having a common English script will make it easy for me to read the signboards and names of shops in an alien place (which I do even now). But I’m not sure how it’ll help me in picking up the local language, especially in India. The problem is compounded when you consider the fact that a word like ‘veLir’ could be pronounced differently by Tamils and Marathis.

In fact, this could be a potential speed breaker in learning an Indian language. Also, we must factor into this debate the fact that Indian languages perhaps have the most diverse swaras and a common transliteration could get really messy. I would prefer a common script. But an Indian script would be much better. I’ve been learning the Kannada script these days and I feel it can express both southern and northern languages with clarity and accuracy. Why not standardize on the Kannada script for all Indian languages? J

3) His comparison between Tamil and Sanskrit towards the end of the article also seems a little out of place. As long as people speak, think and express themselves in Tamil, I don’t see why it’ll go the Sanskrit way. I find it difficult to buy his other argument that the dominance of English is a fact of history. He needs to give us more proof for us to believe that.

It cannot be accepted only because that’s what Marxian analytical framework says about the change in the components of the superstructure in the “forward march of history”. Language has always been a subservient function of Politics. For example, pick up any random Tamil book or magazine from the 1920’s and compare it’s language to that of today’s Tamil. One cannot but help notice the ruthlessness with which Tamil has been purged of Sanskrit words.

I’ve mixed thoughts about the usefulness of this – on one hand, the hyper use of Sanskrit in Tamil had to go, but on the other, its continuation could’ve made it easier for Tamils to understand and appreciate other Indian languages.

Regardless of what one feels about it, one has to agree that this purge of Sanskrit from Tamil was a political one and not the result of any “pariNamavalarchi”(evolution) fired by the engine of “varlAttrinAttral” (historic forces).

Therefore, I see no reason to believe that the domination of English is here to stay and that we should therefore tailor our native language needs accordingly. Few things in life are set in stone and not subject to the vagaries of time. Language, and its domination, is not one of them. 

What could be a persuasive argument is if cognitive scientists could establish that learning multiple scripts could hamper the learning abilities of children. If that is true, one must seriously consider what Jeyamohan has recommended. 

As always a very well argued piece. Jeyamohan never sails with the flow and always speaks his mind out. One has to respect him for that.