Blog post by Suchitra Sankaranarayan
Tamizh is a beautiful language filled with mellifluous words that can roll off the tongue of an experienced speaker, like most of you reading this. And Tamizh has the ability to join up many words to make simple sweet-sounding sentences. This occurred to me when I saw the poster of “Vinaithaandi Varuvaya” sub-captioned “will you cross the skies for me?” And I thought to myself, that’s actually a lot of words in English that sound like two in Tamizh. As much as I admire the language, I’ve got to admit, it isn’t easy in the least. The first struggle you had with this is pronouncing “zha” as a child; most of us simply found it easier to say palam and malai for fruit and rain until we tried and tried and (hopefully) succeeded.
Here, I write my personal experiences on why it isn’t easy to learn to speak or read Tamizh, even when you are Tamizh. I’ve come to realize there are very few people who actually know pure Tamil. The kind of dialect changes with geography. Learning proper Tamizh is automatically a task if you are a Palakkad Tamizhian as I am. PTs are unique especially in the way we speak. It’s easy to identify us, for starters we reply “O” to everything.
“Aathuku vandaacha?” “O, vandaachu”
“Ival arts padichindirka” “O appudiya?”
“Naaliki 4 hours power cut!” “Ooo…oooo!” (typical Palakkad sing-song tune)
Yes, as much as we love the “O” we conveniently ignore it from “onnaku”. It’s only noku, neku instead of onnaku, ennaku. And our frequent utterance of “allah” (no we all aren’t Muslims, for us illai = allah)
As lovely as it may sound (combining Tamizh and Malayalam and all), there can be hilarious predicaments when a Palakkad Tamizhian speaks with a pure, Madras/Thanjavur Tamizhian. When I befriended a proper Thanjavur-ian and went to her place for the usual vettalai-paaku during Navratri I was asked “tundu vaanamma?” while her paati served sambar, which left me perplexed as to why I would need a towel (Sambar pieces are only kashnams). It is only when I politely refused by saying I have one in my handbag did the problem surface and everyone but I, had a hearty laugh.
Lesson: To effectively communicate without embarrassment, learn all the synonyms!
Speaking is a piece of cake when compared to reading. I learnt to read from my grandmother during summer vacations when I was seven or eight. I still recall the number of questions I pestered her with.
As a child, starting with “aa” was the most boring thing anyone could do. I asked her to teach me my name first, to which she replied “modhalla alphabet-a cholli tharen, apprama onnodu peru”. So after a few days when I could read alphabets and simple words, I asked her again. She wrote it out “Suchitra” beginning with the alphabet for “sha”or “cha”.
And thus began the confusion. I pointed out that it’s a “sha” not a “sa” only to find out Tamizh doesn’t use “sa” although the alphabet exists. Some old rules, grandma explains.
I was silent trying to absorb these funny rules that didn’t make sense. In Hindi, you have an alphabet for every sound, here one alphabet takes up more than 3 different pronunciations. Try writing Mahesh in Tamizh. You have a letter for ‘ha’ yet we use the ‘ka’-‘ga’ hybrid alphabet making it “Makesh”. Then ‘pa’ and ‘ba’ have the same alphabet (See image below to know the different sounds a single letter can have).
“Baby” can also be “peppy” and there’s no way to tell the difference. I tried reading “panni” (for pig) only to say bunny and think of a jolly little rabbit. I made up my mind. Porum. I will revamp this whole language, add new letters, each sounding differently and clear the confusion.
That was just a silly decision made by a silly kid. 14 years later, when the evils of growing up and maturity take place, I read and understood the reasons. The letters in black are your traditional consonants, the ones in blue (the ones I wondered why they ever existed if they aren’t used) are the modern ones. They were introduced to write Sanskrit words only, not Tamizh. Today, however, with all the foreign sounds that we hear, these alphabets are slowly finding their way into the alphabet. So yes, things are changing and we are developing with it.
Tamizh is a language of adaptation, you have to know what is happening to understand what is being written or spoken and you have to be quick in responding (maybe this is what is responsible in us being regarded as the “smarties”). What I learnt from all this is that the language continues to grow even today as we are able to incorporate foreign words too. I was delighted to read “pasta” where the “sa” was finally used, I felt content.