The Wonderful Allure of Tamil

Magnum Photos
Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India, 1996; photograph by Raghu Rai

Tamil is spoken today by approximately 80 million people, mostly in India but also in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia, and in an international diaspora. It is also one of the world’s oldest languages, with a continuous history stretching back to at least the late centuries BCE. It has served as a language of trade and statecraft, and as a medium for poetry, philosophy, linguistic science, visionary esotericism, and the expression of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian religious cultures over the past two millennia. To attempt to give a comprehensive vision of the language within the compass of a brief book intended for nonspecialists might seem an impossible task.

Yet Tamil: A Biography succeeds at this remarkably well. It is written by David Shulman—a leading Indologist and scholar of classical South Asian languages, now emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—who has often written about Israel and particularly the plight of Palestinians in these pages. The book traces a chronological sequence from the prehistory of the language up to modern times. Shulman draws together a wealth of contemporary scholarship, but the perspective that commands the book is uniquely his, as is the authorial voice. Gently humorous, frequently lyrical, and wearing great learning very lightly, the book’s prose admirably summons up what it might be like to listen to a series of lectures by a gifted teacher.

Some readers today would associate the Tamil language with the ethnic minority of that name in northern Sri Lanka and with the tragic events of that nation’s civil war. Others might think of the state of Tamil Nadu in the modern Republic of India, with its distinctive cuisine and popular culture. The language has more native speakers than Italian, Thai, or Polish; more than Dutch and Swahili combined. Modern Tamil is profoundly “diglossic”: its spoken register differs sharply from the formal written language.

Such descriptions cannot begin to capture the experience of listening to or speaking the language. Imagine, say, academic German at its most ornate: long sentences, internal digressions, a flurry of case endings and conjugations, the exhausting anticipation of a desperately needed noun. Imagine this as the medium of everyday life: trips to the store, tentative friendships, asking for directions. Now imagine it spoken as quickly as human tongues and lips can allow, and you have an idea, more or less, of how I felt as a college student living among Tamil speakers for the first time.

I was in Madurai, an ancient city in Tamil Nadu inextricably connected with the language’s millennia-long existence, and after much desperation, I came to find life in Tamil’s presence exhilarating. This is a frequently shared experience of the language’s foreign enthusiasts, which mirrors, however poorly, the insider perspective of many Tamil native speakers. Speaking, or even just listening to, well-spoken…

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