Linguistics

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When the movie Ko released in 2011, the internet went berserk about the word ‘Kuviyamilla’ which had featured in a song. It was an unfamiliar word that a big chunk of Tamil Nadu’s population was hearing for the first time. Debates raged on social media, discussing the meaning of the word. Finally, it was lyricist Madhan Karky who revealed the meaning of the word that he'd penned - it means 'out of focus'. 

Tamil, one of the richest and oldest languages, is constantly evolving. If not by itself, the language is being pushed to newer boundaries every day, thanks to the progress of science and technology. It's become imperative that words and phrases that refer to technology are coined in order to keep up with the world.

Despite being at least a thousand years old, Tamil, as a language does not have a standard lexicon which is used uniformly across regions. In fact, Tamil Nadu is known for its dialects of Tamil spoken across the state, in Sri Lanka and even other parts of the world. This being the case, how are new words created in Tamil and who is behind this?

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While new age lyricists like Madhan Karky and Thamarai do play a role in this, the field is open to all.

Vijayanarasimhan, an independent Tamil language enthusiast, says that there is no set committee or a panel that is in charge of coining new words. Which means that anybody can come up with a new word in Tamil and start using it. However, this freedom and leniency has its own problems, he says. “The problem is, many of them are not experts in linguistics or Tamil grammar, they do it because they have the freedom to do it,” he explains, adding that the impact of such freedom is evident.

“I usually use Tamil VU's dictionaries and Tamil Wiktionary. But, often I find that the translation is not exact or is insufficient or superficial or superfluous. For example, a word in English, which can act as a noun and adjective or noun and verb or verb and adverb is translated in Tamil as only one of those --noun, adjective, verb, or adverb. So, the translation that fits one grammatical role doesn't fit another which makes us use different words for them. This leads to ambiguity and confusion,” he says. He observes that this is why coining new words must be left to the experts of the language, who will be cognizant of its grammar.

Tamil in STEM fields

While Tamil words in literature are lenient this way, the same in science and technology is monitored by a special body in Anna University.

The Centre for Development in Tamil in Engineering and Technology oversees the creation of new words in the engineering and technology domain and standardises it, so that it can be used in curricula across the state.

Dr S Arulchelvan, the Director of this centre, says that things are a little more organised in the science and technology sphere. 

“Mostly we form new Tamil words by translating the English word and deriving from it. For example, the Tamil word for e-mail is minnanjal, which is derived from the Tamil words minnanu (electron) and anjal (letter). When derivation is not possible, that is when we create new words. In the university level, these words are not created by a single person. In Anna University, from 2000, we have been creating an engineering and technology encyclopedia in Tamil called Ariviyal kalaichol agaradhi. It will have options of what Tamil words to use in the place of English words. Also, we discuss among professors and in conferences to form new words,” he says.

That is how the Corpus of Technical Glossary in Anna University was born. Explaining about its functions, Arulchelvan says that it is a committee with Tamil professors, engineering professors and linguistic experts. This committee creates a word, debates on it and finally, after everybody in the committee approves, it is printed in books and encyclopedias and distributed to various institutions and libraries. However, the corpus is dormant now due to various reasons like lack of priority for this kind of work, he adds.

Making Tamil literature open to the masses

Tamil Virtual University or Tamilvu.org as it is popularly known, is an effort by the Government of Tamil Nadu to make Tamil literature more accessible to the masses. Founded in 2001, the website is now a repository of Tamil literature and books which are freely downloadable.

M Balaji, a programmer in TamilVU, says that lack of standardisation is the biggest issue plaguing the language as of now. “An individual has no right to force others to use his new word, right? He can obviously use the word, but that is all that he can do,” he says.

Tamil VU launched the Kalaikalanjiyam project which is a database of Tamil words for English words arranged subject-wise. The project, which was going on full throttle till a few years ago, is now dormant.

 “It takes a lot of effort to maintain a list of words that come out every day and then catalogue these at regular intervals,” adds Balaji.

Challenges faced by the community

Arulchelvan explains that the lack of initiative by the government is one of the major reasons for the non-uniform set of words that are used. 

“Those who are working on this now are all working in small groups. There is no combined effort to standardise. If you observe, when you are typing in Tamil on computers or mobile phones, you can select a keyboard from a certain selection. This is the effect of non-standardisation. This is a huge drawback for us,” he points out.

He also says that the lack of speed and interest to make it happen pulls the community down along with financial constraints. 

“If a top science author releases a book, then within a short time a Chinese edition is also released for that book. That kind of initiative is missing here. We have people who translate the English editions of such books, but the meaning is lost in translation. It is similar to the difference in watching a dubbed movie and a remade movie. We need people who can imbibe the content of the book and rewrite it in Tamil,” he explains.

Role of the public in this endeavour

You and I also play a major role in pushing for this shift, says Arulchelvan. “The tendency among people that they already know the English term so why bother knowing the Tamil term for it also contributes to the slow progress in the domain,” he explains.

Balaji, however, says that it is not fair to blame the people for it. “In real life, even if I am conceptually strong in my mother-tongue, it is not going to be of any use to me in a job interview. People don’t appreciate this kind of language expertise anymore. Hence I, as an individual, would go in search of what would help me survive. That is human nature, right?” he asks.