The Status of Tamil as a Classical Language | Summary and Analysis

Critical Appreciation of The Status of Tamil as a Classical Language

The Status of Tamil as a Classical Language is an argumentative essay by George L. Hart, which presents the reasons that Tamil should be deemed a classical language by India. Written almost in the form of a letter, Hart uses this prose to address the readers with his stance on the topic, using examples and evidence.


The Status of Tamil as a Classical Language | Summary


This prose is an argumentative essay by George L. Hart about why Tamil should be considered a classical language. He begins by stating that Professor Maraimalai requested he write on the topic, and he was thrilled to do so. Hart is a Professor of Tamil at the University of California, and is well-versed in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit as well. He says clearly that he believes Tamil to be one of the greatest classic literatures and traditions in the world, and proceeds to explain why.

The first reason is its antiquity. Tamil is older than other Indian languages by more than 1000 years, and dating to the first two centuries. The second is that it is the only indigenous Indian language- it is not derived from Sanskrit. Further, its prominence arose before the spread of Sanskrit, and therefore the content of its texts is quite different from what is found in Sanskrit or other Indian languages. It has a unique style of writing, from its script to its literature to its grammar and poetic theory. It contains centuries of rich tradition that one may not find anywhere else.

The third reason Hart states is the quality of Tamil literature– he says it is so high that it can stand among Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and other such languages due to how profound and fine it is, as well as its universality. Hart gives the example of the well-known Tirukkural, saying that it is just one of the many, many excellent Tamil works. Every aspect of human life and culture has been explored in this sea of literature. This brings him to his final point about why Tamil should be considered a classical language- it independently acts as a primary source of information about Modern Indian culture and tradition. Starting with the Sangam Anthologies, Tamil literature has provided fundamental support to modern Hinduism, with ideas from it even being incorporated in sacred texts and great epics all over India. Tamil literature contains work so sacred that it is recited alongside the vedas in the temples of South India.

In fact, classic Tamil is a source of modern Tamil and Malayalam, and is a base for most Dravidian languages. Hart assures his readers that he is well aware of the wonders of modern Indian languages as well, but they are not classic, for they developed in the second millennium from pre-existing languages. He then once more runs through the content of his piece, saying that a classical language is one that is ancient, independent and has a sea of rich literature- and Tamil meets all of these criteria. He concludes by saying that anyone who has knowledge about the language can agree to these points, and denying Tamil of its status as a classical language of India is the denial of a great vitality to Indian culture, before signing off.


The Status of Tamil as a Classical Language | Analysis

George L. Hart, a linguistic anthropologist, is a Professor of Tamil at the University of California, Berkeley.  In 2015, he was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian Government for his work- research and translations- with Indian languages, primarily Tamil literature. He is best known for his translation of Tamil texts to English, writing Tamil and Sanskrit textbooks, and, as we see in this prose, his argument that Tamil should be considered a classical language. The Status of Tamil as a Classical Language is written in prose, on the request of Professor Maraimalai. The request was for Hart to write about Tamil’s position (at the time) as a classical language. In 2000, the year which this piece was written, Tamil had not yet been given the status of a classical language of India, so much of Hart’s piece revolves around the reasons why he feels it should be, and the necessary information to support his points. It is also important to note that Tamil was officially recognised as a classical language in 2004.

In this prose, Hart begins with a brief self-introduction, describing his field of research and his experience. This is done to set the tone of the rest of the piece- by humbly establishing his own prowess, he makes it clear that his information is well-researched and backed by genuine knowledge. It is not ‘any other argument’ but one made with the wisdom gained from years of exploration and study. Each reason is divided neatly by paragraph, making it easier for the reader to comprehend and organize. Hart considers the biggest factors that classify a language to be classical, and proceeds to explain how Tamil meets these requisites perfectly- this method leaves no room for doubt or loopholes. He also uses several examples of Tamil literature, such as Tolkappiyam, Tirukkural, etc.

The reasons are all connected in the deeper roots- for example, one of the points is that a classical language must be ancient. Another is that Tamil is not derived from Sanskrit, meaning it is indigenous. Here, the link is that antiquity is almost a prerequisite, as it is only if a language is substantially old can it be completely self-birthed- one cannot exist without the other. Hard does an excellent job of finding the fine border between these aspects and separating them in an accurate and comprehensible way, so that each reason has heavy value in its own regard, even as a standalone point. The four points- antiquity, indigenous nature, quality, and independence are all structured with separate examples as well.

This prose is in the structure of an argumentative essay. As such, after putting forth his points in a simple and effective way, Hart brings up a possible counter-argument:

I am well aware of the richness of the modern Indian languages — I know that they are among the most fecund and productive languages on earth, each having begotten a modern (and often medieval) literature that can stand with any of the major literatures of the world.”

The opposition is the possible accusation of overlooking the richness of other languages, which is not what Hart does or aims to do at all. To quell this question before it arises, he assures the readers that he is completely aware of the importance of modern Indian languages, and then proceeds to explain what Tamil has that pushes past the border of being modern- the fact that it is not derived from any other language. This is one of the key factors of argumentative writing, which is closing any loopholes to counterarguments.

Finally, Hart concludes by wrapping up his points in a cohesive way, which not only draws a finish to the essay but gives a sense of satisfaction to the readers :

The status of Tamil as one of the greatest classical languages of the world is something that is patently obvious to anyone who knows the subject. To deny that Tamil is a classical language is to deny a vital and central part of the greatness and richness of Indian culture.”

His closing lines present the confidence necessary for an argumentative piece. After presenting credible information, this level of conviction instills in the readers that this argument is to be accepted.






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