தமிழ்த் தேசியம்

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Tamil Names
August 1992

[see also சின்னக் குழந்தைகளுக்கு வண்ணத் தமிழ்ப் பெயர் சூட்டுங்கள்]


"What's in a name? -  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" wrote Shakespeare, in his play Romeo and Juliet. But that play was written almost 400 years ago by the Bard. Now, even the Bard will agree that "there's a lot in a name", especially if it happens to be a Tamil name in Britain (or anywhere else other than perhaps Tamilnadu or Eelam). To explain  my point, I will transcribe some  portions of a thought-provoking piece which appeared in the British Medical Journal of Feb. 17, 1990. It was written by Bashir Qureshi, a general practitioner.

"The Royal Society of Medicine hosted a two day international conference, entitled `Cancer Today', at an elegant hotel in London. ...A hospital consultant, an oncologist and a general practitioner were selected to open the debate by speaking for three minutes; the first two were Englishmen, but the general practitioner was a British Asian (to be precise a Tamil from Sri Lanka)...The Chairman of the conference (who) arrived to organize the sequence for the three discussions, wrote down the two English names without any reaction but was stunned when he heard the southern Indian name, and his eyes opened wide. The chairman was clever and he divided the name into syllables so as to enable him to pronounce it correctly. It sounded like Jaya-sri-vasta-wa (first name) Nava-rat-num (surname). Incidentally, southern Indians and Sri Lankans are short people with long names. If a surname ends in a vowel the person is a Sinhali (Buddhist) but if it does not the person is a Tamil (Hindu)."

... I mailed my comments to the British Medical Journal on March 1, 1990 to correct this misrepresentation. I wrote,

"Being a Sri Lankan Tamil and possessing a surname ending with a vowel, I was bemused to read Bashir Qureshi's generalization... Maybe he also has not heard the surname of the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, India, Muthuvel Karunanidhi which ends with a vowel. In fact, numerous Dravidian surnames end with the following prefixes, which have a vowel in the end; "pillai" (literal meaning: child), "thurai"" and "sami"' (literal meaning: Lord), and "muthu" (literal meaning: pearl)..."

Though the British Medical Journal did not publish my correspondence (presumably because it was not of great medical interest to its readers), one of the editors wrote a courteous letter thanking me for taking the time to clarify the matter and he assured that my comments would be passed on to the Dr. Bashir Qureshi, who wrote the original piece.

In this regard, it is relevant to reproduce a portion of another letter which appeared in the reputed British science journal Nature of Feb. 17, 1983, under the caption, "South Indian names". It was written by one M.V. Ramaoa, He noted,

"The way the surnames are derived is different in the four South Indian states. The Andhras and the Kannadigas derive their family name through the paternal line, all generations having the same family name. The Tamilians have as their surname their father's given name with no constant family name. The Malayalees (of the state of Kerala) have two family names, one from the paternal line and the other from the maternal line, the males carrying the constant paternal family name and the females carrying the constant maternal name".

This is correct. The Tamilians (whether they live in Tamilnadu, Eelam, Singapore or Malaysia) traditionally do not carry a constant family name. But now, with computerisation of so many documents including the vital ones such as passport, the necessity to create a family name has to be satisfied. Every individual living in the diaspora is free to create (or chose) his or her family name.

I would suggest that rather than having one initial (standing for the father's name), Eelam Tamils need to add another one, which would ideally be a place name (of birth or long-term residence). Traditionally, Tamils in Tamil Nadu do have this practice. Examples are as follows:

C (Conjeepuram) N. Annadurai

C (Chidambaram) S. Jeyaramam

N (Nagarkoil) S. Krishnan

Here, the place name appears as the first initial in the name of the person. To make a distinction, Eelam Tamils can put the place name as the middle name (or the second initial). For example,

V.V (Valvettiturai). Prabhakaran

K.A (Amirthakaii). Ananthan

By this means, Tamils living in the diaspora can honour their place of birth or long term residence in Eelam, and they will create an identity which will help the future generations of Tamil progeny to trace their roots.

In the past three decades or so, family names have been found to be useful in a variety of genetic and demographic studies. I will list some of the titles of recent research papers which illustrate this trend.

1. "Surnames and cancer genes" (Human Biology, April 1989)

2. "Ethnicity determination by names among the Aymara of Chile and Bolivia (Human Biology, April 1989)

3. "Analysis of marital structure in Massachusetts using repeating pairs of surnames" (Human Biology, Feb.1992)

One of America's leading geneticists, James Crow, who authored the now classic paper entitled, "Measurement of inbreeding from the frequency of marriages between persons of the same surname" in 1965, had proposed the use of surname analysis as a tool in the investigation of population genetics.

Why the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and Eelam have not adopted the surname system, like the western countries, is a worthy question to ponder. ....  for humans, to quote Prof. Judith Bula Jacobs,

"Names are so much a part of our identity that it is easy to underestimate their importance and meanings. Names affect our interpersonal transactions, self-esteem, ethnic identity, gender respect and developmental awareness" (The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, July 1980).

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