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Home > Tamil Language & Literature > Tamil and Sanskrit
From a posting in 1997 by George Hart, Professor of Tamil, University of California, Berkeley
on Tamil, Brahmins, & Sanskrit:
1. Neither Sanskrit nor Tamil are particularly old in the world scheme of things. Sanskrit is documented earlier than Tamil.
2. Sanskrit has borrowed quite as much from Dravidian as Dravidian has from Sanskrit. Tamil has borrowed more words from Sanskrit than Sanskrit has from Dravidian. It is a trivial thing for a language to borrow vocabulary. But when it uses another language's syntax to form the way it expresses things, and uses another language's phonology for its sounds, that is really profound influence. The fact is, Sanskrit HAS been influenced in this way by Dravidian. Of course, some Dravidian languages have also borrowed Sanskrit sounds (bh, etc.) But none of the four Dravidian languages I have read has borrowed anything from Sanskrit syntax that I can identify. Much of the syntax of Sanskrit is Dravidian, and it has a large Dravidian vocabulary. Its system of phonetics is profoundly influenced by Dravidian -- Indo-Aryan is the only IE family with retroflexes.
3. Sanskrit also lacks some sounds that are available in Tamil. Tamil has short e and o, zh, R, n, and many permutations of stops -- e.g. k in akam -- which are not found in Skt. Actually both languages have about the same number of phonemes.
4. The word Dravidian clearly comes from the word Tamil. This has been demonstrated time and time again -- the earliest occurrences of the word in IA are dramiDa ==> draviDa.
5. I can attest that the grammar of Sanskrit is no more elegant or perfect than any other IE language. It very much resembles Russian, Latin, and Greek (which I have also read) -- to which it is closely akin. To my mind, Tamil and the other Dravidian languages have much more elegant and logical structures. Consider this: in Dravidian, you can take any sentence and turn it into an adverb, adjective, or noun by simply changing the ending on the verb. Then you can embed that sentence in any other sentence. The Dravidian relativizing system is extremely straight-forward and logical; the IE one -- shared by Sanskrit (and English) -- is quite messy and verbose. One could go on and on. I love Sanskrit, but I would never claim its zillions of nit-picking rules make it somehow an epitome of order and perfect structure. Sorry, but it's just not.
6. I do agree with Sridhar Srinivasan about the symbiotic nature of Sanskrit and Tamil (and also other Indian languages). The fact is, Sanskrit and Tamil, while originally independent traditions, have from the earliest times formed one cultural stream, much as the Latin and the languages of Western Europe have.
7. Sanskrit, like Tamil, is a very rich language and tradition. It has an enormous variety of writings, some of which are of great quality (which is true of most rich languages). It has been a carrier of cultural tradition, and it is endlessly interesting. But why is it that it is mindlessly glorified for all the WRONG reasons?
8. Both languages are carriers of wonderful and rich intellectual and literary traditions. The only way to appreciate either language is to read these literatures and spend a lot of time pondering them.
Albiruni on Sanskrit, a thousand years ago:
"...First, they differ from us in everything which other nations have in common. And here we first mention the language, although the difference of language also exists between other nations. If you want to conquer this difficulty (i.e. to learn Sanskrit), you will not find it easy, because the language is of an enormous range, both in words and inflections, something like the Arabic, calling one and the same thing by various names, both original and derived, and using one and the same word for a variety of subjects, which, in order to be properly understood, must be distinguished from each other by various qualifying epithets. For nobody could distinguish between the various meanings of a word unless he understands the context in which it occurs, and its relation both to the following and the preceding parts of the sentence. The Hindus, like other people, boast of this enormous range of their language, whilst in reality it is a defect.
Further, the language is divided into a neglected vernacular one, only in use among the common people, and a classical one, only in use among the upper and educated classes, which is much cultivated, and subject to the rules of grammatical inflection and etymology, and to all the niceties of grammar and rhetoric. Besides, some of the sounds (consonants) of which the language is composed are neither identical with the sounds of Arabic and Persian, nor resemble them in anyway. Our tongue and uvula could scarcely manage to correctly pronounce them, nor our ears in hearing to distinguish them from similar sounds, nor could we transliterate them with our characters. It is very difficult, therefore, to express an Indian word in our writing, for in order to fix the pronunciation we must change our orthographical points and signs, and must pronounce the case-endings either according to the common Arabic rules or according to special rules adapted for the purpose. Add to this that the Indian scribes are careless, and do not take pains to produce correct and well-collated copies. In consequence, the highest results of the author’s mental development are lost by their negligence, and his book becomes already in the first or second copy so full of faults, that the text appears as something entirely new, which neither a scholar nor one familiar with the subject, whether Hindu or Muslim, could any longer understand. It will sufficiently illustrate the matter if we tell the reader that we have sometimes written down a word from the mouth of Hindus, taking the greatest pains to fix its pronunciation, and that afterwards when we repeated it to them, they had great difficulty in recognising it. As in other foreign tongues, so also in Sanskrit, two or three consonants may follow each other without an intervening vowel-consonants which in our Persian grammatical system are considered as having a hidden vowel. Since most Sanskrit words and names begin with such consonants without vowels, we find it very difficult to pronounce them. Besides, the scientific books of the Hindus are. composed in various favourite metres, by which they intend, considering that the books soon become corrupted by additions and omissions, to preserve them exactly as they are, in order to facilitate their being learned by heart, because they consider as canonical only that which is known by heart, not that which exists in writing. Now it is well known that in all metrical compositions there is much misty and constrained phraseology merely intended to fill up the metre and serving as a kind of patchwork, and this necessitates a certain amount of verbosity. This is also one of the reasons why a word has sometimes one meaning and sometimes another. From all this it will appear that the metrical form of literary composition is one of the causes which make the study of Sanskrit literature so particularly difficult..."