When a Language Becomes a Mother / Goddess: An Image Essay on Tamil

Ramaswamy, Sumathi

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Abstract

This essay has an unusual protagonist: a language that comes to be transformed into an object of love and devotion, producing in the process an unusual visual presence for a spoken tongue. I write of Tamil, a language that currently counts more than 70 million speakers in India and Sri Lanka, and in Singapore, Malaysia, and other parts of the global South Asian diaspora. With a deep and complex history on the subcontinent rivaled only by Sanskrit, Tamil inspired the praise and adoration of many of its speakers from its early recorded literary history traceable back to the opening years of the first millennium of the common era. In the later half of the nineteenth century in colonial India, this admiration intensified to the point that the language was imagined as a mother/goddess variously referred to as Tamilttay, Tamil Annai, and Tamil Tevi. Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, the veneration of and devotion to the mother/goddess Tamil variously fueled powerful movements for religious revitalization, the deepening of linguistic pride and love for Tamil literature, a vigorous assertion of Tamil identity, even a separatist movement for independent statehood free of India. In the course of such developments, Mother Tamil or Tamilttay herself no longer remains just a goddess of language, learning and literature, but also emerges as a mistress of territory and polity.

Document type: Article
Date: 2008
Version: Primary publication
Date Deposited: 11 November 2008
DDC-classification: General history of Asia Far East
Controlled Subjects: Tamil, Sprachgebrauch, Geschichte
Uncontrolled Keywords: Tamil , Soziolinguistik , Sprachgebrauch , Nationalismus, Tamil , Visual Presence , Language as Mother , Language as Goddess
Subject (classification): History and Archaeology
Countries/Regions: India
Series: Themen > South Asian Visual Culture Series
Volume: 1