494: Passions of the Tongue by Sumathi Ramaswamy

by Gerard


494.8110954: Ramaswamy, Sumathi. Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997. 258 pp. ISBN 0-520-20804-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Languages
  • 490: Other languages
  • 494: Altaic, Uralic, Hyperborean, and Dravidian languages
  • 494.8: Dravidian languages
  • 494.81: South Dravidian languages
  • 494.811: Tamil
  • +0954: South Asia/India

In the 1960s, men began to sacrifice themselves in the name of the Tamil language. Steadfastness to the Tamil language by inhabitants of Southern India was tantamount to a religion. But what lead to these beliefs? And what can be learned from both history and language when we view through the lens of language devotion? Sumathi Ramaswamy, in Passions of the Tongue, proposes a very new and interesting kind of linguistic study, and along the way, shows how both a people and a language evolved.

Language devotion is a new subject in the study of linguistics. When viewed in the culture of South India, the Tamil language became to its speakers a kind of goddess. At the turn of the 20th century, Tamil became a life-force for those who spoke it, and when the language itself was threatened by Hindi and other sources, purity movements and self-immolations began. Because Tamil was anthropomorphized as a female deity, the rise of Tamil speakers was paralleled by a rise in motherly metaphors in both the language and the culture. While India was trying to become its own country, Tamil was trying to secure its own power in the culture. Tamil purists could be likened to the Academie Francaise in that any change or adjustment to the language was ardently vetted.

You would be hard pressed to find a book on Tamil more thoroughly researched than this one. Ramaswamy doesn’t get into the morphology of the language so much as the culture of the speaker, which is good because the history is far more interesting. If you’re looking for an intermediate level book on South Indian languages and history, then this one is the book for you. A rich and interesting book.