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Of dictionaries, and more

Print edition : Sep 02, 2000 T+T-

Colporul: A History of Tamil Dictionaries by Gregory James; Cre-A, Chennai, 2000; pages xx+ 908, price in India Rs.2,000.

THE dictionary of a language is more than a list of words. Words codify the cultural perception of the speakers of the language about the world they live in and experience with; a dictionary is thus a linguistic manifestation of a culture. As an instrume nt for mediating with the world and understanding it, the dictionary attracts scholarly attention and inspires the popular imagination. A History of Tamil Dictionaries is the product of years of painstaking search for published works in India and elsewhere and manuscripts in the libraries of Europe and other parts of the world (Appendix VII, running to 49 pages, lists chronologically the Tamil dictionaries from the 16th century; Appendix VIII, in 67 pages, lists with brief annotations the titles of manuscripts preserved in European libraries). The book is more comprehensive than earlier publications on the subject including the author's own; it is authentic, based as it is on consultation of primary sources and earlier studies (its bibliography extends to 117 pages). It is easy to find specific information with the help of its 64-page Index. The book is thus a model for contemporary researchers of Tamil in Tamil Nadu to emulate, for they tend to be indifferent when it comes to going to primary sources, about acknowledging the source of their information and with regard to keeping empirical facts distinguished from language ideology. The value of this mammoth book is enhanced by its beautiful, easy-on-the-eye production by Cre-A.

The book focusses on changes in the presentation, nature and quantum of words in Tamil dictionaries at different periods of time; it gives less information on the presentation, nature and coverage of meaning. It is inclusive with regard to every word in its sub-title. A History of Tamil Dictionaries is not selective of such dictionaries that made history, but is a record of every dictionary that was made, however insignificant and uninformed it might be. Evaluative comments are made, however, on dictionaries that were milestones. The works included are not only those with a specified format but also glossaries, word lists, encyclopaedias and other compilations for reference, such as collections of proverbs. Any bi- or multilingual dictionary tha t has a Tamil component is identified as a Tamil dictionary; an English-Tamil dictionary, for example, is counted in this historical account of Tamil dictionaries (in contrast, a history of English dictionaries will be narrowly defined; that will not include such a dictionary).

TWO general observations of the author about the history of Tamil dictionaries are worth noting. History is not necessarily a progression towards perfection; dictionaries are made to serve the social, cultural and intellectual needs that exist at differe nt periods of time. Thus, a modern dictionary is not a progression over nikhandus; the latter reflect different cultural modes, and serve different social purposes, of language use. The words and their meanings are committed to memory in verse for m for retrieval in the nikhandu of the medieval times unlike the alphabetised dictionaries of the modern period that aid visual retrieval. But the most modern digital dictionary also makes use of memory - machine memory. Further, it is not necessa ry to order the words alaphabetically as computer technology is powerful enough to retrieve information from any format of data. It will not be surprising if the sound card makes retrieval oral in the future, and lexicography becomes lexicophony. The 'ad vancement' in dictionary-making to differentiate between different kinds of dictionaries - dictionary for comprehension, for creation of texts, for learning a second language, on historical principles, with encyclopaedic information, and so on - may b ecome irrelevant when the computer makes possible the structuring of large amounts of related information on words and providing links between them. The dictionary will then be a lexical database.

The other observation relates to the role of European contact in the history of Tamil dictionaries. The culture contact, in general, may not be the source for innovation but may be an accelerator of a latent trait already in existence. Alphabetisation of entries in a Tamil dictionary is credited to the European missionaries who compiled Tamil dictionaries. But akarati nikhandu predates missionaries and the alphabetised aphorisms were perhaps its mode. Europeans did bring a new purpose for a Tamil dictionary - which is learning Tamil as a second language. This purpose brought in bilingual dictionaries. The Europeans were not the first to learn Tamil as a second language and use it for the propagation of religion. There were Buddhists, Jains and p erhaps Vedic Hindus for whom Tamil was a second language. But there was no bilingual dictionary of Tamil and Sanskrit/Pali/Prakrit in the past. The reason perhaps is that the dictionary was not conceived as a learning tool then. It was a tool for composi ng verse and it had words for literary use. This conceptual tradition of the Tamil dictionary continues to date. The common perception is that a Tamil dictionary is for hard words - to comprehend words in literary compositions; and that the dictionary as a learning tool is not for learning Tamil to improve one's skills of communication in it but for learning a second language like English.

THE answer to the question why dictionaries are made in any language must be found in the socio-cultural and political needs of the linguistic community. They include the preservation of ritual language; standardisation of a language that is feared as di verging, codification of a spoken language, social control by the elite through language by setting norms, assertion of separate political identity, and so on. A history of Tamil dictionaries will, therefore, be less informed and explanatory, if it is li nked to the socio-cultural history of Tamils.

The first chapter, socio-historical background, which is less structured and integrated with the rest of the book, describes culture contact and its effect on words and compilation of words into dictionaries. This chapter gives more space to Graeco-Roman contact in early history and transfer of words between languages, which stimulated interest in the etymology or words, and to the European contact in recent history, which gave rise to collection of information in the form of lists of flora and fauna, p lace names, directories, gazetteers, and so on. This chapter also gives information about language ideology relating to historical primacy and purity of Tamil and its diglossic nature, all of which have a bearing on the making of a Tamil dictionary. Ther e is, however, no description of contact of Tamil with Sanskrit/Pali/Prakrit, which is longer in duration. The problems of meaning and word coinage relating to Christian theology, discussed in the chapter on bilingual dictionaries, suggest that similar i ssues would have arisen when Buddhist, Jain and Vedic Hindu theological concepts were rendered in Tamil much earlier in its history.

THIS book points to the need for an interpretative history for answering some sociological questions relating to dictionary-making. The dictionary, for example, was transformed in the course of history from being an intellectual endeavour to being a comm ercial enterprise. This change took place in Tamil during the colonial period and coincided with the English language acquiring monetary value. Bilingual dictionaries with English and Tamil found a market among the upper caste people, who aspired for job s in the colonial government. The English officials, plantation owners, businessmen and housewives also found use in bilingual dictionaries to communicate with the public, labourers, customers, and household servants. They needed a Tamil different from t he Tamil needed for literary composition and preaching of religion. The market changed the patrons of dictionary and the nature of its content.

The dictionary as a commercial product encouraged its production from other dictionaries by cutting and pasting; made its cost a more important consideration than its precision and comprehensiveness; encouraged spinning out the same dictionary in various forms with minor modifications to enhance its market reach.

Another sociological development during the colonial period is that the dictionary became an equipment in governance; in the orientation programmes of the British officials the dictionary was required reading. Government funding was sought, as Winslow di d, for making a dictionary. There were some changes in the methodology of compilation. Dictionary-making became a team-work during this period with the European compiler being 'assisted' by Tamil pundits. This co-option was on unequal terms in spite of t he superior knowledge of Tamil that the pundits possessed. The social background of these collaborators will throw light on the interaction between their ideology of Tamil and the European perceptions and uses of it; some European compilers have commente d about the puristic attitude of the pundits, which predates the purism movement. The elicitation of words and meanings was done from among the common people, which was a new way to select entries for a dictionary.

Talking about social background, there are only three women lexicographers of this century in the whole of history. This number is very small compared to women authors of literature throughout history. Such sociological background information on dictiona ries will broaden the history of Tamil dictionaries into a literary-cultural history of Tamils.

Dictionaries also tell us about the epistemological history of Tamils. If Uriccol in Tolkappiyam, which represents the text-oriented, hard-word list tradition, is the beginning of dictionary-making in Tamil, the next one, Divakaram, which r epresents the concept-based thesaurus tradition, comes after almost 1,000 years. This gap needs an explanation in conjunction with a similar gap in grammar. Divakaram also represents a change in the disciplining of knowledge; the dictionary has be come a disciplinary area separate from grammar, as prosody and poetics had earlier been.

A History of Tamil Dictionaries makes it possible to ask such questions of larger significance for the social history of the Tamil language, while giving relaible information on Tamil dictionaries.

E. Annamalai is a former Director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore.