Print edition : November 05, 2004

GREEK and Latin were the first to be recognised as classical languages thanks to their antiquity and rich literary and cultural heritage. Languages such as Sanskrit and Persian were also given the same status by the academic and intellectual community across the globe. The status, experts say, has not been given to them by any institution, but by generations of intellectuals and scholars. Similarly, Tamil has also been treated by the academic community in different parts of the world as a classical language. Many universities have Departments of Tamil where ancient or classical literature and modern literature are languages of study and research.

When the demand for making Tamil a `classical language' came up, attempts were made to identify the common features of the languages already known as `classical'. The expert committee appointed by the Sahitya Akademi identified, after consultation with scholars from India and abroad, the language's antiquity (1,500-2,000 years) and possession of "excellent original" literature that should "inspire future generations" as some of the common features found in the classical languages.

Several studies have identified criteria, ranging from three to 11, to term a language classical, and Tamil fulfils these criteria. In the "Statement on the Status of Tamil as a Classical Language" issued by University of California, Berkely (April 11, 2000), George L. Hart, Professor of Tamil, Tamil Chair, of the university, observes, "Let me state unequivocally that by any criteria one may choose, Tamil is one of the great classical literatures and traditions of the world." Hart is Professor of Tamil at the university since 1975. Besides Tamil and Sanskrit he also knows Latin and Greek and has read extensively the literatures in these languages. He is also "well acquainted" with comparative linguistics and literatures of modern Europe.

Stating that Tamil is of considerable antiquity, he says, "it predates the literatures of other modern Indian languages by more than a thousand years". He says that Tholkappiyam, the oldest work, dates back to 250 B.C. Sangam anthologies and Pattuppattu were written in the first two centuries of the current era. He considers these works as "the first great secular body of poetry written in India, predating Kalidasa's works by 200 years".

Secondly, Hart says, "Tamil constitutes the only literary tradition indigenous to India that is not derived from Sanskrit. Indeed, its literature arose before the influence of Sanskrit in the South became strong and so is qualitatively different from anything we have in Sanskrit or other Indian languages. It has its own poetic theory, its own grammatical tradition, its own aesthetics and above all, a large body of literature that is quite unique."

Thirdly, he says, "the quality of classical Tamil literature is such that it is fit to stand beside the great literatures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Persian and Arabic." Referring to the Thirukkural as one of the world's greatest works on ethics, Hart says, "There is not a facet of human existence that is not explored and illuminated by this great literature." And finally, according to Hart, Tamil is one of the primary independent sources of modern Indian culture and tradition.

"The status of Tamil as one of the great classical languages of the world is something that is patently obvious to anyone who knows the subject. To deny that Tamil is a classical language is to deny a vital and central part of the greatness and richness of Indian culture," Hart concludes.

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