The Mysterious Tamil Language

While enrolled at the University of California in the early 1970s, I was very fortunate to have been accepted as a participant in the Education Abroad Program and spent a year at Georg-August Universitaet in Goettingen Germany. Even though I was not particularly academically inclined and more prone to party and travel with my new-found friends there, I did manage to return home with good fluency in the German language and many fond memories. The experience changed my life forever and I have remained an inveterate traveler and collector of foreign languages ever since. They are a lovely souvenir of our travels and don’t require a great deal of baggage space to bring home.

Several decades back, when it became clear to me that India was in dire need of proper violin repair and restoration techniques and we began formulating the idea for some sort of repair course in India, I believed that such a program would ultimately take place in Varanasi, in the north of India where Hindi is the main spoken language. Since Hindi is widely spoken in India, I undertook to learn this language as properly as possible, even resorting to taking lessons from a very skilled instructor from Varanasi. I figured that being able to speak Hindi would generate good will in general and perhaps be useful in teaching the exacting skills of the violin maker’s art.

Hindi is by no means an easy language, even though it is directly related to our European-based English, German, French, and Scandinavian languages via our common roots in Sanskrit, i.e. an Indo-European language. Because of this direct link to our linguistic cousins in India, I was able to cling to similarities with German, which aided my efforts greatly. The verb structures in German are notoriously terrifying for the novice student, as the speakers and authors of this language love to wax verbose, a single sentence often filling an entire page of a novel, with multiple themes weaving in and out of a complex web of story line, psychological pathos, amusing anecdotes, and perhaps even an order of coffee and cake to nourish the weary reader who will most certainly require some sustenance before finally approaching the longed-for period at the end of the ordeal, only to realize that all the verbs come piling up at the end of this gigantic treatise, like some horrific train wreck at the end of a long novel which explains all the action that went on before, leaving the poor reader to order up yet more coffee while reviewing the entire experience, desperately attempting to figure out what it was that actually happened in the last day or two while trekking through the vast Himalayan mountain range of one single, modest sentence in this lavish German language. As you can see from the previous sentence, this Germanic trait has affected my own writing style, much to the horror of those who would edit my literary ramblings.

Aside from the German verb structure being of such assistance to the student of the intricacies of Hindi, another such useful mnemonic device which can be of solace to us is the similar use in Hindi of the so-called extended adjective, which eliminates the need for many of those pesky verbs, most commonly used in literary works of the Romantic period German authors, but now largely having disappeared from common vernacular.  A typical example might go something like this, with Hindi word order and the extended adjective in parentheses:  (The on the road standing cigarette smoking newspaper reading tea sipping man) turned and away slowly sauntered.  Other than these two very important ports in the linguistic storm of these complex languages, there will be precious little for the adventurous language learner to cling to when it comes to languages of the Indian subcontinent.

So you see, with a little knowledge of archaic German, it’s really quite easy, isn’t it?  Let us now turn our attention to mysterious Tamil, the predominant language of Tamil Nadu in South India, where Alex and I are teaching our violin repair course.
Tamil is not a language for the novice or the faint of heart.  It is referred to as the oldest continually living language on earth, possibly older even than sanskrit, so it has had plenty of time to set traps for the unwary or over-confident language learner.  In fact, I have personal reasons to believe that its endless pitfalls may never be fully revealed.  Tamilians rightly believe that those who are not native born to this language cannot possibly ever learn it properly. At least not without a few extra lifetimes reincarnated into the mix.
First of all, Tamil effortlessly demonstrates a capacity to conceal the simplest message in an endless hailstorm of syllables, all lavishly spiced with vowels which are probably unnecessary, save to protect the native speaker from being overheard in casual conversation or to render invading armies helpless.  Add to this that the words are hopelessly long, far more devastatingly so than the aforementioned German extended adjectives.  A simple “howdy” requires at least 9 syllables (Ninggu yeppedi irikinggu!).  Therefore, velocity of speech is an absolute requirement if one is to arrive at the denouement of the simplest sentence before the sun goes down.  If confronted with a native speaker,  I generally hail a taxi in hopes of arriving at the end of “good morning” in time for dinner.  “Cabbie!  Step on it!  Hurry–follow that verb!”
The consonants provide seemingly endless speed bumps along the wild taxi ride.  Not only are there far more of them than any language should be allowed by law, but the ones that lurk in the most innocent word, for instance “banana” (valai maram), are possessed of hopelessly prickly pronunciations.  If engaged in the simple task of requesting a banana, I generally need to stuff a couple of pieces of buttered toast loaded with peanut butter and mango jam into my mouth, curl my tongue around it onto the back of my palate and timidly utter the “r,” only to find it gurgling past my weary mind again towards the end of the word.  The native speaker of Tamil finds this consonant game infinitely amusing, hailing his friends to join in the hilarity of the “valai maram” spectacle, and as soon as the struggle is over, another consonant is quickly located and hurled at the foreigner for the general amusement of the growing crowd of onlookers.
The only hope for the foreigner is to join the circus, embrace a vowel or two, and accept that this language makes you into a very fine stand-up comedian indeed.  The vision of “hello” (vanakkam) emitting from the foreigner’s mouth generates such waves of laughter that one might believe that Mr. Ed, the talking horse of TV fame just walked into the room and cracked a nice joke.  There is a wonderful woman who helps clean our shop, but I have only caught small glimpses of her face over the last two years.  The moment I utter the simplest Tamil consonant, she covers her face, shuddering with peals of laughter, and dashes from the room in order that we don’t think she is impolite for openly laughing at us.  I’m certain she could carry on polite conversations; just not with foreigners carrying on in her native tongue.
If violin making should ever prove inadequate as a profession, a great career awaits us as comedians in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the wonderful people here who have taught us a couple of words. I’m keeping a few good consonants in my bag of tricks for that occasion.   In the meantime, for serious business, like ordering dinner and a drink, I’ll stick to Hindi.  In comparison, it feels like my mother tongue.

4 thoughts on “The Mysterious Tamil Language

  1. Susanne and Benjamin Sawyer

    Professor Wimmer, you are enlarging our linguistic horizons, and it is much appreciated in a world awash in the hubris of English being the only language worth beans. In addition, the photos of your Indian lutherie cohorts shows them to be absolutely sublime fellows. There is a feeling that comes through in the photos, a sensitivity and thoughtfulness. A bow of appreciation for that, too.

  2. Detlef Schlüter

    Dear Jim,
    die Deutschen sind aber nicht ganz fuehrend mit Bandwurm-Saetzen (Deiner war auch nicht schlecht). Absolute Champions sind die Richter der “cour de cassation” in Paris, die immer noch an der “phrase unique” festhalten = Urteil in einem Satz ueber viele Seiten. Nachzulesen bei

    1. James Wimmer

      Hallo Detlev,

      Ich glaube aber, dass die Deutschen die absoluten Weltmeister im Bereich “Bandwurmwörter” sein müssten. Schon im zweiten Kapitel des Lehrbuches für Anfänger in Deutsch mussten wir
      ueber “Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung” stolpern.


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