On a mission to fish out dying dialects

CHENNAI: Sighting a rare large fish, or sooraivedan as it is known in Tamil, with its mouth open near the sea surface is a sign of a brewing cyclone . If a fisherman catches a 'kumuli' fish with big eyes, a marriage feast is round the corner.

These may seem like old wives' tales but linguists are worried the words used to tell these tales may soon vanish. With more youngsters leaving traditional occupations for brighter prospects in the city, linguists say it is not occupations and cultures alone that are endangered but also the dialects spoken by these communities.

In an effort to record words that are dying, the Central Institute of Classical Tamil is mapping the various dialects in the state and registering words specific to a particular community. "With an increasing number of youngsters leaving the community, it is imperative to record these words or we'll lose a language and a culture with no mention of it anywhere," said S Manoharan of Central Institute of Classical Tamil.

While the exercise was initiated in 2009, a shortage of funds threw a spanner in their work. "We've revived the project and have covered Kanyakumari, where we've identified two dialects," he said. While several sporadic attempts have been made by students and research scholars in the past, this is the first time an in-depth survey is being undertaken, he said.

At risk are the dialects particular to agricultural and fishing communities where a social transformation is taking place. Instead of following in their elders' footsteps, young people are leaving for better paying jobs in urban areas. "We can't blame them. They've seen the ordeals we face every day at sea. Tales of the sea have been passed down for generations, but youngsters don't have the time or patience to listen to us," said S Bhaskaran from the fishing hamlet at Nochchikuppam.

Professors craft new lexicon to make ideas come alive

As scholars raise their arms against 'corruption' of Tamil, a team of researchers in Madras University is busy creating a dictionary that will include Tamil equivalents for English words.

The 15-member team has published one volume of the 11 volumes planned under the UGC-funded project. The last time an exercise of this sort was undertaken was between 1924 and 1939 when seven volumes were published.

"A lot of new Tamil words have made way into our vocabulary, while others are disappearing. This project intends to strike a balance," said Professor V Jayadevan , chief editor of Tamil lexicon revision project of University of Madras.

The dictionary will include words taken from secondary sources like modern and old literary works, newspapers, scientific journals and inscriptions. One volume of the dictionary will be produced every six months, he said. "Only if we have new words will a language remain relevant. However, the intention of the researchers matters. They should be very sensitive and love the language," said historian and film critic Theodore Baskaran.

He noted that for the past 20 years, there has been no conscious effort to update the language. "Language and environment are closely linked. We haven't had an environmental movement in Tamil Nadu because everyone uses his own word for a particular term. We need uniformity Most movements and discussions are carried out in English," he said.

Writers have also cautioned against the inclusion of new words and slang. "Words like 'mokka' (lame joke) and 'appatakar' (someone who blows his own trumpet) have absolutely no meaning. They are starkly different from words like 'saramsam' (a story's essence) which are emotionally loaded and beautiful," said noted Tamil poet Manushya Puthiran.

"There is nothing wrong in creating new words for conceptual terms. But it is ridiculous to call Facebook 'mugaputhagam' . A new word must emerge from the roots and not as a mere translation ," he said.