Which is the oldest South Indian language? Is Tamil older than Malayalam? These are some questions that often come up during discussion of Dravidian languages and their history. It is a matter of pride among many Tamilians that their language is the oldest, and Tamil was also the first Indian language to be declared a “classical language” by the Government of India (in 2004). How much truth is there in this assumption of antiquity of Tamil? The answer would depend on which Tamil we’re talking about.
Malayalam belongs to the family of Dravidian languages. By the size of native speakers Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Tulu, Malayalam, etc. are the major languages in this family. Note that there existed many other languages which belonged to this family and many still exist. If you are interested, I suggest you have a look at the website – Ethnologue. The root language from which all these languages were formed is called Proto-Dravidian. As time progressed, they evolved into the various forms in which we see them.
For simplicity, let us forget about all languages other than the five mentioned above. It is not going to affect our discussion. Proto-Dravidian first split into Proto-Telugu and Proto-Tamil-Kannada-Tulu. Later, Proto-Tamil-Kannada-Tulu split into Proto-Tamil-Kannada and Proto-Tulu. Finally, the language formed after Proto-Kannada split from Proto-Tamil-Kannada was called Tamil. Both modern Tamil and Malayalam were born from this old Tamil.
Old Tamil is a mother of Malayalam and modern Tamil its sister. But, as they have the same name, people often credit the motherhood of Malayalam to modern Tamil. Malayalis and Tamilian’s both assume that the heritage of old Tamil belong to modern Tamilian’s. However, this heritage belongs as much to Malayalais as to Tamilians. I share my name with my father and grandfather – Divakaran. Will my brother accept if I say that I alone should inherit my father’s property? Would any of you believe if I say I am over 100 years old? Certainly no. I feel the same is true about languages.
There are some who believe that there is no difference between old Tamil and modern Tamil. I feel that is utter nonsense. I feel that, being mutually intelligible is a necessary condition for being the same language. Very few Tamilians would understand old Tamil. Those who understand, are able to do that by training. If Malayali’s are given similar training, they would be able to pick it up with the same ease. It might even turn out easier for Malayalis as many old words in Tamil are still used in Malayalam. Also, note that, most Malayalis understand Tamil, but most Tamilians do not understand Malayalam.
The aim of this post is not to deprive Tamil of its classical status or Tamilians of their heritage. It is only to bring better understanding about our family of languages, their shared past and our common heritage, making it easier for us to love and appreciate the members of this family even more.
Note: This article originally appeared in Malayalam on the author’s blog ‘Manorajyam’, under the title ‘Namaspardha‘ (conflict/contest of names)