Learning Tamil

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Recently we have had a string of posts on South Asian linguistic phenomena.  Most of the languages involved have been Indic, and will probably continue to be predominantly so during the coming months and years.  Consequently, I'm delighted today to make a post about Tamil, a Dravidian language with a glorious heritage.

Except where otherwise noted, the indented paragraphs below are by Carrie Wiebe (professor of Chinese language and literature at Middlebury).  They are integral and self-explanatory, so I will make few interpolations.

I grew up in Tamil Nadu; at least for the formative part of my young years. Then spent high school in the Chicago area and immediately went back to India when I was 17. My father still has a home there as do my mother’s sister, some cousins, and one of my brothers. So we spend quite a bit of time there (and have, off and on, since 1966.

Tamil was a language I learned as a child but not sophisticated, “adult” registers or to read or write. It is an absolutely fascinating and beautiful language. Originally I wanted to learn to read classical Tamil because I had found and studied so many cognates to Chinese stories in the Sanskrit Kathasaritsagara.* There are versions of that long collection in several Indian languages; some of the stories do have cognates in Tamil. I figured that it would be neat to be able to see if there were Tamil stories that had made their way into China. but when I really started studying Tamil in earnest, I discovered that it is probably the hardest thing I have ever studied and I do not think that I will be able to have the determination or time to continue intensive study of it. So I am going to content myself with reading contemporary Tamil and speaking it in a rudimentary way.

[*VHM:  The Kathāsaritsāgara ("Ocean of the Streams of Stories") is a famous 11th-century collection of Indian legends, fairy tales and folk tales as retold in Sanskrit by the Shaivite Somadeva.]

I studied Tamil five to eight hours a day last year for five months with a teacher, then for another six months on my own, before the school year started and I jumped back into Chinese language and literature. When I returned from Madurai, I wrote the following on my Facebook page (might give you a feeling for what I studied):

I finished my five months of Tamil class today. I was in class with Vidya for three hours per day and spent from two to five hours per day studying at home. I feel proud of myself, amazed that I stuck with it, excited about all that I learned and thrilled about the good foundation I now have to continue learning. We studied written and spoken language by reading through three of Vidya’s textbooks (and I also read through about three other textbooks that I brought with me), by watching two full-length movies (Anbe Shivam and Dharbar) and six thirty-minute movies by Balu Mahendra. We read through six short stories by Pudumaipithan, Gopura Vilakku T. Janakiraman (Thi Jaa), Ramaswamy Aiyer Krishnamurty (Kalki), Sujatha Rangarajan (a man who I think is awesome partly because he used his wife’s name as his pen name!), S. Vaidyalingam (Prapanchan), and Bahuleyan Jeyamohan. I wrote seven poems and many little essays. We had endless conversations. Lots more, but that’s the gist!”

Carrie mentioned to me, somewhat regretfully, that she has not studied Sanskrit, to which I responded:

I think you did exactly the right thing, Carrie, in concentrating on Tamil.  I'm sure you picked up a lot of Sanskritic vocabulary and Indic ideas through their borrowings into Tamil and also through reading so many English translations of Indian works over the decades.

Above all, you've been acquiring genuine fluency in Tamil and appreciation of its literary culture.

I think it's better to learn one second language well than to acquire a superficial smattering of many foreign languages.

You have my complete approbation and appreciation.

Carrie has written several poems in Tamil and translated them into English.  They are on all sorts of subjects, but many of them feature waterfalls.  I suppose that is because waterfalls are prominent in the Tamil Nadu landscape.

Here is one of my favorite Tamil poems by Carrie, with Romanized transliteration and English translation:

Eclipse in Kodai

Chandra lies atop Surya
She hides his splendor 
The Moon-covered Sun
Makes dappled crescent-shaped shadows on the ground and our clothes
Through the tree leaves
The birds quiet and
The world darkens


Kōṭaikkāṉalil kirakaṇam

cantiraṉ cūriyaṉiṉ mēl paṭuttirukkiṟāḷ

makimaiyai maṟaikkiṟāḷ

ilaikaḷ vazhiyāka

cantiraṉ mūṭiya cūriyaṉ

taraiyilum nama uṭaikaḷilum

piṟai vaṭiva oḷiccitaṟalkaḷai tūvukiṟatu.

Paṟavaikaḷ amaitiyākiṉṟaṉa


ulakam iruṭṭākiṟatu


கோடைக்கானலில் கிரகணம்
சந்திரன் சூரியனின் மேல் படுத்திருக்கிறாள்
மகிமையை மறைக்கிறாள்
இலைகள் வழியாக
சந்திரன் மூடிய சூரியன்
தரையிலும் நம  உடைகளிலும்
பிறை வடிவ ஒளிச்சிதறல்களை தூவுகிறது.
பறவைகள் அமைதியாகின்றன 
உலகம் இருட்டாகிறது



I should mention that Carrie is the translator of the remarkable work titled Yǒuyáng zázǔ 酉陽雜俎 (Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang):

…written by Duan Chengshi in the 9th century. It focuses on miscellany of Chinese and foreign legends and hearsay, reports on natural phenomena, short anecdotes, and tales of the wondrous and mundane, as well as notes on such topics as medicinal herbs and tattoos.

Yǒuyáng Zázǔ includes the world's first written version of the Cinderella story, for an English translation of which, see:

Victor H. Mair, tr., “The  First  Recorded  Cinderella  Story,” in Hawai’i  Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, ed. by  Victor H. Mair, Nancy  Steinhardt, and  Paul R. Goldin (Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press), pp. 362-67.

For an analysis and history of Duan Chengshi's Cinderella story, see:

Fay Beauchamp, "Asian Origins of Cinderella:  The Zhuang Storyteller of Guangxi", Oral Tradition, 25/2 (2010): 447-496.

For an annotated translation of the Nuògāo jì 諾皋記 section of Yǒuyáng Zázǔ, see:

Carrie E. Reed (now Wiebe), tr., Duan Chengshi, Chinese Chronicles of the Strange: the “Nuogao ji” New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Story #543 (p.35) in this collection is a fascinating account of an ancient king of Persia building a city in Tocharia.  Carrie provides abundant, detailed annotations.

See also:

Carrie E. Reed, A Tang Miscellany: An Introduction to Youyang zazu (New York: Peter Lang,


Suggested readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 31, 2020 @ 2:52 pm

    From H. Krishnapriyan:

    Someone who teaches Chinese and learns Tamil is a remarkable person, indeed!

    One thing that puzzled me about the poem was cantiraṉ being seen as female (both in the translation and in the word paṭuttirukkiṟāḷ which has an l ending). The ṉ ending should indicate that the moon is male. The moon is also masculine in the tradition, being the husband of the female stars (ashvinI, bharaNi, etc.) who are in his path around the ecliptic.

  2. jih said,

    October 31, 2020 @ 2:59 pm

    This is somewhat tangential, but the following statement may be worth discussing in this forum:

    "I think it's better to learn one second language well than to acquire a superficial smattering of many foreign languages."

    This may of course depend on what your goals are, but suppose we are talking about someone who wants to be a professional linguist. Imagine the following scenario: You are teaching an introduction to Linguistics and at the end of the class a student comes to you and says "Professor, I really like you class and I am thinking of majoring in Linguistics and eventually becoming a professional linguist. I have only taken one year of language X. Should I continue studying language X every semester and perhaps graduate with a double major in Linguistics and language X? or is it better if, from now on, I take one or two different languages every semester, so that by the time I apply to a graduate program in Linguistics I might have acquired some superficial knowledge of 10 or 12 languages?"
    What would be the correct advice to give to this hypothetical budding linguist and why?

  3. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    October 31, 2020 @ 3:03 pm

    Thanks for the post on Tamil, which I fortunately learnt natively and didn't have to undergo the kind of tribulations Prof. Wiebe must have undergone!

    > They are on all sorts of subjects, but many of them feature waterfalls. I suppose that is because waterfalls are prominent in the Tamil Nadu landscape.

    Traditional Tamil poetics (before Aryanisation of the Tamil cultural sphere) dealt with 5 different landscapes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_landscape#The_Geographical_thinais). One of the 5 is the mountainous region, full of waterfalls. Sangam poetry set in that region is probably what you had in mind.

  4. Carrie said,

    October 31, 2020 @ 4:01 pm

    Dear H. Krishnapriyan, thanks for your comment about the moon being masculine rather than feminine. I decided in my imagination to make the moon feminine. Why not do some gender bending, after all. And if I have made grammatical mistakes, I hope that the reader will forgive me since I only had been studying for five months when I wrote that. There is MUCH room for improvement!!

  5. E. Annamalai said,

    October 31, 2020 @ 8:22 pm

    There are two imaginations of moon- literary, which is feminine and mythological, which is masculine. The Tamil common word fit the moon is nilaa or nilavu. This is used as a metaphor for a woman and vice versa. It is the roundness of face and the coolness that connect to the moon. This Tamil word would be a better choice. For the sexual suggestion too.

  6. Clarence Maloney said,

    November 1, 2020 @ 3:02 am

    Thanks, Carrie. I am surprised that you imply that learning Tamil is harder than Chinese– maybe because learning a language when you are 20 is far easier than at your age. I admire your bravery. You didn't mention anything about the difficulty of understanding koccai Tamil as in movies with fast talking– which I found the most frustrating aspect of the language, more so Chennai Tamil. I agree with Bruce Dejong who from his studies advices that one should learn by speaking every sentence in both formal form and colloquial form always one after the other. I was taught only formal grammatical Tamil (wrongly, but done in those days) and have difficulty sometimes with koccai. My wife never studied and picked it up by ear, but can't understand Tamil news and can't read it.
    Good to see a good note from E Annamalai here– you spent so many years in U Chicago. Where are you now? If you come to Kodai, please visit. I am still in my house here as a Volunteer in Kodai School pushing Environment issues, some also in Tamil. And Carrie, welcome again.
    Clarence Maloney, ct_maloney@outlook.com

  7. Jim Unger said,

    November 1, 2020 @ 10:06 am

    I recall a little joke told by A. K. Ramanujan in a lecture at Chicago (1968?) illustrating the pride of Tamil speakers in the poetic qualities of Tamil. A certain Tamil-speaking professor, after sitting through a panel of talks on English poets and their works, remarked to his companion, "Well, poetry in English is certainly possible, but don't you think it's rather *prosaic*?"

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 3, 2020 @ 12:23 pm

    From Fay Beauchamp:

    I’m quite indebted to Carrie Reed Wiebe for her two early books and also email exchanges in 2008! She was generous with her feedback.

    It was very pleasant to see your reference to my Oral Tradition article after the citation of your translation and notes in the Hawai’i Reader which led me to the Zhuang context.

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