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Standard Spoken Tamil.

The assumption underlying this grammar is that there exists a variety of spoken Tamil that is `standard' alongside the long-since standardized Literary Tamil variety (LT). This is a somewhat problematic assumption. Many linguistic scholars have approached the issue and have various conclusions to offer; the concensus seems to be that a standard spoken Tamil, if it does not already exist, is at least `emerging' and can be described as that variety that one hears used in the Tamil `social' film, and on the radio and in the production of `social' dramas, both live and, on radio and television, in situation comedies; it is the variety that is used when speakers of various local and social dialects meet in college and university hostels in Tamilnadu and must, perhaps for the first time in their lives, speak a variety of Tamil that is understandable to other Tamils from vastly different parts of Tamilnadu. An attempt to be comprehensible to the largest number of speakers means avoiding regionalisms, caste-specific forms, rustic or vulgar forms, or anything stereotypical of a particular place or community. In recent years this kind of inter-caste, inter-regional dialect has most typically resembled higher-caste, educated speech of non-Brahman groups in Tamilnadu; according to some it is neither from the far north (i.e. Madras) or from the far southern reaches of Tamilnadu (e.g. Kanniyakumari District), but rather from urban areas in the more `central' districts of TN, such as Thanjavur, Trichy, or Madurai. In cases of doubt as to whether a form is acceptable or not, speakers apparently tend to lean more toward Literary Tamil, and may choose a form that is not actually found in any spoken regional or social dialect, but is known from Literary Tamil. Since Literary Tamil is the form that all educated speakers know, it can be a repository from which general forms can be chosen; this is another aspect of what Labov's maxim (1971:450) according to which non-standard languages in contact with a standard one will vary in the direction of the standard. Here it is not in a formal context, but in a context of avoiding stigmatization.It is interesting to note that though some writers deny that ST is standardized in any way, the variety they describe in their writings is extremely close to what is described here. For Example, the variety Asher (1982) describes, though he claims it is not possible to say it represents a standard, happens, not by chance, to closely resemble what I would call standard.

For some, including both researchers and speakers of Tamil, Tamil is not `standardized' because it has not been codified by a committee or a board or an eminent person, or because a standard has not been declared and disseminated by the school system or whatever; or because a `book' has not been written called A Grammar of Spoken Tamil. In fact, I would hold that Spoken Tamil has become standardized by a process of informal consensus, in the same way that other diglossic languages that possess ancient standard literary languages have evolved modern spoken koiné s. It is in fact quite easy to get Tamil speakers to agree that certain forms are preferred and others are dispreferred; there is remarkable unanimity in this area, wherever Tamil is spoken, with the exception of Sri Lanka. The film, and spoken drama groups before it, has been responsible for the evolution and dissemination of this consensual standard.

For example, speakers may model their choice of the past neuter form of verbs on the Literary Tamil past adu, e.g. - vand-adu, rather than the form found very commonly in many non-Brahman dialects, i.e. -cci or -ccu, e.g. vandu-cci `it came.' (which is not found per se in Literary Tamil with this verb, but has spread from Class 3 verbs, or from the prototypical pasts in - of verbs like ؽ poo `go' and aa(hu) `become', which have spoken pasts pooccu and aaccu (from Literary Tamil ؽԿձ and ȿձ, respectively.) Other speakers may choose the ccu/i forms unequivocally, so that no hard and fast rules can be given for many forms.

In fact though we conclude that while some concensus does exist as to what spoken Tamil entails, the situation must be described as being variable and fluid. Individual speakers may vary considerably, even in their own speech, depending upon whom they are talking to, or what the topic of conversation is. These phenomena have been noted by many linguists working in the field of sociolinguistics, and are not limited to Tamil. Speakers may vary depending on social characteristics such as their place of birth, their community of origin, their level of education, their socio-economic status, their sex (male vs. female), their age, their occupation, whom they are talking with, and any other social markers one may isolate.Many people have contested the notion that the Tamil social film is in `standard' spoken Tamil because of the variety of dialects, some of them deliberately used for humorous or other effect, found there. For this I have a disclaimer: I would claim that in most of these films, the main characters (hero, heroine, perhaps other friends or kin) speak SST; other characters around them are `character actors' and use the non-standard, rural, rustic, or other dispreferred varieties of speech, for deliberate effect of some sort. (In fact, many films deliberately lampoon the non-standard forms; certain character actors, such as the famous Nagesh, specialized in this.) Thus the film provides not only a model of standardness or correctness (the main characters) but also a model of speech to be avoided.

Given this kind of fluidity, we have made our own decisions about what form might be given that would be acceptable to most speakers, forms that would be neutral as to most social characteristics (except that it would not be typically Brahman, nor from the lowest non-Brahman usage.) This is based on our own observations of Tamil usage, and in particular from close study of the Tamil film and the Tamil radio play.



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Next: Phonetics of Spoken Up: Background. Previous: Background.



Harold_F.Schiffman