Tamil: A Biography.

AuthorSelby, Martha Ann
PositionBook review

Tamil: A Biography. By DAVID SHULMAN. Cambridge, Mass.: BELKNAP PRESS OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016. Pp. xii + 402.

"A language is never a thing," writes David Shulman in the preface to his provocative biography of the Tamil language. Identifying himself as Tamil's "ghostwriter" and "biographer," this book, as Shulman tells us, is a "cultural history of Tamil... with particular focus on the understandings and perceptions about the language that came to the surface over the two thousand years of its documented existence" (p. ix). Shulman identifies two main narratives, "one about the ways Tamil evolved in itself ... and one about major expressive--especially poetic and literary--drives and themes, seen in a broad historical perspective that makes space for continuities" (p. ix). (But what, I would ask, about the discontinuities? I will address these questions towards the end of my review.)

In his first chapter, Shulman takes us from pre- to proto-history via a "linguistic survey," but it is much more than that. He opens with a meditation on Tamil's left-branching, agglutinative nature. Writing with deep empathy and understanding, he invites readers to acquire "at least some sense of what it feels like to "live inside" a Tamil sensibility (pp. 8-9), thereby getting a feel for the effects of Tamil's linguistic structures on its speakers and listeners alike, the demands of the wholly formed Tamil sentence, and Tamil's "wealth of modal and aspectual means" (p. 12).

As Shulman rightly insists, there is no such thing as "pure Tamil." He then leads us through an examination of "external testimonies to the existence of ancient Tamil" (p. 25) by providing a discussion of Prakrit and Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. Through this evidence, we know that by the mid-third century BCE "the far south of India was home to several dynastic states whose names we know well from the later, so-called Sangam poems" (p. 22). But Shulman is quick to say that "the Tamil tradition has its own persistent theory about its origins" (p. 25), found in the figure of the "maverick Vedic sage Agastya," who, according to medieval commentator Nakkiranar, was there at Tamil's very beginning, and the "putative author of the first Tamil grammar," the Agattiyam, "now lost except for a few stray verses quoted in medieval commentaries" (p. 27).

Shulman advises us to hold both perspectives in our minds--origin narratives from the inside and out--as we consider the shift from pre-history to proto-history, which begins around the second century BCE with the Tamil BrahmT inscriptions. This is certainly early, and while the As'okan inscriptions of the mid-third century BCE mention four Tamil kingdoms, Dravidian speech is actually attested long before this; found in "Vedic Sanskrit, and in the Hebrew Bible" (p. 41). Moving ahead, what we end up with is "a strikingly coherent and convincing image of a culture driven by poetry and an ancient grammar that serves both poets and their royal patrons." As Shulman perceptively adds, "Grammar defines politics no less than literature and music" (p. 42).

In his second chapter, Shulman explores the "in-ness" of cankam poetry, beginning with the kilavi, the "statement" or "clear expression" in the form of a contextualizing headnote, with which each cankam poem begins (p. 44), followed by ullurai-y-uvamam, the "inset" or "a comparison that inhabits the inside," and iraicci, "suggestion," the latter two techniques that, in tandem, constitute what A. K. Ramanujan so perceptively called the "interior landscape" (pp. 44-45). Shulman's translations of the cankam poems used as examples in this chapter are not precise--he has simplified them, and has rendered them in too colloquial a register for my taste--but they are emotionally precise, and he does note that these poems were "written for us"; that "the centuries fall away as soon as we hear them" (p. 54).

Shulman provides us with a fine discussion of what we can...

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