Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:1 March 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


Tamil is a Dravidian language with several regional and social dialects. The differences in the structures and function of the regional dialects of Tamil are not sufficiently divergent enough to call these dialects different languages. Written and spoken varieties of Tamil work as a complementary package that constitutes the Tamil language. The current trends indicate that many of the regional dialects of Hindi no longer aspire for a role in the expression of formal scientific texts, independent of standard Hindi.


In Tamil, spoken forms enter written Tamil, which is the preferred form of expression for formal purposes. In Hindi, the spoken forms of standard Hindi as well as the spoken forms of the regional dialects enter the standard written variety of Hindi which is used for formal puposes. There is a gulf between the spoken and written forms in Tamil and, as a result, a scientist has to master a set of rules and nuances exclusive to the written language for his expression. Although the gulf between the spoken and the written forms is not wide in standard Hindi, the scientist has to switch from the regional to the standard spoken and from it to the standard form. Hindi also receives elements from other Indian languages (not as much as was desired by the framers of the Constitution of India), in addition to English. Tamil also receives elements from other languages at the informal level but, at the formal level, the trend is in favor of loan translation. There is also a strong tendency in Hindi to go in for loan translations.


Hindi treats Sanskrit as its source of vocabulary for technical terms, just as English which accepts Latin and Greek as an important source for the coinage of technical terms. Tamil seeks its technical terms, wherever possible, from its own ancient and medieval stages. Sanskrit terms are sought by Hindi for making the loan translations of technical terms used in English. Tamil goes in for the coinage of pure Tamil terms as far as possible. Hindi and Tamil strive their best to have their own consistent endings for the technical terms of each discipline. Equivalents for suffixes such as -ics, -num and so on are also coined using their own sources. An attempt is made to use these in a consistent fashion. But the numbers of such suffixes are few in Tamil and Hindi, and, as a result, one and the same ending may be used in many senses.


The problem of standardization is as acute as the problem of coinage in both languages. Scientists writing in these languages are not trained as scientists using these languages. They also may not be conversant with the derivational processes the natural grammars of these languages allow. As a consequence, different scientists may use different words for the same concept in these languages. They may also use the same word for different concepts. Some scientists are influenced by their dialects. Some are influenced by the content, shape and even the pronunciation of the technical terms in English. Some may be guided by only one particular aspect of the concept for which they may coin and use a technical term in their language (Hindi or Tamil), and this makes the term inadequate for the other contexts in which the same concept may be used. Some avoid using technical terms and use metaphors or descriptions to explain the concept. Some go even to the extent of adding some new derivational processes. Some choose a word and impose on it a new meaning. The languages of Europe have also undergone these processes in the past. Such trends are noticeable even now to a lesser degree in modern European languages.


Technical terms in Hindi and Tamil are coined by various committees to enable the scientists to express scientific concepts through these languages. In the case of Tamil, many technical terms coined in Tamilnadu, India are found to be at variance with those coined by the committees in Sri Lanka. This does not create much confusion, as the territories belong to two different nations, and the migration of scientists, students and other readers as well as the exchange of materials is not frequent. But, in the case of Hindi, almost every Hindi-speaking state in India used to have its own own committee for technical terms. These committees have been busy producing terms that are often at variance with one another. These committees seemed to be influenced in their work by a desire to make the terms comprehensible not only to the scientists, but also to the general public. They exhibited a tendency to elevate the terms used in the colloquial language to the status of scientific terms assuming that this elevation would lead to better comprehension, propagation, and even acceptance of the concepts. This perhaps was one of the reasons why such variations in the terms coined have been allowed.


In Tamil, there is a tendency to avoid and eliminate foreign terms. This tendency has its roots in the ancient efforts to avoid and eliminate the words of Sanskrit origin, and supply and use in their place an existing Tamil word through loan translation. This is a tendency found in the general language which has been accepted now in scientific writing also. As a result, there is conscious, massive and, at times, time-consuing effort made for the coinage of technical terms. The Tamil script does not have separate representations/symbols for voiced stops, voiceless aspirated and voiced aspirated stops, fricatives other than glottal, and several other sounds. Such symbols are not at all necessary for the representation of native words. Thus, the international vocabulary borrowed from other languages would undergo so many changes for their graphemic representation in Tamil script that a reading pronunciation of these items may not be understood by a non-Tamil scientist even when that non-Tamil scientist is familiar with the international vocabulary. Hence there is a definite need in Tamil to develop a convention for reading pronunciation, which while retaining the Tamil graphemic representations of the international vocabulary, would enable the reader to pronounce the international vocabulary with its accepted international pronunication. There are many different kinds of efforts made to enable the readers to retain the international pronunciation: through script reformation, through presenting the technical term in the Roman script with the same spelling used in English but within parantheses immediately after the term in Tamil, through paraphrases, etc.

In Hindi, there is a tendency to avoid and eliminate the terms of Perso-Arabic origin. In place of even the most common and easily comprehensible terms of Perso-Arabic origin, the terms of Sanskrit origin are sought to be introduced. Once again, there are historical reasons for the prevalence, maintenance and persistence of this tendency. However, Hindi is more open to the use of international vocabulary than Tamil. The international vocabulary is accepted in most cases in the same manner as done in German. The main part of the international vocabulary is retained, but the affixes are usually from Hindi.

Scientists have to guard themselves against the language interference, a heavy and disastrous interference from the pronunciation habits of their first langauge (Hindi or Urdu or Tamil, etc.) in the pronunciation of the international vocabulary.


In Tamil, only humans are classified with regard to their natural gender, masculine or feminine. Their body parts are treated in neuter gender. All non-human animate and inanimate objects are referred to in neuter gender. Technical terms, thus, generally fall into the category of neuter gender. The finite verb is inflected for person, gender and number. Accordingly, when a technical term occurs in the subject position in a Tamil sentence, the corresponding main verb will be suitably inflected.

In Hindi, a system of grammatical gender is followed. This results in the classification of some items on the basis of their natural gender, some on the basis of the sounds occurring in the words, some on the basis of pure conventions. Many a time, the gender-marking appears to be done with no rhyme or reason. Every noun must be marked masculine or feminine. Users may differ among themselves sometimes on the assignment of gender to a rare word. Inanimate objects are assigned gender on the basis of the variables such as size and status/usefulness. If an object is larger it may be assigned masculine gender and if the object is small it may be assigned feminine gender, generally speaking. There are attempts in recent times to rationalize the assignment of gender to words in Hindi. Technical terms are assigned their gender in the following manner: Most of the technical terms are asigned masculine gender and some feminine. No reasons can be adduced for assigning feminine gender for certain technical terms. The technical terms with English spelling are also at times presented immediately after the terms in Hindi, to strengthen the right pronunciation and also to clarify and specify the meaning intended by the Hindi term.


The brief description given above shows that a scientist planning to express himself through Tamil has to make first of all, a choice between the spoken and written forms. The choice is made in favor of the written form just as in the case of the expression of non-technical matters. Within the written form he may either accept the international vocabulary in transliteration or go in for loan translation. Once loan translation is accepted, he has a choice between the words of Tamil origin and the words borrowed from other languages closer to Tamil from the point of view of both historical (non-linguistic) and linguistic reasons. Once a preference for the words of Tamil origin, on the basis of their being comprehensible to the general public or on the basis of transparency, is established, he has to make a choice between the "ancient" and modern forms, between making compounds and making phrases, between focusing on one aspect of the concept and focusing on all the aspects of the conept, between readable pronunciation and difficult-to-read concept-based coinages, between the elevation of a common word to the status of a technical term and discarding altogether the common word and coin a new word, and so on.

The picture has been so drawn as to highlight the path a scientist follows at the moment with regard to the coinage and use of technical terms in Tamil. This picture is presented, I should say, with some exaggeration, eliminating some compromises a good scientist as a communicator of ideas generally makes with regard to the use of language for the tasks of communication.

A route in the fashion we have established for Tamil can be established for Hindi also.

The point I wish to emphasize is that a scientist intending to express his scientific concepts through a language will be governed by many considerations, some of them linguistic and others non-linguistic. Many of the processes that the languages of western Europe had undergone in the past in making themselves fit vehicles for the expression of sciences are now being gone through by the languages of the developing nations. And yet there is a qualitative difference between the two categories. Along with the evolution of modern sciences, modern European langauges also evolved and developed their distinct identities. That is, the expansion of modern sciences and the institutionalization of scientific activity went hand in hand with the development of modern European langauges.

The speakers of the languages of the developing nations are confronted with the already well-developed sciences and well-developed expression systems for these sciences in the European languages. Their problem is to choose between the acceptance or the adoption of one or another modern European language as the main medium of expression for their scientific pursuits, and the replacement of these languages with their own. Many nations seem to prefer the latter course of action, some with definite programs while some others undertake programs half-heartedly because of conflicting pressures. Policy decisions and their implication are further complicated because of the internal linguistic composition of a nation. The problem of technical terms is not merely a problem of coining terms that fully match or reflect the concepts they are primarily intended to represent.

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