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Vol. XXX No. 5 June 16-30, 2020

Thamizh Naadu’s Spelling Changes

by The Editor

The Tamil Nadu (is that correct?) Government, late in the evening of June 10, released a gazette notification of a decision taken on April 1. It proposes a set of English spelling changes – for 1,018 places in the State no less – based on Tamil phonetics. The exercise is commendable in the sense that it seeks to get the place names to be written the way they are pronounced in Tamil. But what it reveals is no consistency in spelling policy.

For the sake of brevity, my commentary focuses on the names of 96 places within Chennai city that are proposed to be changed. The Government’s release has two columns – one, the list of new names as proposed by the District Collectors and the other, as suggested by experts who have been consulted. The two reveal a lack of agreement in most names, as is to be expected when phonetics in one language are expressed in another. Take for instance Nandambakkam – why is it Nandhambaakkam in column ‘a’ while it is Nandambaakkam in column ‘b’? On the other hand, Adambakkam is Aadambaakkam is column ‘a’ while it is Aadhambaakkam in column ‘b’! The options for the two places completely contradict the naming logic when the pronunciations are the same in Tamil. Was the addition of an ‘h’ meant to indicate a soft ‘d’? If so, why is it there for one and not the other? And let us also add here that the correct suffix in both cases ought to have been Pakkam and not Bakkam as there is no such word in Tamil. Similarly, it is surprising that Tamil scholars have recommended Erukkencheri be changed to Erukkankjeri – jeri is not a word, while cheri is. In old Tamil it did not mean a slum – we interpreted it that way.

The report does not take into account the fact that some names were not Tamil to start with. Saidapet was once Sayyad Shah Pet – a completely Urdu name. Now, to make it Saithappettai is just not logical. Nobody pronounces it that way. It is always Saidapettai with the ‘d’ being soft and that is not the same as ‘th’ when it appears in the middle of a word. Similarly, Mayilaappoor happens to be a portmanteau of a Tamil and a Sanskrit word – Mayil and Puri. Since in this case we have the tevaram as a reference, why not simply change the name to Mayilai? It is much shorter and easier on the tongue as well. This will also be in line with the usage of Thiruvanmiyoor (why is it not Thiruvaanmiyoor?) and the change of that awful Triplicane to the Divya Prabandham-based Thiruvallikeni.

Lastly, we come to Chintadripet. When we know it was Chinna Tari Pettai historically, why not rename it as such? The two options given – Chintadaripettai and Chinthadharipettai – are both meaningless. In the light of the spelling variants mentioned above, it is also worth the Government’s while to ponder over whether it is necessary to change well-established place name spellings such as Ambattur to Ambathoor or worse, Ambaththoor. ‘Ur’ or ‘oor’ are both pronounced the same way unless it is by a person who knows no Tamil, in which case chances are the rest of the word will be mangled as well. Just take a test on how many non-Tamils pronounce Chennai or Madras correctly and you will know. And all this wallowing in a plethora of o’s, th’s and aa’s – how many are going to get it correctly? How practical are these spellings?

The whole exercise comes under the head of splitting hairs. Or was it recommended by a numerologist to get COVID to go away? The number 1,018 is enough of an indicator to show that there may be some superstition in all of this. But looking at it from another point of view – signboard painters and printers can now get busy, as also those who make changes to websites. It could well be a way of kickstarting the economy in the time of this COVID crisis and taking us into that USD 5 trillion bracket that we have been dreaming about.

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