Language in south India

A piece by Vijay Nambisan in the India Foundation for the Arts’ magazine made some interesting points about written and spoken languages in South India:

“… Malayalam is a highly diglossal language, much more so than any of its northern sisters. The farther south you go in India, I think, the further apart grow the written and spoken languages…. I can barely comprehend the newspapers, and most literary texts are closed books to me.” (32)

I feel his pain — as a near fluent speaker of one variety of Tamil (spoken in one place among one caste), it is a source of constant frustration to me that I have to concentrate to understand the news on Tamil Doordarshan or political speeches.

  1. Claire said:

    Yes, I often wondered about the difficulty of comprehending the TV news during my time in Tamil Nadu–if one is a native Tamil speaker but is not literate, is the spoken news somewhat incomprehensible, given that the formality of the journalistic language involves many of the “written” vocabulary forms? And does this prohibit poorer or less-educated Tamilians from gaining an understanding of current events? I never really got a straight answer on this . . .

    • nraman said:

      This is something I’ve wondered about too. What about all the people in Kerala reading newspapers? Are newspapers written more colloquially or are they all well educated in written Malayalam (which would be incredible)? I’ll follow up on this and get back to you. This also brings up another interesting point — which is — what does being literate mean in places where spoken and written languages are so divergent? A literacy measurement would only tell you a quarter of the story.

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