Birthday of Italian missionary marks Lexicography Day in TN

Madras Day, Tamil Lexicography Day, Tamil dictionary, Tamil language, Tamil literature, Thiruvalluvar
Suba Veerapandian, founder, Dravida Iyakka Tamilar Peravai said that the government made this announcement just to gain a political mileage | Representative Photo: iStock

In a first, Tamil Nadu is set to celebrate Tamil Lexicography Day on Friday (November 8), which marks the birth anniversary of Italian missionary Constantine Joseph Beschi, also known as Veeramamunivar, who was responsible for bringing out the first Tamil dictionary.

Amid allegations against the BJP of trying to saffronise poets like Thiruvalluvar and making repeated assaults on Tamil language and culture, this announcement by the Tamil Nadu government of celebrating a Christian missionary’s birth anniversary is being seen as a welcoming one.

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A statue of GU Pope in Triplicane, Chennai (Wikipedia)

It may be noted that in the recent past, state BJP office bearers like H Raja had made scathing remarks against European missionaries like GU Pope and Caldwell, who made significant contributions to Tamil language. While Pope had translated Thirukkural and Thiruvasagam, a bhakti literature, into English, Caldwell academically established the Dravidian family of languages. However, Raja claimed that these missionaries did nothing for the development of Tamil.

“The BJP did not even acknowledge Tamil. How can we expect them to acknowledge those scholar missionaries,” asked P Mathaiyan, an Erode-based lexicographer, in response to the BJP’s remarks. In Tamil Nadu, he said, there are several people who are just making lip service to Tamil. They do not have any true feeling for the language, he said.

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The International Institute of Tamil Studies (Wikipedia)

“Institutions like International Institute of Tamil Studies, Tamil University, and Central Institute of Classical Tamil established by former chief ministers like CN Annadurai, MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi respectively, are gradually losing their sheen. In Tamil University, we had a separate department for lexicography through which we undertook many projects like bringing out Tamil encyclopedias, dictionaries, et al. But over the period the subsequent governments closed down the department citing lack of funds,” he said.

Due to of the government’s inaction and lackadaisical approach to lexicography, revision of existing Tamil dictionaries and encyclopedias are also stalled, alleged Mathaiyan. “However, many scholars are publishing Tamil dictionaries privately. But, their credibility is questionable,” he added.

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Veeramamunivar statue at the Marina Beach, Chennai

V Jayadevan, who has been the head of Tamil Lexicon Revision and consultant editor of Oxford dictionary, said that one should not look GU Pope, Caldwell or Beschi as only missionaries or outsiders. “Their contribution to Tamil is large compared to any other native scholars,” he said.

In the United States, the birthday of Noah Webster (October 16) is being celebrated as ‘National Dictionary Day’.

“On that day, school students are trained to use dictionaries. They learn new words and this exercise aims at improving their vocabulary as well. However, such initiatives are not taken here. At least the state government has not taken any measure to bring out a Tamil dictionary exclusively for school students,” lamented Jayadevan.

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Suba Veerapandian, founder, Dravida Iyakka Tamilar Peravai said that the government made this announcement just to gain a political mileage. “On one side, it tries to be faithful to the Centre and on the other, it tries to earn a good name from the people. On one hand, its ministers are supporting Sanskrit and on the other, it tries to acknowledge the role played by missionaries like Beschi. So there is no reason to believe that there will be a real objective behind this announcement,” he said.

While stressing the importance of the day, Thanga Kamaraj, director, Tamil Etymological Dictionary Project and the person who proposed celebrating Tamil Lexicography Day, said that protecting words are the base to protect a language. “Earlier, scholars used to document words that were in usage. Those collections were called ‘Nigandu’. Beschi was the first person to document those words in an alphabetical order. That was the first Tamil dictionary in its truest sense,” he said.

On this day, steps will be taken to popularise the usage of Tamil dictionary among college and school students, he said. “To celebrate this day, the government has ordered an annual allocation of ₹1 crore,” he added.