The ancient name of Vedaranyam in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam district was Thirumaraikkaadu. The word Marai in Tamil denotes deers and Kaadu refers to forest. So, Thirumaraikkaadu meant a forest full of deers and was prefixed by Thiru as a mark of respect. But over a period of time, Thirumaraikkaadu was Sanskritised to Vedaranyam.
On June 10, the Tamil Nadu government changed the English spellings of 1,018 places in the state to suit their pronunciation in Tamil. The government sees this as a great contribution to the Tamil language. But just transliteration of a place’s name cannot be considered as a service to Tamil, feel linguistics experts, as Vedaranyam has become Vetharanyam and not Thirumaraikkaadu.
“The motive is to decolonise the spellings that are butchered while written in English—like Dindigul, Villupuram and Triplicane,” says Arun Kumar, a Tamil scholar. “The kind of spellings the government has come up with, however, seem far worse than the existing ones. One has to assume that the committees that suggested and approved these spellings neither had the knowledge of the phonological nuances of Tamil nor common sense”.
Sol enbathu porul kurithanave, says Tholkappiyam, an ancient Tamil grammar text. The phrase translates to ‘each word has its meaning’. If there is no meaning, then it cannot be considered as a word. Following the principle, ancient Tamils gave names to places based on their geography, uniqueness, etc. So, if one came across a place’s name, the person can also know the history behind the naming and the place.
Take Mylapore, an area in Chennai, for example. The name suggests that the place once had a lot of peafowls. The word Mayil denotes peafowl, while Ore denotes village. But now, Mylapore has become Mayilaappoor.
The Tamil Development and Information Department began the transliteration process in 2018-2019. After around two years, the changes have been notified in the gazette with effect from April 1, 2020.
The gazette that was made available in the public domain on June 10 had four columns. The first column had the names of the places in Tamil, the second had the existing English spellings, the third had the English spellings recommended. by the Collectors and the fourth had the English spellings finalised by an expert committee.
“The report does not take into account the fact that some names were not Tamil,” says historian V Sriram, who has been writing on The Hindu about the history behind the names of streets in Chennai. “Saidapet was once Sayyad Shah Pet—an Urdu name. To make it Saithappettai is just not logical. Nobody pronounces it that way.” It’s always Saidapettai with the soft ‘d’. It’s not the same with ‘th’ in the middle of a word, he says.
Similarly, Mayilaappoor happens to be a portmanteau of a Tamil and a Sanskrit word—Mayil and Puri. In this case, we have Thevaram (a devotional poetry) as a reference. So, why not simply change the name to Mayilai? It is much shorter and easier on the tongue as well, says Sriram. “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,” he wrote in his blog.
However, this is not the one-off move. Actor-turned-politician and founder of Makkal Needhi Maiam party Kamal Hassan always used to write Tamil Nadu as Thamizh Nadu by emphasizing the letter ‘h’ next to ‘T’ and using the unique Tamil alphabet ‘zha’, instead of the letter ‘L’.
“The renaming exercise has no artistic or scientific or even common sense,” says T Parameswari, a poet and Tamil teacher. However, we should welcome an initiative like this, she adds.
“Our only concern is the lack of transparency. We don’t know when was the expert committee formed, who were all present in it, on what basis they followed the English spellings and why there are so many inconsistencies,” she says. “Moreover, the timing of the notification raises a doubt. Is this to distract people from COVID-19?” she asks.
The inconsistencies she refers to lie in smaller details. For example, the ‘d’ and ‘dh’ in the names of many places have been changed into ‘th’. Dharmapuri has become Tharumapuri. But some places have retained their existing spellings, such as Madhavaram.
While there are debates over the transliteration, people have suggested the giving of ancient names to some places like Madurai (Maruthai), Dharmapuri (Thagadoor) and Trichy (Uraiyur).
“The government should have made proper advertisements and should have consulted with the people before changing the names,” says DMK spokesperson KS Radhakrishnan.
There were also allegations that an “expert” from Chhattisgarh, who had been a part of the committee, was responsible for this mess. However, Tamil development director G Vijayaraghavan dismissed these allegations.
“We have many linguistic experts in the committee. We had given advertisements about the change in the names of places in newspapers. Later, a meeting was held in each district under the concerned Collector with experts from those districts. After the meetings, a list of recommendations was prepared and our state-level expert committee looked into it carefully,” he tells The Federal.
In regard to the inconsistencies in the process, he says it’s only the educated who are wary over the name change. “Those who worry about the English spellings are not pronouncing the Tamil names properly. We have reinstated the culture and originality of regions through this process and it will continue,” says Vijayaraghavan.