"Used as a means of communication by Hindu Celestial Gods"
Which language is the oldest – Tamil or Sanskrit? This debate started a long time ago, but fortunately, it is not as old as them.
Languages that should be appreciated for their important role in the discovery of history, have been at war for a long time.
From members of Indian political parties and the Constituent Assembly to online users and South-Asian writers, the war between the two languages continues.
This history of the languages can contribute significantly towards the correct answer.
To help clarify which language is deemed to be the oldest, DESIblitz takes a step back into the history of these long-lasting languages and their noteworthy literary associations.
Tamil Purist Movement 1916
The profound division of the languages led to the revival of the Tamil Purist Movement in the modern era.
Those who believe in this movement are of the opinion that Tamil should remain free of influence from other languages.
The Movement began in 1916, when Maraimalai Adigal openly defended the ‘pure’ version of the language.
According to the self publishing press Project Gutenberg, the earliest evidence of Tamil Purism is that of the days where any word that was non-Tamil was classified as Sanskrit or foreign.
In order to restore the pure version of the language, ‘advocates of purism’ promoted Tamil literatures through the celebration of its literary figures in a variety of villages.
However, this resulted into revival of the ‘ancient linguistic Tamil’ as a vital political issue.
Advocates of purity wanted to expunge the influence of Sanskrit onto Tamil. This was because the influence created a negative social perception, which kept the Tamils in a state of economic, cultural and political servitude.
Consequently, their views resulted into the Anti-Sanskrit and Anti-Hindu associations, but also into the alienation of Brahmins believed to be supporting Hindi or Sanskrit measures.
Advocates of purity therefore viewed the Sanskrit influence as polluting, because it rendered Tamil susceptible to the political domination of the north.
However, they might have found peace when in 2004, Tamil was proclaimed to be a ‘classical language of India’, as it met the criteria of classics:
- High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500-2000 years.
- A body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers;
- The literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community;
- The classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.
History of Tamil
The Tamil language is part of the 70 Dravidian languages, spoken by 215 million people in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
According to Britannica, the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages converged their structures in phonology and grammar back to the 2nd millennium BCE.
With numerous language families loaning words from one another, numerous Dravidian loanwords can be found in the Sanskrit text of the Rigveda.
Incredibly, the presence of Dravidian loanwords in the Rigveda suggests that at the time of its composition, Dravidian and Aryan speakers were united into one speech community.
However, the oldest forms of the Dravidian languages are found in southern India. These were not exposed to Sanskrit until the 5th century BCE.
The south was populated by Dravidian speakers even before the entry of Aryans into India, implying that the Dravidian languages existed long before Sanskrit.
Of the Dravidian family, the Tamil language is the oldest.
Their history of linguistics and ‘rich literary tradition extends back to the early Christian Era’.
The first text known in the Tamil language is Tolkappiyam’. It dates back from the 1st to 4th century CE, and writes about grammar and poetics – which were epic or religious.
In fact, Tamil literature is the oldest in India, as it was documented for over 2000 years. For example, the Sangam Literature was dated from 300 BC to AD 300.
Sources write that some inscriptions on stone were even dated to the far 3rd century BC, although they were influenced by the 5th century BCE Sanskrit grammars.
With the oldest version of Tamil dating from 450 BCE to 700 CE, until the 16th century Modern Tamil, the shape of the letters and the alterations in the alphabet led to diglossia.
Diglossia means that spoken and written contexts are different, but they coexist in the speech community. In this case, it highlights that spoken Tamil changed in the phonological structure of words.
Although Tamil is an official language of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, there is variety in phonology between the northern, western, and southern speech-areas.
However, these regional differences are also based on social class or caste.
From 5,000 years ago to today, Tamil became one of the 22 official languages of India. It was the first one to become a classical Indian language.
Tamil is an official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore. It has numerous speakers in Malaysia, Mauritius, Fiji and South Africa.
With over 70 million speakers worldwide, the Tamil language was recognised as the longest surviving language in the world.
Similarly, Sanskrit is an ancient language of India which dates back to 2000 BC in its earliest written form.
Often, Sanskrit is considered to be the world’s oldest language, which Europeans used as a basis for their languages.
In many believe that all languages of the world originate from Sanskrit at some point. Britannica has in fact wrote:
“The term ‘Sanskrit’ is derived from the conjoining of the prefix ‘Sam’ meaning ‘samyak’. This indicates ‘entirely’, and ‘krit’ that indicates ‘done’.
“Thus, the name indicates perfectly or entirely done in terms of communication, reading, hearing, and the use of vocabulary to transcend and express an emotion.”
Sources affirm that this ancient language “was used as a means of communication and dialogue by Hindu Celestial Gods, and just then, by the Indo-Aryans”.
The old Indo-Aryan language’s works are written in Vedic Sanskrit, the first period of its literary association. This is often found in sacred texts, particularly the Rigveda.
The sacred texts of Vedas led to a new tradition. Through oral communication, the language of Sanskrit would be consistently used.
Interestingly, the language was composed through the observations of the natural progression of sounds created by the human mouth.
Compositions in Vedic Sanskrit demonstrated its long work on rich commentarial literature documents, semantics and the philosophy of language.
In fact, the Sanskrit literature constituted in ancient drama, poetry, and religious & philosophical documents.
The language’s purpose was to bring out the meaning of its literatures, through sounds that are soothing to the human ear.
This is why Vedic Sanskrit contains abstract and philosophical terms which cannot be found in any other language – it has thousands of words for the expression of one simple meaning.
The 52 letters of which Sanskrit consists, are believed to have been constant since the start.
The fact that it was not altered makes many people believe that Sanskrit is the most perfect language for word formation and pronunciation.
Sanskrit as a Liturgical Language
Although Sanskrit is often called ‘the mother of all languages‘, it is not as widely spoken as the Tamil language.
For 5,000 years, the traditional use for Sanskrit has been the same.
That is to be a means of communications in Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism.
Generally, any version of the language of Sanskrit is now considered to be liturgical. Therefore, Sanskrit is a sacred language used in written and oral religious contexts.
Its ‘purity’ was conserved by its immunisation towards linguistic developments. Sacred languages are not typically translated, in fear of losing accuracy and authenticity.
However, the early version of Sanskrit remains free of influences, as written by numerous online sources.
“Rich in vocabulary, phonology, grammar, and syntax, which remains undiluted in its purity to this day”.
The liturgical language is therefore mostly used in bhajans, shlokas, stotras, and kirtans, which are types of Carnatic music.
These seem to be various hymns for the Gods; songs and mantras that worship God.
Consequently, the sacred language of Sanskrit is an official language in India. It has been declared to be a classical one in 2005.
However, although it has an astounding literature and an ancient history of 5,000 years, Sanskrit is not officially the oldest language.
This is because Sanskrit has become a language of rituals and worship, not of every-day speech.
Which is the Oldest Language?
Tamil was officially declared to be the oldest language on the globe, and it is nearly as spoken as Italian.
Although both of them date back 5,000 years, Sanskrit is a sacred language of religious worship. It is not used in every-day speech.
However, it is to notice that neither of Tamil nor Sanskrit derive from each other.
It has not been proved that they have any common ancestor language. Any similarities between them are due to loan words.
Multilingual Ankhi Mun has answered the particular question of which language is the oldest on Quora.
He demanded people to halt the war between the two languages as they are our ‘open doors to history’. He wrote:
“We should appreciate these languages which open doors to history for us.
“These languages have co-existed through 4 millennia and have affected each other significantly enough to blur their boundaries to each other.
“Our ability to read these ancient languages connect us to our past, please do not make them a tool of division.”
Likewise, native speaker of Tamil Ram Sury compared the two languages with an impartial and unbiased method.
She explained that both Tamil and Sanskrit have changed throughout time, and their literature is like photographs.
Both languages, either learned in schools or spoken in Indian districts, have changed. Very few study Sanskrit in schools – if they do, they learn the basics.
In the same way, current speakers of classical Tamil learn it in schools – classical Tamil is not their mother tongue.
Instead, their mother tongue is the modern, colloquial, sub-regional, caste-based Tamil dialects, which are very different from classical Tamil.
Ram Sury explains that we may find which literature is the oldest by comparing the ‘photographs’, therefore literature, evidence and findings.
However, it is to conclude that if we are talking about the spoken language itself, it is like asking ‘who has the earliest ancestor – me or you?’