Tamil: a biography

When I received the brief from Tim Jones of Harvard University Press for the design of the jacket for Tamil: a biography that we were jointly designing, it read:

'David Shulman presents a comprehensive cultural history of Tamil—language, literature, and civilization—emphasizing how Tamil speakers and poets have understood the unique features of their language over its long history. Impetuous, musical, whimsical, in constant flux, Tamil is a living entity, and this is its biography.'

It was the last two lines that inspired the thinking about the cover — the very contemporary nature of a classical language.

Tamil belongs to the Dravidian languages of South India. Tamil is the official language of the state of Tamil Nadu and is widely spoken in Pudhucherry, North and Eastern Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia. According to the Ethnologue, the encyclopedia of the world’s living languages, there are over 68 million speakers in India.

Legally recognised as one of the classical languages of India in 2004, Tamil has a literary history going back more than two millennium. Professor Emeritus George Hart, retired Chair in Tamil Studies at the University of California, Berkeley notes these as being ancient (as old as Latin and older than Arabic), having an independent tradition (with almost no influence from Sanskrit or other languages), and a large and rich body of ancient literature. Tamil literature predates the literatures of all other modern Indian languages by over a thousand years.

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