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Tamil: A Biography

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David Shulman


   Spoken by eighty million people in South Asia and a diaspora that stretches across the globe, Tamil is one of the great world languages and one of the few ancient languages that survives as a mother tongue for so many speakers.


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.Two stories animate Shulman s narrative. The first concerns the evolution of Tamil s distinctive modes of speaking, thinking and singing.


The second describes Tamil s major expressive themes, the stunning poems of love and war known as Sangam poetry and Tamil s influence as a shaping force within Hinduism. Shulman tracks Tamil from its earliest traces at the end of the first millennium BCE through the classical period, 850 to 1200 CE, when Tamil-speaking rulers held sway over southern India and into late-medieval and modern times, including the deeply contentious politics that overshadow Tamil today.


  Tamil is more than a language, Shulman says. It is a body of knowledge, much of it intrinsic to an ancient culture and sensibility. Tamil can mean both knowing how to love in the manner of classical love poetry and being a civilized person. It is thus a kind of grammar, not merely of the language in its spoken and written forms but of the creative potential of its speakers.

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“This love letter to Tamil, in the guise of a ‘biography,’ by one of the world’s foremost indologists, is both welcome and long overdue. David Shulman is an able and enthusiastic biographer. He treats his language as a living, breathing organism, devoting considerable attention to its sounds and rhythms, and to its rich poetic tradition…Shulman judiciously combines critical scholarship such as we find it in the West with a sustained account of a 1,500-year-old indigenous tradition of grammar and commentary…[Tamil] deserves a wide readership: it breathes fresh life into the study of one of the world’s most enduring languages.”Balaji RavichandranTimes Literary Supplement


“Tamil is spoken today by approximately 80 million people…To attempt to give a comprehensive vision of the language within the compass of a brief book intended for nonspecialists might seem an impossible task. Yet Tamil: A Biography succeeds at this remarkably well…The book traces a chronological sequence from the prehistory of the language up to modern times. Shulman draws together a wealth of contemporary scholarship, but the perspective that commands the book is uniquely his, as is the authorial voice. Gently humorous, frequently lyrical, and wearing great learning very lightly, the book’s prose admirably summons up what it might be like to listen to a series of lectures by a gifted teacher.”Whitney CoxNew York Review of Books


“The poet Bharathidasan declared that Tamil was born with the sun, the moon, the sky, the stars and the seas. Few would dare to attempt the biography of such a language. But when the world’s foremost Tamil scholar gives it his best shot one cannot but take notice. David Shulman does not disappoint; he dazzles us with his labor of love… Tamil: A Biography is both synthesis and interpretation, a must-read for anyone interested in the world’s great languages and literatures.”A. R. VenkatachalapathyThe Hindu


“David Shulman’s Tamil is akin to a delightful and elevating musical composition. Spanning centuries and capturing minute details, this book reveals the inner energy of Tamil. Tamil is lucky to have such an erudite ‘biographer’ to tell its story.”S. Ramakrishnan, editor of Cre-A: Dictionary of Contemporary Tamil


About the Author

David Shulman is Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 416 pages