Pasts in the Present: Tamil Grammar and its Contemporary Predicaments


The relevance of grammar, and the need for it, continues to be poorly understood. For instance, nobody needs to have a conscious understanding of grammar in order to use his or her own mother tongue. There is also the widespread contemporary belief that Tamil grammar is required only for the archaic ways of poets who are stuck in a so-called glorious past. This is in marked contrast to western conceptions of grammar, which focus more on current usage.

Given the dynamic nature of language, grammar continues to function in literature, as well as in everyday language use: whether or not we recognize it, the fact is that we cannot utter anything, nor understand anyone else’s utterance, without relying on a grammatical framework. It is, therefore, imperative that we address the roles and perceptions associated with grammar in the contemporary Tamil world, in order to provide us with certain basic issues for further exploration.

The teaching of grammar in school as one component – a mere token adjunct - in language teaching is primarily oriented towards examinations. The content of the school grammar curriculum testifies to this reality, not to mention the widespread, spontaneous hatred that it manages to provoke among most students. Higher education is no different. While it is true that students who choose language as a major subject in their undergraduate studies get some opportunity to learn and engage with grammar, it is very rare that anyone decides to pursue research in grammar.

-  How is grammar conceived in its present institutional, pedagogic avatar – as normative, or as descriptive or both?

-  How do conceptions of grammar relate to the changing world of Tamil as a dynamic language in the world at large?

-  To what extent and in what ways does traditional Tamil grammar influence the teaching and learning of Tamil today?

-  How do we understand and develop resources for a meaningful contemporary pedagogy of grammar, in relation to past practices?

-  To what extent do we know the history of the teaching of Tamil grammar? What was the nature of teaching in the tinnai schools of the past? What was the nature of the transition through the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, through the colonial encounter and after?

-  Would a comparative study of the evolution of grammar curricula and pedagogy help us gain a better understanding of grammar?

-  What is the significance of grammar study to social needs?

-  What kinds of politics or language are at work that would either make grammar an enabling tool for sustaining dynamism in its language, or, to the contrary, confine it to being a mere tool for the evaluation/judgment of language use?

-  What have been the varied relationships over the last century between the changing forms of linguistic nationalism on the one hand and the real character and needs of the language itself, in Tamil society?

-  What are the various subject matters addressed by various grammatical systems: for example, is poetics to be included?

-  What are the relationships among the various approaches to grammar put forth by modern linguists, traditional Tamil scholars, school teachers, students of comparative linguistics and of comparative literature, and others?

-  Can we identify potential research problems in any of these areas?

Raising such questions seems necessary to an understanding of grammar with its philosophical significance, grounded in a relevant pedagogic context. It would probably tell us more about the processes by which Tamil grammar tends to evoke images of an archaic tradition, and of a language whose epitome would always remain poetry. This also is in marked contrast to western conceptions of grammar, which focus on prose, even granting poetry permission to suspend, temporarily, the normal grammatical rules. Attempts to address such questions would not only help us to identify and understand the presence of past traditions in today’s world, but also could feed into novel research programmes in contemporary Tamil studies. The reconstruction of a philosophically grounded understanding of early Tamil grammar does not necessarily mean simply the study of content, which tends to confine grammar to a mere window to the structure of language and literature. On the contrary, the study of old grammar can provide us with important insights into the ideologies and material practices of past societies.

If we take the case of the various commentaries on Tolkappiyam, for instance, we know for a fact that there are diverse characteristics in them. Instead of ascribing such diversity to the points of view of the individual commentators alone, we should try to understand the contexts for their varied ideas, while retaining the uniqueness of each commentator’s viewpoint. Such efforts could provide us with fresh insights on grammar, which in turn are crucial to the project of reforming the curriculum and the pedagogy of grammar.

On a practical level, revisiting scholarship on grammatical traditions in the light of contemporary needs will require us to reformulate existing questions, and to examine current approaches and methodologies of research and pedagogies.

Against this background, we propose to gather researchers, educationists, teachers and students together for a workshop to be held at the French Institute of Pondicherry.

Proposals for presentations, posters, and demonstrations are welcome on any of the following themes:

  • Perspectives from the contemporary pedagogy of school grammar
  • Relationships between the past and the present in the pedagogy of grammar
  • Roles, perceptions and images of grammar in the public
  • The state of research on Tamil grammar
  • Social history of grammar in Tamil society
  • Political movements and language reforms
  • Variations in the whole concept of grammar and its appropriate provinces

Proposals that could relate to the broader concerns of the workshop as described above would be equally appreciated. Teachers at various levels are encouraged to present proposals for sessions to share teaching and learning resources as well.

This international workshop will address understandings of Tamil grammar from as many viewpoints as possible, with applications to as many situations and fields of study as possible, and will bring together a diverse collection of interested people to voice, and to exchange, views on all the issues noted above.


Click here for Detailed Programme.


Department of Indology, French Institute of Pondicherry & Central Institute of Classical Tamil, Chennai


  • A. Senthilnarayanan IFP (senthilnarayanan.a@


French Institute of Pondicherry, 11, St. Louis Street, Pondicherry – 605 001.