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Updated: June 23, 2010 11:01 IST

Criteria for classical language status

V. C. Kulandaiswamy
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V. C. Kulandaiswamy. Photo: Vino John.
The Hindu V. C. Kulandaiswamy. Photo: Vino John.

Keeping in mind the universally accepted characteristics which qualify a language for the status, the criteria specified by the expert committee have to be modified

There is lack of clarity even among Tamil scholars on the issue of criteria for according classical status to a language. It is therefore necessary to examine the attributes that qualify a language to be reckoned as classical.

The concept of Classicism had its origin in Europe. The term ‘classical' is derived from the Latin word ‘classicus', which belongs to the 2{+n}{+d} century A.D. From Latin, it was adopted in French and later in English from French.

One does not come across a definition of a classical language as such in dictionaries or encyclopaedias. There does not seem to exist anywhere an authoritative list of classical languages.

Some Tamil scholars have given the impression in articles and speeches that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has an authorised list of classical languages and that it has specified criteria for a classical language. To my letter of December 26, 2007 to UNESCO, I received a reply on January 24, 2007 that it had not established any criteria for designation of classical languages, and that it did not have a list of languages approved as classical languages. “It is a matter which is beyond UNESCO's mandate,” the letter said.

The Union government, while considering a representation from the Tamil Nadu government for endorsing the classical status of Tamil, approached the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, for its opinion. The President of the Sahitya Akademi constituted an expert committee under his chairmanship. The committee, in a meeting on September 2, 2004, observed: “It was noted that the criteria for defining a classical language are not mentioned anywhere. But abstracting the standard features of what are universally accepted as Classical Languages (such as Sanskrit, Latin and Greek), it was agreed that the following criteria [mentioned in later paragraphs] be applied in the case of such a designation henceforth.”

It is thus clear that the criteria for granting classical status to a language have not been stipulated explicitly. Against this background, we may consider the basis on which languages such as Greek and Lain were designated as classical languages.

A study of the issue leads us to the finding that the literary contributions of ancient Greece and Rome, in Greek and Latin, were considered by scholars as classical, and these two languages were designated classical languages. In other words, it is the literature that is assessed as classical, and by virtue of the literature, the language is termed classical.

What is the definition of classical literature that forms the basis for a language to be termed classical? The Grolier Academic Encyclopaedia says: “The word classicism in literature refers to those elements of style or content such as reason, clarity, order, restraint and humanitarian outlook that characterised the writing of ancient Greeks, ranging from Homer, Plato and Aristotle.”

The following explanation appears in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica: “When used to refer to an aesthetic attitude, Classicism invokes those characteristics normally associated with the art of antiquity, harmony, clarity, restraint, universality and idealism.”

The criteria for determining classical status are therefore derived from Greek and Latin literature and are not based on any independent design. The characteristics of Greek and Latin literature, by and large, are: Antiquity, Harmony, Clarity, Restraint, Serenity, Idealism, Universality, Reason, Order and Humanism.

The Sahitya Akademi's expert committee mentioned four criteria for a classical language. One is the high antiquity of early texts/recorded history of over 1500 to 2000 years. The second is a body of ancient literature/texts that is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers. The third criterion is that the literary tradition should be original and not borrowed from another speech community. Fourthly, the classical language and literature should be distinct from the modern, and there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or offshoots.

It is seen that the criteria are based only on the characteristics of literature. Kamil V. Zevelabil, European scholar and an exponent of the classical status of Tamil, stated in his book, The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India: “But the early Tamil poetry was rather unique not only by virtue of the fact that some of its features were so unlike everything else in India, but, by virtue of its literary excellence; those 26,350 lines of poetry promote Tamil to the rank of one of the great classical languages of the world” (Pages 1-2). Dr. Zvelebil based his decision only on the quality of the literature.

The term classical is also liberally used in the sense of excellence in quality. In the case of the Japanese language, the literature of the period 794 A.D.-1185 A.D. is considered to be classical. In the case of French, the literature of the latter part of the 17{+t}{+h} century, that is, after the establishment of the French Academy, was considered to be classical. In English, the literature from 1660 to 1714 A.D. was considered classical.

When interpreted as excellence in quality, every language can claim to have a period when its literature could be termed classical. Some Tamil scholars can claim that the Kamba Ramayanam is a work of classical literature: others may stake the claim in favour of Sekkilar's Periapuranam. These issues are altogether different from this discussion, which is on the set of classical languages of the world — classical languages in the sense in which Greek and Latin are referred to as classical languages.

As mentioned earlier, the concept of classicism is of European origin and we have adopted it. In the case of languages, the criteria are derived form Greek and Latin literature. In any set of criteria formulated, this aspect must be reflected. The criteria specified by the Akademi's expert committee do not provide for this requirement.

Keeping in mind the universally accepted characteristics of classical literature which qualify a language for classical status, we may for general guidance marginally modify the criteria specified by the expert committee. We may reformulate them, considering all the attributes derived mainly from Greek and Latin literary traditions.

First, the language has high antiquity, of about 1500 to 2000 years, for its literature. Second, it has a body of ancient literature meeting the core attributes of classicism and is held as a valuable heritage bequeathed to humanity. Third, the literary tradition is original and not borrowed from another speech community. Fourth, the classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be discontinuity between the classical language and later forms or offshoots.

(The author, a Sahitya Akademi award winner for Tamil in 1988, is vice-chairman of the Central Institute of Classical Tamil.)


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