Language contact and sound change: Reasons for mutual unintelligibility between formal and colloquial registers of Tamil


  • Anushri Kartik-Narayan University of Colorado Boulder


Tamil has since its origination been diglossic, separating the formal high register from the colloquial low register. These two registers are currently mutually unintelligible (Shanmugam Pillai 1965). This analysis explores the reasons why they became unintelligible, which are proposed to be two-fold: historic language contact between Tamil and Sanskrit; and sound changes demonstrated using the Comparative Method. It has been suggested that the decline in mutual intelligibility is due to the removal of Sanskrit loanwords from the formal high register during the Tamil Purist Movement of the 20th century (Kailasapathy 1979). The earliest evidence of Tamil and Sanskrit reciprocal borrowing dates to the first Tamil literary works (Krishnamurti 2003). Where and when this language contact occurred is unclear, but it may have occurred during overlapping occupation of the Indus River Valley region by Sanskrit and Proto-Dravidian (Steever 2009). During the 20th century, the formal register replaced these loanwords with Tamil equivalents wherever possible (Kailasapathy 1979). Currently, low register Tamil is composed of 50% loanwords whereas high register Tamil is composed of only 20% loanwords (Krishnamurti 2003). It has been attested, however, that some diglossia was present before contact between Tamil and Sanskrit. Early diglossia can thus instead be explained by sound changes, which also account for current differences between the registers not attributed to loanwords. Sound changes identified in this analysis include: syncope, apocope, paragoge, stop to fricative lenition, and others. This analysis finds that language contact and sound changes contributed to the decline in intelligibility between formal and colloquial Tamil, however the nature of the language contact is still under investigation.