Language in Society


Standardization or restandardization: The case for “Standard” Spoken Tamil

Harold F. Schiffmana1

a1 South Asian Regional Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305,


The Tamil language has had its current standard written form since the 13th century; but because of increasing diglossia, spoken Tamil dialects have now diverged so radically from earlier norms, including the written standard (LT, or Literary Tamil) that no spoken dialect, regional or social, can function as the koiné or lingua franca. Because LT is never used for authentic informal oral communication between live speakers, there has always been a need for some sort of spoken “standard” koiné for inter-dialect communication. Aside from interpersonal communication, one hears this inter-dialect koiné most clearly in the so-called “social”film, which arose out of its antecedent, the popular or “social” drama. Conversational portions of novels and short stories also exhibit spoken forms, though not always as clearly “phonetic” as a phonetician might expect. The goal of this paper is to examine the concept of “language standardization” as it has been applied to other languages, focusing on the role of literacy and writing in this process; then to present evidence for, as well as the sources of, koinæization of "Standard Spoken Tamil"; and then to determine whether SST is in fact an emergent standard, given the challenges of literacy and writing. (Standardization, Tamil, diglossia, linguae francae, koinés)