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ISCApad #194

Monday, August 04, 2014 by Chris Wellekens

3-1-8 (2014-03) INTERSPEECH 2014 Newsletter March 2014

Tamil and Indian Languages in Singapore



Our fifth step to INTERSPEECH 2014 brings us to the fourth official language of Singapore: Tamil. Today, Indians constitute 9% of the population of Singaporean citizens and permanent residents. They are considered as the third ethnic group in Singapore, although origins of Singaporean-Indians are diverse. Usually locally born, they are second, third, fourth or even fifth generation descendants of Punjabi, Hindi, Sindhi and Gujarati-speaking migrants from the Northern India and Malayalees, Telugu, and Tamil-speaking migrants from the Southern India. This latter group is the core of Singaporean-Indian population with 58% of the Indian community [2, 5].

Before 1819 and Sir Raffles*,

Indianised Kingdoms, such as Srivijaya and Majapahit, radiated over South-East Asia. Influenced by Hindu and Buddhist culture, a large area including Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, part of Indonesia and Singapore, formed the Greater India. From this period, Singapore kept some of its most important pre-colonial artifacts such as the Singapore Stone and it is also reported that the hill of Fort Canning was chosen for the first settlement as a reference to the Hindu concept of Mount Meru which was associated to kingship in Indian culture [1].

Under British colony,

Indian migrants arrived to Singapore from different parts of India to fulfill functions such as clerks, soldiers, traders or English teachers. By 1824, 7% of the population was Indian (756 residents). The part of Indian population in Singapore increased until 1860 when it overtook the Malay community and became the second larger ethnic group of 16%. Due to the nature of this migration, Indians in Singapore were predominantly adult men. A settled community, with a more balanced gender and age ratio, only emerged by the mid-20th century [2]. Although the Indian community increased for the following century, its ratio within the Singaporean population decreased until the 1980's, especially when the British withdrew their troupes after Singapore's independence in 1963.

After 1980, the immigration policy aimed at attracting educated people from other Asian countries to settle in Singapore. This change made the Indian population grow from 6.4% to 9%. In addition to this residential population, many ethnic Indian migrant workers temporarily come to work in Singapore (Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Malaysian Indians or Indian Indians)[3].

Tamil language

is one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world [8]. Existing for over 2,000 years, Tamil has a rich literature history and was the first Indian language to be declared a classical language by the Government of India in 2004. Earliest records of written Tamil were dated from around the 2nd century BC and, despite the significant amount of grammatical and syntactical change, this language demonstrates grammatical continuity across 2 millennium.

Tamil is the most populous language from the Dravidian language-family, with important groups of speakers in Malaysia, Philippines, Mauritius, South Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Reunion and Vietnam. Significant communities can also be found in Canada, England, Fiji, Germany, Netherlands or United States. It is the official language in Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well as in Sri Lanka and Singapore.

Like Malay, another local language, Tamil is agglutinative. Affixes are added to words to mark noun class, number, case or verb tense, person, number, mood and voice [7]. Like Finish, not a local language, Tamil sets no limit to the length and extent of agglutination. This leads to long words with a large number of affixes in which its translation might require several sentences in other languages.

Phonology of Tamil is characterized by the use of retroflex consonants and multiple rhotics. Native grammarians classify phonemes into vowels, consonants and a secondary character called āytam. Aytam is an allophone of /r/ or /s/ at the end of an utterance. Vowels are called uyireḻuttu (uyir – life, eḻuttu – letter) and are classified into short (kuṟil), long (neṭil) (with five of each type) and two diphthongs. Unlike most of Indian languages, aspirated and unaspirated consonants are not distinguished in Tamil. Consonants are called meyyeḻuttu (mey—body, eḻuttu—letters) and count three categories: valliṉam—hard, melliṉam—soft or nasal, and iṭayiṉam—medium. Voiced and unvoiced consonants are not distinguished but voice is assigned depending on the position of the consonant in the word.

Tamil writing currently includes twelve vowels, eighteen consonants and one special character for the āytam that combine to form a total of 247 characters.

In Singapore,

Among all the Indian residents in Singapore, 38.8% speaks Tamil daily, 39% speak English, 11% speak Malay, and the remaining 11% speak other Indian languages [2, 4]. Tamil is one the two Indian languages taught as second language (mother tong) in public schools, together with Hindi. It also used in daily newspapers, free-to-air and cable television, radio channels, cinema or theaters [5].

In the multi-cultural environment of Singapore, Tamil influences the other local languages and vice versa. There is especially strong interaction Malay and the colloquial Singaporean English known as Singlish. Singaporean usage of Tamil includes some words from English and Malays while certain words or phrases that are considered archaic in India remain in use in Singapore [2].

During your stay in Singapore,

you can easily get to know Tamil culture through its many aspects. Having a walk in Little India, in which its architecture is protected since 1989, is a great opportunity to be exposed to Tamil music and lifestyle.

The two-storey shop-houses of Singapore's Indian hub host some of the best ambassadors of Indian cuisine. Here you'll find the local version of the Tamil cuisine that has evolved in response to local taste and influences of other cuisines present in Singapore. Other cuisines also include elements of Indian cuisine such as Singapore-Malay cuisine or Peranakan cuisine. Singaporean Tamil must-try include dishes such as achar, curry fish head, rojak, Indian mee goreng, murtabak, roti john, roti prata and teh tarik. Note that other Indian cuisines from Northern India can also be found.















[3] Leow, Bee Geok (2001). Census of Population 2000: Demographic Characteristics. p.47-49.

[4] Singapore Census 2010







* Remember the third step to Singapore


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