Spelling and pronunciation are not “first cousins” in English. This holds good for other languages, including Tamil, a surviving ancient language. Perhaps, this aspect has not been fully taken into account by the Tamil Nadu government in its decision to change the spelling of names of 1,018 cities, towns and localities in the State. The gazette notification of April 1, 2020, which was made available only recently, is an outcome of two years of labour put in by District Collectors and a committee headed by Minister for Tamil Official Language and Culture K. Pandiarajan. It is now for the Revenue and Disaster Management Department, which handles land records in the State, and the respective rural and urban local bodies to take the notification forward. The idea is to make the anglicised names sound closer to the root of the original Tamil names. As a matter of principle, this is welcome, but it is also advisable to discover the root of the name. This does not mean that other factors such as confusion among the public and cultural or social sentiments, can be ignored. Also, without making it look like change being made for the sake of change, the exercise should be based on logic and convention.
No one would object to “Sivaganga”, a constituency that had sent former Union Minister P. Chidambaram several times to the Lok Sabha, being called “Sivagangai” or “Tirumalai”, a village in the Sivagangai taluk, as “Thirumalai”. But, the process of de-anglicisation should not be taken to an illogical extreme. For instance, when “Coimbatore” becomes “Koyampuththoor” or “Vellore” turns into “Veeloor”, it defies both convention and logic and can cause much confusion. Likewise, Srirangam and Srivilliputtur, centres of religious importance, have been changed into “Thiruvarangam” and “Thiruvillipuththur”. Tamil purists may argue that “Thiru” is the equivalent term for “Sri” but what should not be overlooked is that it is because of religious sensibilities that neighbouring Andhra Pradesh has seldom attempted to give Telugu flavour to “Tirupati”, which is a Tamil name. Apart from the initial confusion over the new spellings, people in the areas concerned have started becoming anxious about getting crucial documents of identification changed once the gazette notification is implemented. It is not the first time that name changes have happened in Tamil Nadu. In fact, the State was known by the name of its capital — Madras — till January 1969, and the capital’s name was changed to Chennai 27 years later. But, the need for pragmatism was not lost on the governments in the past. Despite being called “Thiruperumbudur” in Tamil, the spelling of the town in English was retained as “Sriperumbudur” in official documents. After all, the term, Tamil Nadu itself is an anglicised name. Changes to the name or spelling of places should not disrupt public equilibrium during a difficult time.