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Passions of the Tongue

Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891–1970

Sumathi Ramaswamy (Author)

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Paperback, 343 pages
ISBN: 9780520208056
November 1997
$33.95, £24.95
Why would love for their language lead several men in southern India to burn themselves alive in its name? Passions of the Tongue analyzes the discourses of love, labor, and life that transformed Tamil into an object of such passionate attachment, producing in the process one of modern India's most intense movements for linguistic revival and separatism.

Sumathi Ramaswamy suggests that these discourses cannot be contained within a singular metanarrative of linguistic nationalism and instead proposes a new analytic, "language devotion." She uses this concept to track the many ways in which Tamil was imagined by its speakers and connects these multiple imaginings to their experience of colonial and post-colonial modernity. Focusing in particular on the transformation of the language into a goddess, mother, and maiden, Ramaswamy explores the pious, filial, and erotic aspects of Tamil devotion. She considers why, as its speakers sought political and social empowerment, metaphors of motherhood eventually came to dominate representations of the language.
Sumathi Ramaswamy is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.
"An important and original book providing a completely new perspective on the intellectual and cultural history of southern India. . . . Sumathi Ramaswamy has both produced a major work of comparative history and made the finest scholarly contribution to the intellectual and cultural history of modern Tamil Nadu to date."—Nicholas B. Dirks, author of The Hollow Crown

"The most thorough account of the history of the symbolic profusion of a language—any language—I have ever read . . . The scholarship is extraordinary, and Ramaswamy is quite likely the most knowledgeable on this subject in the whole of India—nay, the world."—E. Valentine Daniel, author of Charred Lullabies: Chapters in an Anthropography of Violence

Hans Rosenhaupt Memorial Book Award, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation

What does it actually mean to love one's language? What are the historical circumstances which lead men and women to claim that they live for their language, and that if necessary, they will die for it? What are the political implications of this kind of passionate attachment to the language one speaks? Passions of the Tongue explores such questions by considering the discourses of love, labor, and life that between 1891 and 1970 transformed the Tamil language into an object of consuming allegiance, producing in that process one of modern India's most intense movements for linguistic revival and separatism. Sumathi Ramaswamy suggests that these discourses cannot be contained within a singular metanarrative of linguistic nationalism and instead proposes a new analytic, "language devotion." She uses this concept to track the many ways in which Tamil was imagined by its speakers and connects these multiple imaginings to their experience of colonial and post-colonial modernity. Focusing in particular on the transformation of the language into a goddess, mother, and maiden, Ramaswamy explores the pious, filial, and erotic aspects of Tamil devotion; she considers why, as its speakers sought political and social empowerment, metaphors of motherhood eventually came to dominate representations of the language. From love, the book then moves to questions of labor as it explores how the differing agendas of the devotees come into play in public policies and politics; Ramaswamy examines issues such as the introduction of Tamil as the principal ritual language in Hindu temples; the establishment of Tamil as the official language of the state of Madras; the renaming of the state of Madras as "Tamilnadu," the "land of Tamil"; and the abolition of Hindi, the official language of India. The book concludes with an extended analysis of the stories of those devotees of Tamil whose lives are offered as models of emulation for all good and loyal Tamil speakers today. At stake in such stories is the production of the modern Tamil subject, an entity whose subjectivity merges into vigorous argument for a cultural history of language that reveals the structures of sentiments and the ideologies of love that emerge around it. Passions of the Tongue seeks to understand how a language can inspire its speakers to devote themselves zealously to its cause to the point of sacrificing their wealth, their body, and their spirit.

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