Category Archives: Language


Appada. The word escaped amma’s lips as the ghetti melam faded. Both daughters married. Her duty done. All that is left is to die a sumangali.

Appada. Amuda put the receiver back, kissed the cross on her chain, sat down and sent up a small prayer of thanks. He was unhurt, the AC compartment had not derailed.

Appada. She set down her basket in a corner of the room that sheltered seven. Today had been a good day, only three measures of kadambam left unsold. And that Selvam had not turned up to demand his cut.

Appada. Sixty three votes. Narrow but clear. He would no longer be ‘former’ MLA. He stood up, somehow taller, somehow stronger, somehow more frightening, and marched out to address the cameras.

What makes you say it?

Naturalla pesum Tamil

Tayathula saaptu, tayathula thoongu*, came amma’s voice over the phone.
I had heard that bit of advice all my life. I thought nothing of it until the day a friend and I were leaving home for a long trip away. As we stepped out Amma called out her usual line. My friend looked totally puzzled. When the door closed he asked, What did your mom say? I repeated her chant, and after a moment’s incomprehension he burst out laughing.

What’s so funny?
Tayathula! Hahahaha!

It was then that it hit me. Tayathula was a total Tamilisation of the word ‘time’, in which the final ‘m’ sound is omitted to make it fit the Tamil system of affixing prepositions.

And since then I have met actualla, idealla and best of all – systeth. In the same way that the ‘m’ was removed from time, it is removed from system (usually referring to a computer) to make way for Tamil word-endings. Photo enga da? Systethla paaru! (Where is the photo? Look in the ‘system’!) Other words ending with the ‘m’ sound have suffered similarly: Poeyatha manapadam panniya? (Have you memorised the poem?)

Tamil has adopted and modified many English words to suit its purposes. ‘Comedy’ and ‘super’ come to mind. As do yescape (escape) and rouse. But these words have been lucky to retain (at least a semblance of) their original meanings. Words like assalt (from assault) now mean fearlessness or sometimes impunity. Assalta vandhu rouse vuttaan, saar! (He boldly came and caused a stir!)

And sometimes, words acquire a whole wealth of significance when used in Tamil: Avanga yenna pursnalty-aa irukkanga! (roughly: What a personality she has!) but here the word goes far beyond its English meaning. In Tamil, pursnalty is an adjective, not a mere noun!


Like every self-respecting Tamilian I called it ‘cool drink’ until the day a someone pointed out that it should be ‘cold drink’. I was about to respond somewhat hotly (sorry! couldn’t resist!), when I realised she was right, but in Tamil Nadu ‘cool’ is far more accurate – by the time the bottle travels from the refrigerator, carried by warm, sweaty hands to your table, it is somewhat less jill than you might like!

* Eat on time, sleep on time.

For more on systeth see this and this.

For other words from English that have taken on colourful Tamil avatars, see here.

Written with key inputs from PB.