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Strange Connections:
Looking Into Linguistic Links Between Tamil + Japanese

An academic couple based in Jaffna have spent over a decade closely examining an unexpected, ancient connection between Japan and the Tamil people.

15.01.2018  |  

Tamil is recognized as an ancient language of India by the Indian state. This language has links with several other languages of India. It is considered to be the root language of other South Indian languages such as Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Tamil also has connections with the languages of northern India and Greece. Somewhat surprisingly, it is quite likely that Tamil even has linguistic links with Japanese language. That is what research from the head of the Tamil department at the University of Jaffna, Professor A. Shanmugadas and his wife, Dr. Manonmani Shanmugadas. The Catamaran discussed their research with them.

“In 1981, my wife and I went to Madurai for the Fifth World Tamil Research Conference. A professor from Japan read a research paper in the same conference and sighted several examples of similarities between Japanese and Tamil words. He said there were about five hundred words, similar in phonetic and meaning,” Shanmugadas explains.

The couple tried to introduce Japanese classes at Jaffna University but other colleagues thought the idea was ridiculous.

A colleague suggested that the couple research this further, a proposal the couple greeted enthusiastically. Eventually the scholars managed to travel to Japan to carry on with their research. There they met a Japanese academic, Professor Susumu Mono. The latter had previously studied the linguistic links between Aboriginal languages in Australia and Japanese.

What began as short-term research evolved in ten years of mutual study. While Shanmugadas was forced to return to Jaffna because his commitments to the university there, his wife was able to stay in the country and she even learned Japanese – the fifth language she had learned – well enough to act as an interlocutor between the academics and as a researcher. Before that, they had all had to work in English.

Dr. Shanmugadas eventually translated around 900 Japanese folk songs into Tamil and her translations continue to be used for educational purposes today.

“The link between Tamil and Japanese has been demonstrated in a number of steps,” Dr. Shanmugadas explains. “Initially, similar sounding words of the two languages were examined. It was also researched whether such words meant the same thing. The background for the languages was researched too. For example, the two communities had been cultivators of rice. The terms in the paddy cultivation were analysed in both these languages and they were found to be similar.”

There were other cultural similarities between the two ethnicities. The academics studied the inscriptions on the urns holding the remains of deceased locals and eventually Mono found that there some connections, the question always remained though: Where had the commonalities come from?

“The custom was not found in Korea or China, so it must have come from elsewhere,” Shanmugadas explains. “But many such urns were found in Tamil Nadu. We came to the conclusion that there must have been relationships between Tamil and Japanese communities.”

Some believe that the Indian continent was attached to Japan centuries ago. It is also possible that individuals from one or other nation went exploring. For example, the academics say, there are distinctive plants growing in southern India and japan that may also have found their way across the sea like this.

The decade or so that the Shanmugadas’ have worked on this topic has not been without its challenges. At one stage, the couple say, they tried to introduce Japanese classes at Jaffna University, but they say other colleagues thought the idea was ridiculous.

“Some of them may have thought we wanted to do this for our own benefit but if a Sri Lankan is familiar with Japanese they could benefit greatly,” Shanmugadas adds.