Last week, the Tamil Nadu government changed the spellings of more than 1,000 places in the state in an attempt to reflect in English the way they are pronounced in Tamil.

Among the places whose English spellings were changed are Coimbatore, which will now be spelt Koyampuththoor. Vellore, meanwhile has become Veeloor.

The state government said that the changes were effected to correct distortions that had primarily arisen as a result of the naming conventions instituted by the British in the colonial times.

One of the criticisms of this renaming exercise is that it has been selective. Many Sanskrit names have not been changed to Tamil even though Tamil literature provides names for those places. For example, Vedaranyam has become Vedaaranyam, even though Tamil texts refer to the place as Thirumaraikaadu.

Some have wondered why the Tamil Nadu government has chosen to make the changes at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The biggest controversy, however, was the decision not to change the name of the state. If the intention is to bring English spellings of place names in tune with Tamil pronunciation, the name of the state should have been changed to Tamizh Naadu, with the inclusion of the retroflex “zh” in place of “l” in Tamil.

Of course, changing the name of the state would be a long-drawn process that requires parliamentary approval. But the process begins with the state Assembly moving a resolution.

The reason why Tamil Nadu has an “l” and not a “zh” has an interesting history. It has to do with Dravidian stalwart and former Chief Minister CN Annadurai’s consideration for non-Tamils, who find it difficult to pronounce the Tamil letter “zha”.

To be fair, even some native Tamil speakers struggle with it. Here is a tutorial to understand the difference between the three “l” sounds in Tamil, one of which is “zh”.


Madras to Tamil Nadu

The demand for the name of Madras state, a colonial legacy, to be changed to Tamil Nadu gathered steam in 1957. Sankaralinganar, a Gandhian, went on a 76-day hunger strike for the demand and died.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, resolutions demanding the change were moved in the Madras Assembly by several parties, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Socialist Party. But since the Congress ruled the state with a majority and was not in favour of the renaming, the resolutions failed.

However, the DMK pushed this demand hard and by 1963, the state government’s internal communications began using the word Tamilnad even though the state was still officially known as Madras.

In April 1962, Annadurai of the DMK was elected to the Rajya Sabha. The next year, Communist leader Bhupesh Gupta moved a Bill in the Upper House demanding that the state be renamed according to the wishes of its people.

In a legendary speech, Annadurai demolished the Congress opposition to the renaming. When Congress leaders from Tamil Nadu argued that the Tamil region was never one unified territory and that in the past they were named after the kingdoms that ruled them, like Chera, Chola and Pandya, Annadurai referred to ancient Tamil texts to drive home his point.

He said:

“ ..These are all Tamil classics written more than 1,000 years ago and in Paripaadal it is stated  ‘Thandamizh veli Thamizh Naatu agamellam’, which means Tamil Nadu that is surrounded by sweet Tamil on all three sides. In Pathitrupathu, a classic written about 1,800 years it is stated  ‘Imizh kadal veli Thamizhagam’ meaning Tamil Nadu which has got sea as boundary. In Silapathigaram it is stated ‘Then Thamizh nannadu’ meaning good Tamil Nadu and in Manimegalai it is stated ‘Sambutheevinul Tamizhaga marungil’.” 

Despite this, the Bill was unsuccessful.

In 1967, the DMK defeated the Congress in the Assembly elections and Annadurai became chief minister. A draft resolution was tabled in the Assembly that year, recommending to the Centre that the the name of Madras state be changed from Madras to “Tamil Nadu”.

The name of this station has been changed to Ezhumboor. Credit: Superfast1111 / CC BY-SA x

Tamil Nadu or Tamizh Naadu?

A controversy immediately erupted. The spelling in English that reflected the actual Tamil pronunciation of the name would be “Tamizh Naadu”. But Annadurai wanted the state named “Tamil Nadu”, without the “zh”.

This was opposed by Tamil nationalists led by MP Sivagnanam. According to Annadurai’s biographer R Kannan, Annadurai wanted the “zh” to be dropped so that people who did not speak Tamil would not have a problem.

Kannan shared with the August 17, 1968 speech Annadurai delivered in the Madras Assembly asking his opponents to drop the demand for the name of the state to be spelled with “zh”. The speech was delivered on a debate over a resolution that considered and corrected the draft of the central law which named the state “Tamil Nad”.

He said:

“I have the same regret over the missing ‘zha’ as does my friend Maa Po Si [MP Sivagnanam]. But I had written it in English and had asked some to pronounce it. I had also asked foreigners. Whatever English letters I tried to use for ‘zha’, they were unable to pronounce it. For example, when asked about the Kazhagam in Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, North Indian parliamentarians call it ‘kajagam’, ‘kajagam’ in the end and they are unable to get the ‘zha’.”

Annadurai added that a senior North Indian politician had requested him not to use “zha” in English as it would be very difficult for them to pronounce it. The politician told Annadurai that they would first learn to pronounce “zh” in Tamizh, after which the state’s name could be changed to Tamizh Naadu.

While Annadurai expressed his regret at being unable to find a suitable way to add the sound “zha” to the English spelling of the state’s new name, he said the members should be aware of the primary intention of the important resolution: to change the state’s name from the colonial Madras.

The parliamentary law to rename the state as Tamil Nadu came into force on January 14, 1969.

Annadurai’s biographer said while there is a need to reflect the authentic Tamil sounds in English, the manner in which the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government has changed spellings of the 1,000-odd places was unfortunate. “This was a ham handed way of doing it in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “There should have been wide consultation with experts.”

He said it wasn’t clear how adding an extra “a” or “e” to the names served a major function. “It is one thing to correct major distortions, like Triplicane to Thiruvallikeni,” he said. “But I feel what the government has done now is for the satisfaction of those in the administration rather than for anything else.”

Dravidian ideologue Su Ba Veerapandian said if the government really wanted to help restore the authenticity of the names of these locations, it has to first translate many non-Tamil names being used for towns and villages to Tamil and then provide a standard for English spellings.

“Everything requires a standard to be set so that they could be followed consistently when writing Tamil names in English,” he said. “But this cannot happen when you do things in haste, like how the current round of renaming has been attempted.”

Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of this article erroneously mentioned that former Chief Minister CN Annadurai originally wanted the name of Madras state changed to “Tamil Nad” without the “u” and that the 1967 resolution to this effect had “Tamil Nad” and not “Tamil Nadu”. According to Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Quadrennial Review 1967-1970, the 1967 resolution wanted the state name changed to “Tamil Nadu” and not “Tamil Nad”. The error is regretted.