Chennai: Mersal (astonishment), Udhaaru (lie), Appatakkar (know-all) and Dubakoor (cheat) may have come into popular use through Tamil films but had long been part of ‘Madras Bashai’ a dialect unique to the city.
Though not a specific variant of Tamil like that spoken in Madurai or Coimbatore, it evolved into something that is typical of Chennai.
Linguistic experts trace its origin to the British era but others say it evolved in the 1950s when labourers were forced to find an easier way to communicate with the rich businessmen belonging to other states.
“Madras was then restricted to black town, white town and Triplicane. Labourers worked and met people, who spoke other languages. So they had to find a common language to communicate in the most simple and short manner,” said Professor G Palani, department of Tamil Literature, University of Madras.
So, ‘izhuthu’ for pulling a rickshaw turned into ‘isthunu’. As trade in the city flourished so did the dialect.
Words borrowed from several languages, including Tamil, English, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu, Sanskrit and Urdu, melded into the amalgam of sounds and intonation just like the mixture of people in Chennai. It became a local dialect with multilingual vocabulary some familiar, others hardly heard.
So, if a boy asks ‘Enna, Sugar-ah?’, he means ‘Are you sure?’ and not ‘Do you have sugar?’. But when a Madrasi asks for a ‘gaana’, he means ‘gaana paatu’ (gaana song) whose simple and short words evolved with the dialect , and not ‘song’ (gaana in Hindi)
Soon, people began mixing and shrinking the words, making it easy to communicate and understand.
A man saying ‘darr’ means ‘fear’ but refers to the word in Madras slang and not the Hindi original.
Madras Tamil, experts insist, is far from a regional dialect. “It was first spoken by poor and uneducated people in slums, who migrated from places like like Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Arcot, Tiruvannamalai and Vellore. It has since spread far and wide,” prof Palani said.
Kollywood too contributed to the spred through movies whose plots revolved around the lives of the working class and whose characters spoke the dialect fluently. “It was not films that popularized Madras Tamil but rather the other way round,” said actor R Parthiban, who played a ruffian speaking the dialect in the national award winning ‘Pudhiya Padhai’.
Manorama crooned ‘Va vaathiyaare vootanda’ in the 1968 flick ‘Bommalattam’, actors Thenga Srinivasan, Cho Ramaswamy used the slang to effect and Kamal Haasan woved audiences with his version of the dialect in ‘Pammal K Sambandam’ and ‘Vasool Raja MBBS’. Suriya in ‘Aaru’, and Karthi in ‘Madras’ are among the others who let fly dialogues in the lingo.
The dialect might be thriving because of its use in daily communication but experts say it might not be for long. “Dialects evolved at a time when there was no modern system of communication. With mass media being an influence, the dialect may not be in use as it used to be. A labourer might speak that Tamil, but his young son might not,” said K P Aravanan, former VC, Manomaniam Sundaranar University.
Neverthless, whether ‘Gethu’ is actually a Tamil word or not, it still gives Chennaiites enough ‘Gethu’ (pride) to speak a dialect unique to ‘Namma Madras’.