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En/gendering Language: The Poetics of Tamil Identity

  • Sumathi Ramaswamy (a1)

Since the publication of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities almost a decade ago, historians and anthropologists have become accustomed to think of the nation—that bedrock of our existence as moderns—as an imagined entity.1 Yet it is problematic, at least to this author, that while the spotlight is (once again) on the nation, the other key actor in Anderson's formulation, the language through which a specific nation is subjectively conceived and imagined, appears to have been relegated to the sidelines. By proposing that languages, too, be considered cultural and symbolic entities that are themselves enrolled into projects of imagination, this essay assumes its beginnings in questions provoked by Anderson's analysis. Because languages themselves are subjected to multiple imaginations, how indeed can they enable the harmonious and contention-free imagination of communities? How indeed do they acquire the capacity to generate feelings of “contemporaneity,” “solidarity,” and “belonging,” as Anderson proposes? Do they not just as well have the power to scatter and disaggregate such sentiments? These are questions occasioned by more than just theoretical curiosity. In many parts of the world, the diverse imaginations that cling to languages have frequently sparked off contestation, divisiveness, and even violence, especially in multi-lingual pluralities like India, the focus of this article.

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Anna Davin . 1978. “Imperialism and Motherhood.” History Workshop, 5:965.

Nicholas B. Dirks 1992. “Castes of Mind.” Representations, 37:5678.

Duncan Forrester . 1966. “The Madras Anti-Hindi Agitation, 1965: Political Protest and Its Effect on Language Policy in India.” Pacific Affairs, 39:1936.

David C. Gordon 1978. The French Language and National Identity (1930–1975). The Hague: Mouton.

Sumathi Ramaswamy . 1992. “Daughters of Tamil: Language and the Poetics of Womanhood in the Tamilnad.” South Asia Research, 12:1, 3859.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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