Tamil Names

I was talking with my friend about how Tamil names differ from Western names. During the conversation, we reminisced about how he was interviewed by a local radio show on how his name is “long”. I remembered feeling unimpressed by the radio segment with my friend, and it helped explain more about Tamil names.

The first thing to understand is that Tamils really have only one name. This is different than the convention in many parts of the world that have the notion of a family name that is passed down from generation to the next. But keep in mind that what is “normal” as far as names go is very much a relative notion.

Basics on names around the world

Customs around names are more varied than one predominant custom. Even among cultures that maintain a family name (ex: Western), some put the family name last in the full name, and others put it first (ex: East Asian).

Some cultures might have two family names, like Mexico, where the first family name is from the father’s first family name, and the second family name is from the mother’s family name. The wife does not usually change her 2 last names after marriage (even though in cultures with a single family name, until recently, the wife has customarily changed her last name to match the husband’s last name).

Of course, names get more complicated than that. Some cultures in Africa might have 4 or 5 names normally. There are sometimes middle names for cultures that have a single family name. And so on — I know that there are more details and anecdotes, but I couldn’t reproduce them without properly doing further research.

Single name customs

In addition to Tamils, Icelanders also have a custom of a single main name: even though they might have 2 names, the 2nd name is really just a version of a parent’s name. If the person is male, then the 2nd name will be <parent-name> + -son (“son”), and if the person is female, then the 2nd name will be <parent-name> + -dóttir (“daughter”). The parent name is often the father’s name, but it can be the mother’s name. So someone named Helen Olafsdóttir has one main name, Helen, and her father’s name is Olaf. Icelandic as a language is said to retain a lot of characteristics of old Norse compared to the other Scandinavian languages, and the single name custom in Iceland is retained from old Norse times while the other countries use family names.

So what do Tamils do? When writing a full name for females, the given name comes first, and the father’s name comes second. Customarily, after marriage, the wife’s second name changes to be that of the husband. (It’s patriarchal, I get it, just reporting how things are, currently.) For males, the full name starts with an initial letter followed by the main name. The initial is the first letter of the father’s name. But there may be more than one initial letter, that additionally might indicate a hometown and/or a grandparent and/or other names.

So for my friend Gobi, his full name is Gobikan, and his father’s name is Kathirgamanathan, so in English script, his name would be written “K. Gobikan”. But the canonical spelling is in Tamil script, so we have கோபிகன் (Gobikan) and கதிர்காமநாதன் (Kathirgamanathan), which would make Gobi’s name க. கோபிகன். The first letter of கதிர்காமநாதன் (Kathirgamanathan) is க, which is pronounced “ka”, so sometimes you might see the English transliteration written as “Ka. Gobikan”. If he had a daughter, it would follow the same pattern.

(Keep in the mind that, due to a global society where English is ubiquitous as the language of exchange for business, technology, education, and diplomacy, names are sometimes rewritten for English audience. Therefore, if you put your father’s name first and your given name second, then people might mistake your given name as your family name, and then might address you in casual settings by your father’s name. So to account for expectations of first name followed by surnames in English-speaking cultures, most recently, people will write the given name first, and the father’s name second. An example of this is that the name of the female politician J. Jayalalitha over time began to be recorded in English as Jayalalitha Jeyaram.)

An example of a name with multiple initials is E. V. Ramasamy, more formally written as ஈ. வே. இராமசாமி, where ஈ is short for the town ஈரோடு (Erode), and வே is short for வேங்கடப்பா (Venkatappa), the father’s name. You could transliterate ஈ as “ee”, the way you pronounce it, or just “E” as the first letter in the standard transliteration, “Erode”. Similarly, வே could be “V” or “Ve.”

Another example of a name with multiple initials is S. J. V. Chelvanayagam. The full name சாமுவேல் ஜேம்ஸ் வேலுப்பிள்ளை செல்வநாயகம் is the combination of Chelvanayagam’s Christian name(s) சாமுவேல் ஜேம்ஸ் (Samuel James) , his father’s name வேலுப்பிள்ளை (Velupillai), and his given Tamil name. Christian Tamils tend to have 2 given names instead of one – a Tamil name and a “Christian” (Biblical/English/Western language) name. But the Tamil name is still the primary name among the given names — சா. ஜே. வே. செல்வநாயகம்.

Name length

Gobi’s interview appeared on the episode “Playing the Name Game” (02/21/09) of the radio show Definitely Not the Opera (DNTO), that was broadcast on Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). DNTO was designed to be a Canadian version of American public radio’s This American Life, but geared towards younger listeners and maybe with that Canadian twist of quirky yet deprecating humor. The theme of the episode’s stories was “names”, and the 8-minute long segment that he was on was entirely about how Gobi’s last name was the longest name that the segment reporter had personally ever seen.

Kathirgamanathan has 16 letters, but of course, it is just the English transliteration of the 8 letters க தி ர் கா ம நா த ன் in கதிர்காமநாதன். When pronouncing it, it has only 6 syllables. What is long or not, and what is easy to spell or not, is relative. For comparison’s sake, the word “pronunciation” has 5 syllables.

Some names in Tamil are longer, and some are shorter. Names that are made as compounds of multiple words tend to be the longer ones, and they can be secular names like அன்பு (love) + அழகு (beauty) + -அன் (male) = அன்பழகன், or it could be a name with a religious reference, like செய்- (red) + -ஓன் (male) = செய்யோன் (“seyyon”) = Sivan, or சி- (red) + -அன் (male) = சிவன் (“sivan”) = Sivan. It makes sense that names would be longer in a culture where everyone just has one main name. Longer names could offer more variations in names, and more names would make it easier to distinguish different people in the same place. On the other hand, Tamil names in use 2000 years ago (ex: இளங்கோ – Elango) are much shorter than Tamil names in modern times, especially those names with religious allusions.

There are several names that are “epithets” for the same god, but in the sense of “epithet” as a synonym. Murugan (முருகன்) is a uniquely Tamil god who is worshipped among Tamils in India, Ceylon, Malaysia, and Singapore. He isn’t even worshipped as a major god in Indian states adjoining Tamil Nadu, although there are some parallels exist between சூரன் போர் (Murugan vs. demon war story reenactment) during Pongal and some Japanese Shinto customs during the Lunar New Year that happens around the same time of the year.

Tamil inhabitation of the entire island of Ceylon goes back at least 2300 years old, and probably much further. A few ancient temples have been written about in literature and occupy a special spot of religious and cultural importance. The towns of these temples would be associated with the temples and the gods themselves, which is the same as in the ancient Tamil speaking lands of modern day southern India. Even though the Murugan temple in the town of கதிர்காமம் (Kathirgamam) is deep in the southern part of Ceylon where Sinhalese-speaking people are predominant. It remains one of the few (only?) sites that Tamils (Hindus and Christians) and Sinhalese (Buddhists) of the island alike all visit, regardless of language and religion. The name கதிர்காமம் (Kathirgamam) + நாதன் (lord) refers to the god of the temple in the town, which is Murugan. The name கதிர்காமம் itself is a compound of கதிர் (spear, sharpness, a type of thorny bush, ray of light) and காமம் (the Tamil-ized version of கிராமம் kiraamam, meaning “village”). The spear is Murugan’s iconic preferred weapon of choice.

There’s much more to Gobi’s last name than how long it sounds to one Western reporter’s sensibilities. Stringing along that joke for 8 minutes tested my patience when I was already able to see the 8 Tamil letters forming 3 words (2-syllables each) and the meaning behind it. Or maybe I wanted that radio show segment to contain at least some piece of substantive information that I’ve written here. But DNTO is off the air, and traces of that episode are nowhere to be found on the interwebs. The trickiness of fitting Tamil names in non-Tamil contexts remains, just as it would for any other naming custom.

Postscript on South Indian Names

Speakers of Telugu and Kannada appear to have a tradition of first (given) and last (family) names. Malayalam speakers are something in between that and Tamil names. For Malayalam speakers, there is one given name. For some of them, there is only that one given name, and when they move to cultures that use a family name, they have to make up a last name. For others, there are initials that they maintain, like Tamil people, in addition to their given name. The initials can be written before or after the given name. The initials can represent their father’s name, a family name, a separate Christian given name and/or a town. Some of these family names are long because they are actually phrases (ex: “the fortieth stackyard”, “in the plot/farm/yard of cactii”). I’m not sure what the history of the introduction of last names is among people of South India – do these traditions predate the European colonial period, or did they begin only aftewards?

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