Could Tamil and Japanese languages have common origins?

Linguistics is an ocean. You can be learning the subject for ages and still not grasp them all. Its close connection with culture only makes it complex and even more fascinating.

My interest wandered towards linguistics when I was researching about Japanese culture and its origins. I came across several research journals during my pursuit and ended up encountering revealing details about how Tamil and Japanese share cultural similarities.

Of all the research papers, one of that kindled my interest was the book of a renowned scholar from Japan Professor Susumu Ohno that was about Tamil and Japanese cultural similarity. I took particular interest in linguistic similarity. I could never comprehend why would two languages, especially of countries that have no connection with each other, be similar.  Everything is different from script to phonetics.

Yet, they do share a bond, Ohno says in his book. I do understand that now, after I started learning Japanese language and I’m surprised. 

Since I have just started learning it I might not be able to delve into how deep the similarities are. But if an amateur like me could draw parallels between the two languages, I’m sure the likeness is more than what it appears on the surface and worth looking into. 

The similarity might not be in the way they are written or used, but in the basic structure itself that forms the foundation of any language. If your Tamil is pretty good and you actually remember some of the grammar you learnt in school, learning Japanese is not all difficult. Ramesh Sensei (who teaches Japanese in the school I’m studying) keep emphasising the fact that you need to stop thinking in English when you are learning Japanese. For, the sounds, grammar and rules to construct a sentence is the same as that in Tamil.

Since we Indians consider English superior, most of us would have forgotten most of the Tamil we have learnt during school. Interesting though the language is, learning it is like thinking in Tamil and translating it to English only here it is the reverse. 

Let me first start with basic sounds in the two languages. In Tamil 12 Uyir Ezhuthu and 18 Mei ezhuthu form the foundation for the language. Japanese script too has its own structure – hiragana, katakana and kanji and has in total 46 sounds. Though the script is very different from that of Tamil, the languages share similar sounds. For example take the vowels a, i, u, e, o. It is pronounced as அ, இ, உ, எ, ஒ in Tamil and Japanese あ, い, う, え, お.

But unlike 12 uyir ezhuthu, Japanese script has only these five letters and other letters are built using these five vowels.

Japanese alphabetical order is written as あ, か, さ, た, な, は, ま, や, ら, わ, ん and

Tamil order is அ  க  ங  ஞ  ட   ண த   ந    ம ய   ர   ல ழ  ள  ற   .  

You can pronounce the Japanese letters using the Tamil words I have highlighted and they sound exactly the same. If you notice, both of them follow the same order though Tamil language has more words and sounds than Japanese.

Just like you combine uyir and mei to produce uyirmei ezhuthi, you mix vowel and other alphabets to produce 46 kana sounds in Japanese. That forms the basics of Japanese script. If you know 46 kanas you should be able to read and write basic Japanese though you need to know katakana and kanji to be able to master the language.

How do you form sentences? In English, sentence structure follows the order of <subject> <verb> <Object>. But that is not how you write in Japanese. It follows the structure used in most South Indian languages <subject><object><verb>. This is so easily understandable if only I could form sentences in Tamil in my head rather than English. For example ‘I’m going to Chennai’ is written as ‘Naan Chennai pogiren’ in Tamil and ‘Watashi wa (Naan) Chennai ikimasu desu (pogiren) ’ in Japanese.

Now I hope you get how Tamil and Japanese are similar not just in sentence structure but also how the letters and sound behave in a sentence.

Professor Ohno thinks that there must be a close relation between the two nations if there are so many similarities. Though Japanese borrowed Chinese words to form their own script, Ohno states that Mandarin and Cantonese follow the SVO structure and their letters have different sounds from that of Japanese.

Many scholar, including Ohno’s contemporaries, feel that though Tamil and Japanese might have some similarity it does not mean one originated from the other. Ramesh sensei said, “Yes. The languages are similar and if you know any South Indian languages, it makes learning Japanese easier. But that does not mean that one originated from the other.” He believes that there might be a possibility that these languages might have originated from the same parent script. “But that again is only an assumption and it might not be the case,” he added.

As I was learning the language I also realised how complex English language is with its silent sounds and grammar that creates more confusion than it solves. I also realised that mastering in English does not really help anywhere may be except earn your keep, which is a more important than anything else in the current scenario.

If one thing that learning Japanese has made me aware of, it is the love for my mother tongue Tamil. It has reinstated how beautiful Tamil language really is and makes me want to learn more about it.

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