Tamil & Korean: Two Languages That Are More Similar Than They Appear

Tamil & Korean: Two Languages That Are More Similar Than They Appear
Shreya Takodara

We assume that bunch of words and their sounds structured in a meaningful manner are able to decide for us where we come from, who we will be able to connect with and also something that determines our identity. However, one of the most prominent linguists whose understanding of language and its policies elude us all, Noam Chomsky, rightly described language as ‘not just words, but a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, and a whole history that creates what a community is.’

Apart from the fact that both countries belong to the continent of Asia, at first glance, India and Korea do not seem to share a single cultural thread. Quite unexpectedly, however, both entities have more in common than we think. One of our many regional languages, Tamil, and a language from a couple of degrees of separation across, Korean have proven to share multiple words and their meanings. Not too far in phonetics, these words root themselves deep into both our histories.

When we say it goes a long way back, we mean it. Cultural ties between the two countries date back to the first century when an Indian princess named Sri Rathna became the first Queen of the ancient Gaya Kingdom after marrying the Korean King Kim Suro. In his book, Kim Byeongmo’s Archaeological Travels: Heo Hwangok’s Route, from India to Gaya, Professor Kim Byeongmo does mention this early connection, along with many other cultural and historic interactions between the two nationalities. The couple is believed to have given birth to 10 sons and two daughters and gone on to establish the Karak Dynasty. ‘Karak’, interestingly, in its proto-Dravidian roots, means fish. Additionally, many of the names of ancient cities of Korea were counterparts of Dravidian words. Keeping in mind that Tamil is a Dravidian language, these instances point to a strong ancient linguistic link.

Over the due course, India and Korea remained a part of each other’s journeys through the trade of spices, pearls and jade via the Silk Road, the shared belief in Buddhism and also the common importance of sandalwood. The French missionaries, however, were the first ones to find any similarities between the Tamil and Korean languages.

The acknowledgement of this relationship is a two-way street between India and Korea. In 2015, Kyungsoo Kim, Consul General of South Korea on a visit to Chennai for a conference also revealed his awareness of the same. To elaborate, he narrated an incident that took place as he was walking along a beach in Mahabalipuram. Upon hearing who he assumed was his son scream out “Appa!”, Kyungsoo Kim turned around only to realise that it was not his son. A young Tamilian boy was calling out to his father with the very word.

‘Appa’ is not the only word the two languages share. Although it remains unsure as to how many such words exist, it is widely believed that there are at least 500 of them.

Here’s a list of just a few of the words that show similarities between the languages.

  • Grass: Pronounced Pul (புல்) in Tamil, Pol (풀) in Korean
  • Day: Pronounced Nal in Tamil (நாள்) and Korean (날), both
  • Little bit: Pronounced Koñcam Koñcam (கொஞ்சம் கொஞ்சம்) in Tamil and Jogeum Jogeum (조금 조금) in Korean
  • Mother: Pronounced Amma (அம்மா) in Tamil, Omma (엄마) in Korean
  • Sister/sister-in-law: Pronounced Anni in Tamil, Eonni (언니) in Korean
  • Must/have to: Kattayamaka (கட்டாயமாக) in Tamil, Kachoyham in Korean
  • One: Onnu (ஒண்ணு) in Tamil, Eonnu (어느) in Korean

We are all aware of Korea’s contributions to introducing impeccable skincare products, delicious barbecue and some of the most popular music in the world. Now we are able to add what both the countries have offered to each other to this list- some remarkable linguistic and historical aspects.

In a world where borders do not exist in the virtual sphere, finding common cultural touch-points is an added bonus.

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