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Tamil Prosody

This section attempts to provide a very brief introduction to Tamil Prosody. For a detailed account, refer to Ulrike Niklas's book in the reference section.

Tamil Prosody system defines the following six basic components:
  1. eḻuttu - Letter
  2. acai - Metreme
  3. cīr - Metrical Foot
  4. taḷai - Linkage
  5. aṭi - Metrical Line
  6. toṭai - Ornamentation
The system of Tamil Prosody is completely dependant on syllable patterns rather than being based on stress.

Letter

Tamil Script is an alpha-syllabary. A letter in Tamil Prosody corresponds to an orthographic grapheme.

Tamil differentiates three types of letters (due to its orthography)

  1. uyireḻuttu - Initial Vowels (iV)
  2. meyyeḻuttu - Pure Consonants (C)
  3. uyirmeyyeḻuttu - Consonant-Vowels (CV)

Each of the above, is considered as a "letter" in Tamil. Tamil being a phonemic script, it can also be used to denote a phoneme.

For instance, the word அவலோகிதம் : avalōkitam would be analyzed as having 6 letters - iV CV CV CV CV C

Metreme

Metreme is the basic unit of Tamil prosody, which in turn makes up the metrical foot. A metreme can (roughly) be either mono-syllabic or bi-syllabic.

A mono-syllabic metreme is called "nēr" and the bi-syllabic metreme is "nirai".

They may be conveniently expressed as a regular expression:

Metreme Phonetic Orthographic
nēr C?(V̆|V̄)C* (iV̆|iV̄|CV̆|CV̄)C*
nirai C?V̆C(V̆|V̄)C* (iV̆|CV̆)(CV̆|CV̄)C*

V̆ - Short Vowel ; V̄ - Long Vowel

For example, kal, kāl, uṉ are all nēr metremes, where as viḻā, pakal, akār, are nirai metremes.

Metrical Foot

A metrical foot can be composed of at most 4 metremes. Therefore, the number of possible metrical feet are 21 + 22 + 23 + 24 combinations of nēr & nirai metremes.

Different classes of metrical feet for double metremes and triple metremes are shown below:

Denoting - as ner and = as nirai :

- - tēmā
= - puḷimā
- = kūviḷam
= = karuviḷam

- - - tēmāṅkāy
= - - puḷimāṅkāy
- = - kūviḷaṅkāy
= = - karuviḷaṅkāy
- - = tēmāṅkaṉi
= - = puḷimāṅkaṉi
- = = kūviḷaṅkaṉi
= = = karuviḷaṅkaṉi

Note that the names of the classes themselves parse into the feet pattern they represent.

Linkage

The relation between preceding feet and the succeeding feet is termed as "linkage". The type of linkage is dependant on the class of preceding feet and the first metreme of the succeeding feet.

For instance, iyaṟcīr veṇṭaḷai type of linkage is considered as occuring in the following cases :

- - → =
= - → =
- = → -
= = → -

Tamil prosody defines 6 specific types of linkages that may occur between metrical feet.

Metrical Line

A Metrical line can be composed of several metrical feet. There are no specific upper limit for number of feet that may appear in a line, though it rarely exceeds beyond 8. In most cases it is around 3 - 6 feet per line.

Ornamentation

In Tamil, Toṭai refers to a collection of several forms of poetic devices - both phonetic ( e.g. etukai,mōṉai) and lexical ( e.g. muraṇ - Usage of lexically opposite pairs such as light & dark). Etymologically, it is derived from toṭu, meaning 'making a flower garland'. Similar to that of linking different flowers (and forming patterns), patterns can be formed in a verse composition, by means of words and syllables.

Ornamentation in Tamil Prosody mainly occurs as :

  1. mōṉai - Alliteration of the first letter
  2. etukai - Rhyme on the second letter

These can occur between feet in the same line and also between first foot of the lines in a verse.

Alliteration

Alliteration in Tamil prosody occurs in the first letter. Apart from homophones, few other pairs of phones such as m-v, ñ-n, u-o etc. are considered equivalent for purposes of alliteration.

Rhyme

Rhyme on second Letter is the another type of Ornamentation found in Tamil prosody. For a feet to be considered as rhyming with another feet, the second letter must belong to the same consonant class while the first letter must agree in vowel length.

pāṭam - kūṭam is considered to rhyme, while kal - kāl is not.

Metre

Classical Tamil prosody has 4 types of "major" metres (along with their subtypes). They are:

  1. veṇpā
  2. āciriyappā
  3. kalippā
  4. vañcippā

The rules governing these metres are mostly concerned with classes of metrical feet allowed, number of feet per line and type of linkage occurring.

Apart from these main metres, there are four more "minor" metres which are considered belonging to the family (iṉam) of the above metres. These are

  1. veṇpāviṉam
  2. āciriyappāviṉam
  3. kalippāviṉam
  4. vañcippāviṉam

These don't have very strict rules as compared to major metres. They may superficially resemble the major metres, for instance by the number of the feet per line. In fact in most cases, the only rules governing these "family" metres are number of metrical feet in each line of the verse. Though some metres like Kalitturai also impose additional rules, like the necessity of all lines rhyming in the second letter.

These are also several sub-types of the major and minor metres. Veṇpā, for example has 5 subtypes.

Sample Analysis

For illustration purposes, let's consider a verse composed in Veṇpā metre:

Of all Tamil metres, Veṇpā is usually considered the strictest with very rigid rules of composition.


அகர முதல எழுத்தெல்லாம் ஆதி
பகவன் முதற்றே உலகு

akara mutala eḻuttellām āti
pakavaṉ mutaṟṟē ulaku

Scansion

The above verse is scanned as follows:

அக/ர முத/ல எழுத்/தெல்/லாம் ஆ/தி
பக/வன் முதற்/றே உல/கு

aka/ra muta/la eḻut/tel/lām ā/ti
paka/vaṉ mutaṟ/ṟē ula/ku

Letters

iVCV/CV CVCV/CV iVCVC/CVC/CVC iV/CV
CVCV/CVC CVCVC/CV iVCV/CV

Metreme types

nirai/nēr nirai/nēr nirai/nēr/nēr nēr/nēr
nirai/nēr nirai/nēr nirai/pu

Metrical feet class

puḷimā puḷimā puḷimāṅkāy tēmā
puḷimā puḷimā piṟappu

(The last feet of the Veṇpā verse needs a slightly different scan and classification)

Linkage

akara → mutala : iyaṟcīr veṇṭaḷai (puḷimā → nirai)
mutala → eḻuttellām : iyaṟcīr veṇṭaḷai (puḷimā → nirai)
eḻuttellām → āti : veṇcīr veṇṭaḷai (puḷimāṅkāy → nēr)
āti → pakavaṉ : iyaṟcīr veṇṭaḷai (tēmā → nirai)
pakavaṉ → mutaṟṟē : iyaṟcīr veṇṭaḷai (puḷimā → nirai)
mutaṟṟē → ulaku : iyaṟcīr veṇṭaḷai (puḷimā → nirai)

Ornamentation

Alliteration at feet level: akara - āti

Rhyme at line level : akara - pakavaṉ

This verse satisfies all rules of the Veṇpā metre. Being of two metrical lines, it falls under the sub-type of Kuṟaḷ Veṇpā.

Reference

  1. Niklas, U. (1988). Introduction to Tamil prosody. Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, 77(1), 165-227.
  2. tiruttaṇikai vicākap perumāḷaiyar (1939). Yāppilakkaṇam (Tamil Prosody Grammar)
  3. Tamil Virtual Academy - Online Course on Tamil Prosody
  4. Pasupathy, kavitai iyaṟṟik kalakku



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