Words & their multiple meanings

Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest literary figures of the 18th century, sardonically stated that making dictionaries is dull work. A lexicographer, he quirkily wrote, was a harmless drudge, making readers draw up the mental image of a morose logophile who wouldn’t mind lying bent over a desk for years extracting words.

But not a moment spent conversing with Njattiyela Sreedharan, all of 82, who spent a quarter century compiling a dictionary of four Dravidian languages –Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam — is dull. The multilingual tome that elucidates meanings of 16,000 words weighs a total of 2.25kg. “For every word, there are at least 15 related ones besides the meanings which reflect difference in dialects,” says Sreedharan. The total number of words would run into lakhs. “An old man like me would not be able to carry more than two at a time,” says Sreedharan with a chuckle. The book, which did not find a publisher, was brought out by the Senior Citizens’ Forum on Kerala Piravi day last year. It had a print run of 500 copies and got sold out in no time despite being priced at Rs 1,500.

Sreedharan began labouring on the dream lexicon in 1982, when he was 42 years old. The mammoth effort drained his resources and took him to Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where he stayed for long periods of time to soak up the local language. “We used to get Kannada newspapers and periodicals in Thalassery but not others,” says Sreedharan, who made it a habit to jot down the words he came across on thicklybound made-to-order registers. Reading of newspapers and periodicals was something he picked up while rolling bidis in local factories that employed hundreds like him in Kannur, where seeds of literacy and communism were sown together. Even before the first Communist ministry with EMS Namboothiripad was sworn-in in 1957, Sreedharan had started initiating older men into the world of reading and writing. “They had many doubts, and some of them had difficulty in understanding the language, and this was one of the reasons why I embarked on the project,” says Sreedharan, who later landed a job with the Public Works Department in Thiruvananthapuram in 1972.

Rather than words found in scholarly texts and literary works of merit, Sreedharan thought the best way to curate a people’s lexicon would be through excavating words and phrases used by commoners. “My primary sources were newspapers and periodicals and you would find a lot of words used in political, cultural and social context on a daily basis,” says Sreedharan, who also scoured recipes in all languages and astrological predictions.

The mammoth work came to end in 2008 but he had to wait till 2012 for someone to consider it for publication. The Bhasha Institute published a Malayalam-Tamil dictionary based on his manuscript and were not interested ininterested in bringing it out as a multilingual lexicon. Sreedharan suffered a stroke before the book was published. But a shocking moment was when the director told him that the manuscript he submitted was missing. “They recovered it after I filed a legal notice,” says Sreedharan, who found in the incident a shocking callousness.

Sreedharan is also pained by those who questioned his academic credentials after the book came out. “The comparative Dravidian language dictionary that I brought out has no precedents. Lexicographers here always had models before them to emulate. This had none. Also, a dictionary would get perfected over the years with people commenting on errors,” says Sreedharan. He now has trouble recalling words because of the stroke but fervently hopes that a publisher would come forward to take his labour of love to a larger audience.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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