Etymology: Tamil, Sinhala language

Etymology (Sinhalese, Tamil)

Ilankai, Eelam and Yazhpanam

Inia Pandian

TAMIL TRIBUNE, March 2005 (ID. 2005-03-01)
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1. Ilankai

The Tamil word "Ilankai" has its origin in another Tamil word "Ilanku". Ilanku means "be visible". Why did the name of an island come from the word Ilanku?

Tamils are great seafarers in all known Tamil history. Tamil merchants sailed to Burma and Malaysia in the east and Greece and Rome in the west as far back as at least 2000 years. As ships sailed off from Tamil Nadu coasts or returned back home, sailors could see the large landmass of the island. It was clearly visible. So they called the island Ilankai from the word Ilanku. The island is referred to as Ilankai in some of the oldest Tamil literature available today, for example, Sirupanattuppadai and Purananooru, both written about 2000 years ago.

The Tamil word Ilankai mutated to "Lanka" in Sinhalese. The prefix "Sri", indicating honor, respect or reverence, was added to it and the island is today called Sri Lanka.

2. Eelam

The name "Eelam" was also used to refer to the Ilankai Island. It referred to the whole island; that is why Tamils call their historical homeland in the island "Tamil Eelam".

The usage of the name Eelam dates back to at least the Third Tamil Academy (Third Tamil Sangam or Third Tamil Kazhagam) some 2000 years ago. Pattinappalai, a Tamil book of that time, uses the name Eelam to refer to the island. Also some of the poetry anthologies of the Third Tamil Academy, namely, Akananooru, Kurunthokai and Nattinai, contain poems written by Eelathu Poothan Thevanar (Eelathu means "from Eelam" and Poothan Thevanar is the poet's name). Thus we see that at least one Tamil poet from the island contributed to the anthologies compiled during the Third Tamil Academy. (NOTE: Eelam is sometimes spelled as Eezham or Eezam.)

3. Yazhpanam

Contrary to some Sinhalese claims, the name Yazhpanam has its origin in Tamil. Centuries ago a minstrel playing a string instrument called "yazh" entertained a local king. Pleased with the music, the king granted the minstrel vast areas of land in northern Ilankai. The land became known after the minstrel. Panan is the Tamil word for minstrel. Minstrel playing the string instrument "yazh" is called a Yazhpanan. So the land granted to the minstrel became known as Yazhpanan and it slightly mutated to the present name Yazhpanam.

[SUMMARY: Origin of the names Ilankai, Eelam, Yazhpanam and Sri Lanka. Etymology of Tamil and Sinhala words.]


1. Tamil Language and Etymology

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