Which of these qualify as a classical language?
Around 2004, the politics of according classical language status made its presence felt for the first time in the national polity. The DMK chief, M. Karunanidhi, drove a hard bargain with the UPA to declare Tamil as one, in return for precious numbers he brought in to the coalition. In an interview, Karunanidhi said that the classical stamp on Tamil from the Government of India could prompt the UNESCO to give it the same tag. That would qualify Tamil, along with other classical languages, to be interred in a time capsule by the UNESCO.
To embed his language in the future is a dream worthy of a litterateur like Karunanidhi. But there was a glitch in the details. The UNESCO had pretty much kept away from explosive issues linked with linguistic pride. They do not maintain a scroll of classical languages, neither do they have a set of criteria to measure classicalness. In 2007, in response to a query from V.C. Kulandaiswamy, vice chairman of the Central Institute of Classical Tamil, the UNESCO said as much, and more. They felt “it is a matter which is beyond UNESCO’s mandate”.
When the Tamil Nadu government’s representation for classical language status reached Delhi, the situation was not different. Political expediency called for immediate action and the paper was passed on to the Sahitya Akademi. An expert committee constituted by its chairman was quick to note that “the criteria for defining a classical language are not mentioned anywhere. But abstracting the standard features of what are universally accepted as Classical Languages (such as Sanskrit, Latin and Greek), it was agreed that following criteria be applied in the case of such designation henceforth”.
The four criteria arrived at were consistent with the broad understanding of the phrase, classical language. One, high antiquity of the literature and a recorded history of over 1,500 to 2,000 years. Two, a body of ancient texts that have heritage value. Three, the literary tradition should not be derivative; it should be original and not borrowed from another speech community. Four, the classical language and literature should be distinct from the modern, and there could be a hiatus between the classical language and its extant variants. In other words, classical languages are dead.