Aditi Marehalli: carrying on an endangered language

Alexa Lim, Staff Writer

For most families within the U.S, common languages such as English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Hindi are spoken at home. However, within the walls of one Liberty household, an indigenous language with only around 50,000 speakers worldwide is kept alive. 

Sophomore Aditi Marehalli is one of the rare few who speak Hebbar Iyengar Tamil, a dialect made up of Tamil and Kannada, both of which originate from Southern India. 

“Both of my parents speak the language, so I grew up in an environment where I always heard it,” Marehalli said.  

Hebbar Iyengar Tamil can only be learned from those who already speak it, since physical and online resources on the language are incredibly limited. Like most languages, it is passed through generations of families.

“I learned Hebbar Iyengar Tamil around the same time I learned English,” Marehalli said. “When I was growing up, my parents would point at a body part, like your nose. Then they would ask me, ‘what’s this?’ I would say nose in English and then mūk* in Hebbar Iyengar Tamil.” 

Learning and speaking a language connects people to their cultures in a way that allows them to communicate with their family and other people within their ethnic group. 

“The language is symbolic of my roots and gives me a unique sense of identity,” Marehalli said. “It also allows me to be closer to parents and relatives.”

However, there aren’t many places where Marehalli can speak the language outside of her house. 

“I primarily use this language at home and with relatives because Tamil and Kannada are much more commonly spoken, leading to this unique dialect being forgotten,” Marehalli said.

Other than the occasional one or two families per community, Hebbar Iyengar Tamil is mostly spoken in the state of Karnataka, which is in the southwestern region of India. Even within Karnataka, Hebbar Iyengar Tamil is still mostly confined to private residences. 

“It’s the sort of language that people speak at home but don’t use in public,” said Marehali. 

As fewer and fewer people learn and speak Hebbar Iyengar Tamil, it becomes closer to extinction. 

“Eventually, this dialect will be lost. It’s already starting to get there. I think the problem is that the two overarching languages, Kannada and Tamil, are going to engulf it,” said Marehalli. 

As generations go by, people find it harder to connect to their cultures. Regardless, in addition to speaking the language, Marehalli engages in her culture through ethnic cuisine and her study of Carnatic music. 

“The spread of pop culture makes it harder to stick with ethnic groups. These days, it’s harder to be connected, but I believe it’s still possible with the right environment and resources,” said Marehalli. 

Even as cultural diversity decreases, simply speaking the language can help to preserve unique cultures from around the world. 

*as there is no written script for Hebbar Iyengar Tamil, this is only the phonetic spelling of it provided by Aditi Marehalli