Tamil language

Tamil language

Tamil (தமிழ் ; t̪əmɨɻ) is a Dravidian language spoken predominantly by Tamil people of the Indian subcontinent. It has official status in India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. Tamil is also spoken by significant minorities in Malaysia, Mauritius, Vietnam, Réunion as well as emigrant communities around the world. It is the administrative language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and the first Indian language to be declared as a classical language by the government of India in 2004, followed by Sanskrit. Tamil literature has existed for over two thousand years. The earliest epigraphic records found date from around the third century BCE. The earliest period of Tamil literature, Sangam literature, is dated from the 3rd century BC to 6th century AD.

According to a 2001 survey, there were 1,863 newspapers published in Tamil, of which 353 were dailies.


Tamil belongs to the southern branch of the Dravidian languages, a family of around twenty-six languages native to the Indian subcontinent. It is sometimes classified as being part of a Tamil language family, which alongside Tamil proper, also includes the languages of about 35 ethno-linguistic groups such as the Irula, and Yerukula languages (see SIL Ethnologue).

The closest major relative of Tamil is Malayalam. Until about the ninth century, Tamil and Malayalam were dialects of one language, called "Tamil" by the speakers of both. Although many of the differences between Tamil and Malayalam evidence a pre-historic split between eastern and western dialects, the process of separation of the two into distinct languages was not completed until sometime in the 13th or 14th century.


The exact period when the name "Tamil" came to be applied to the language is unclear, as is the precise etymology of the name. Southworth suggests that the name comes from tam-miz > tam-iz 'self-speak', or 'one's own speech'. Zvelebil suggests an etymology of tam-iz, with tam meaning "self" or "one's self", and "-iz" having the connotation of "unfolding sound". Alternately, he suggests a derivation of tamiz < tam-iz < *tav-iz < *tak-iz, meaning in origin "the proper process (of speaking).


Tamil is one of the ancient languages of the world with records in the language dating back over two millennia. Its origins are not precisely known, but it developed and flourished in India as a language with a rich literature. With an estimated 30,000 inscriptions, Tamil has the largest number of inscriptions in South Asia.

Tamil has the oldest extant literature amongst the Dravidian languages, but dating the language and the literature precisely is difficult. Literary works in India were preserved either in palm leaf manuscripts (implying repeated copying and recopying) or through oral transmission, making direct dating impossible. External chronological records and internal linguistic evidence, however, indicate that the oldest extant works were probably compiled sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 10th century CE.

Tamil scholars categorize the history of the language into three periods, Old Tamil (300 BC - 700 CE), Middle Tamil (700 - 1600) and Modern Tamil (1600-present). Epigraphic attestation of Tamil begins with rock inscriptions from the 3rd century BC, written in Tamil-Brahmi, an adapted form of the Brahmi script. The earliest extant literary text is the Tolkāppiyam, a work on poetics and grammar which describes the language of the classical period, dated variously between the 3rd century BCE and 5th century CE.

The Sangam literature contains about 50,000 lines of poetry contained in 2381 poems attributed to 473 poets including many women poets. Many of the poems of Sangam period were also set to music. During the post-Sangam period, important works like Thirukkural, and epic poems were composed, including Silappatikaram, Manimekalai, Sīvakacintāmani, Valaiyapathi and Kundalakesi which are known as the five great epics. The Bhakthi period is known for the great outpouring of devotional songs set to pann music, including over eight thousand Tevaram verses on Saivism and four thousand verses on Vaishnavism. The early mediaeval Period gave rise to a popular adaptation of the Ramayana in Tamil, known as Kamba Ramayanam and a story of 63 Nayanmars known as Periyapuranam.

Geographic distribution

Tamil is the first language of the majority in Tamil Nadu, India and North Eastern Province, Sri Lanka. The language is spoken by small groups of minorities in other parts of these two countries such as Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur and Maharashtra in case of India and Colombo and the hill country in case of Sri Lanka.

There are currently sizeable Tamil-speaking populations descended from colonial-era migrants in Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Vietnam, South Africa, and Mauritius. Some people in Guyana, Fiji, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago have Tamil origins, but only a small number speak the language there. Groups of more recent migrants from Sri Lanka and India exist in Canada (especially Toronto), USA, Australia, many Middle Eastern countries, and most of the western European countries.

Legal status

Tamil is the official language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is one of the official languages of the union territories of Pondicherry and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands It is one of 23 nationally recognised languages in the Constitution of India. Tamil is also one of the official languages of Sri Lanka and Singapore. In Malaysia, primary education in government schools is also available fully in Tamil.

In addition, with the creation in 2004 of a legal status for classical languages by the government of India and following a political campaign supported by several Tamil associations Tamil became the first legally recognised Classical language of India. The recognition was announced by the then President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam, in a joint sitting of both houses of the Indian Parliament on June 6, 2004.


Region specific variations

Tamil is a diglossic language. Tamil dialects are primarily differentiated from each other by the fact that they have undergone different phonological changes and sound shifts in evolving from Old Tamil. For example, the word for "here" — in Centamil (the classic variety)—has evolved into in the Kongu dialect of Coimbatore, inga in the dialect of Thanjavur, and in some dialects of Sri Lanka. Old Tamil's (where means place) is the source of in the dialect of Tirunelveli, Old Tamil is the source of in the dialect of Ramanathapuram, and in various northern dialects. Even now in Coimbatore area it is common to hear "" meaning "that place". Although Tamil dialects do not differ significantly in their vocabulary, there are a few exceptions. The dialects spoken in Sri Lanka retain many words and grammatical forms that are not in everyday use in India, and use many other words slightly differently.

Loanword variations

The dialect of the district of Palakkad in kerala has a large number of Malayalam loanwords, has also been influenced by Malayalam syntax and also has a distinct Malayalam accent. Hebbar and Mandyam dialects, spoken by groups of Tamil Vaishnavites who migrated to Karnataka in the eleventh century, retain many features of the Vaishnava paribasai, a special form of Tamil developed in the ninth and tenth centuries that reflect Vaishnavite religious and spiritual values. Several castes have their own sociolects which most members of that caste traditionally used regardless of where they come from. It is often possible to identify a person’s caste by their speech.

Spoken and literary variants

In addition to its various dialects, Tamil exhibits different forms: a classical literary style modelled on the ancient language a modern literary and formal style and a modern colloquial form (). These styles shade into each other, forming a stylistic continuum. For example, it is possible to write with a vocabulary drawn from , or to use forms associated with one of the other variants while speaking .

In modern times, is generally used in formal writing and speech. For instance, it is the language of textbooks, of much of Tamil literature and of public speaking and debate. In recent times, however, has been making inroads into areas that have traditionally been considered the province of . Most contemporary cinema, theatre and popular entertainment on television and radio, for example, is in , and many politicians use it to bring themselves closer to their audience. The increasing use of in modern times has led to the emergence of unofficial ‘standard’ spoken dialects. In India, the ‘standard’ is based on ‘educated non-brahmin speech’, rather than on any one dialect, but has been significantly influenced by the dialects of Thanjavur and Madurai. In Sri Lanka the standard is based on the dialect of Jaffna.

Writing system

Tamil is written using a script called the . The Tamil script consists of 12 vowels, 18 consonants and one special character, the āytam. The vowels and consonants combine to form 216 compound characters, giving a total of 247 characters. As with other Indic scripts, all consonants have an inherent vowel a, which in Tamil, is removed by adding an overdot called a , to the consonantal sign. Unlike most Indic scripts, the Tamil script does not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced plosives. Instead, plosives are articulated with voice or unvoiced depending on their position in a word, in accordance with the rules of Tamil phonology, as discussed below.

In addition to the standard characters, six characters taken from the Grantha script, which was used in the Tamil region to write Sanskrit, are sometimes used to represent sounds not native to Tamil, that is, words borrowed from Sanskrit, Prakrit and other languages. The traditional system prescribed by classical grammars for writing loan-words, which involves respelling them in accordance with Tamil phonology remains, but is not always consistently applied.


Tamil phonology is characterised by the presence of retroflex consonants, and strict rules for the distribution within words of voiced and unvoiced plosives. Tamil phonology permits few consonant clusters, which can never be word initial. Native grammarians classify Tamil phonemes into vowels, consonants, and a "secondary character", the āytam.


Tamil vowels are called (uyir – life, – letter). The vowels are classified into short and long (five of each type) and two diphthongs, /ai/ and /au/, and three "shortened" vowels.

The long vowels are about twice as long as the short vowels. The diphthongs are usually pronounced about 1.5 times as long as the short vowels, though most grammatical texts place them with the long vowels.

Short Long
Front Central Back Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a (ai) (aw)


Tamil consonants are known as (mey—body, —letters). The consonants are classified into three categories with six in each category: —hard, —soft or Nasal, and —medium.

Unlike most Indian languages, Tamil does not have aspirated consonants. In addition, the voicing of plosives is governed by strict rules in . Plosives are unvoiced if they occur word-initially or doubled. Elsewhere they are voiced, with a few becoming fricatives intervocalically. Nasals and approximants are always voiced.

A chart of the Tamil consonant phonemes in the IPA follows:

Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar
Nasal m ɳ ɲ ŋ
Rhotic ɾ̪ r
Lateral ɭ
Approximant ʋ ɻ j

Though many characters sound alike, the different tongue-teeth vocal coordinations, produce different sound tones. Many of the characters that sound alike are differentiated by a sizing or specific description. For instance the character ற and ர have the same pronunciation. Contrary to popular belief, ர is truly the bigger of the two consonants and is known as 'big ra' whereas ற is actually 'small ra'.

Phonemes in brackets are voiced equivalents. Both voiceless and voiced forms are represented by the same character in Tamil, and voicing is determined by context. The sounds /f/ and /ʂ/ are peripheral to the phonology of Tamil, being found only in loanwords and frequently replaced by native sounds. There are well-defined rules for elision in Tamil categorised into different classes based on the phoneme which undergoes elision.


Classical Tamil also had a phoneme called the Āytam, written as ‘ஃ’. Tamil grammarians of the time classified it as a dependent phoneme (or restricted phoneme ) but it is very rare in modern Tamil. The rules of pronunciation given in the Tolkāppiyam, a text on the grammar of Classical Tamil, suggest that the āytam could have glottalised the sounds it was combined with. It has also been suggested that the āytam was used to represent the voiced implosive (or closing part or the first half) of geminated voiced plosives inside a word. The Āytam, in modern Tamil, is also used to convert pa to fa (not the retroflex zha (ɻ)) when writing English words using the Tamil script.

Numerals & Symbols

Apart from the usual numerals, Tamil also has numerals for 10, 100 and 1000. Symbols for day, month, year, debit, credit, as above, rupee, numeral are present as well.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 100 1000

day month year debit credit as above rupee numeral


Tamil employs agglutinative grammar, where suffixes are used to mark noun class, number, and case, verb tense and other grammatical categories. Tamil's standard metalinguistic terminology and scholarly vocabularly is itself Tamil, as opposed to the Sanskrit that is standard for most other Dravidian languages.

Much of Tamil grammar is extensively described in the oldest known grammar book for Tamil, the Tolkāppiyam. Modern Tamil writing is largely based on the 13th century grammar which restated and clarified the rules of the Tolkāppiyam, with some modifications. Traditional Tamil grammar consists of five parts, namely , col, , yāppu, . Of these, the last two are mostly applied in poetry.

Similar to other Dravidian languages, Tamil is characterised by its use of retroflex consonants. It also uses a liquid l (ழ) (example Tamil), which is also found in Malayalam (example Kozhikode), but disappeared from Kannada at around 1000 AD (but present in Unicode), and was never present in Telugu. Tamil words consist of a lexical root to which one or more affixes are attached. Most Tamil affixes are suffixes. Tamil suffixes can be derivational suffixes, which either change the part of speech of the word or its meaning, or inflectional suffixes, which mark categories such as person, number, mood, tense, etc. There is no absolute limit on the length and extent of agglutination, which can lead to long words with a large number of suffixes.


Tamil nouns (and pronouns) are classified into two super-classes ()—the "rational" and the "irrational" ()—which include a total of five classes (pāl, which literally means ‘gender’). Humans and deities are classified as "rational", and all other nouns (animals, objects, abstract nouns) are classified as irrational. The "rational" nouns and pronouns belong to one of three classes (pāl)—masculine singular, feminine singular, and rational plural. The "irrational" nouns and pronouns belong to one of two classes - irrational singular and irrational plural. The pāl is often indicated through suffixes. The plural form for rational nouns may be used as an honorific, gender-neutral, singular form.

Suffixes are used to perform the functions of cases or postpositions. Traditional grammarians tried to group the various suffixes into eight cases corresponding to the cases used in Sanskrit. These were the nominative, accusative, dative, sociative, genitive, instrumental, locative, and ablative. Modern grammarians argue that this classification is artificial, and that Tamil usage is best understood if each suffix or combination of suffixes is seen as marking a separate case. Tamil nouns can take one of four prefixes, i, a, u and e which are functionally equivalent to the demonstratives in English.

Tamil verbs are also inflected through the use of suffixes. A typical Tamil verb form will have a number of suffixes, which show person, number, mood, tense and voice.

  • Person and number are indicated by suffixing the oblique case of the relevant pronoun. The suffixes to indicate tenses and voice are formed from grammatical particles, which are added to the stem.
  • Tamil has two voices. The first indicates that the subject of the sentence undergoes or is the object of the action named by the verb stem, and the second indicates that the subject of the sentence directs the action referred to by the verb stem.
  • Tamil has three simple tenses—past, present, and future—indicated by the suffixes, as well as a series of perfects indicated by compound suffixes. Mood is implicit in Tamil, and is normally reflected by the same morphemes which mark tense categories. Tamil verbs also mark evidentiality, through the addition of the hearsay clitic .

Traditional grammars of Tamil do not distinguish between adjectives and adverbs, including both of them under the category uriccol, although modern grammarians tend to distinguish between them on morphological and syntactical grounds. Tamil has a large number of ideophones that act as adverbs indicating the way the object in a given state "says" or "sounds".

Tamil does not have articles. Definiteness and indefiniteness are either indicated by special grammatical devices, such as using the number "one" as an indefinite article, or by the context. In the first person plural, Tamil makes a distinction between inclusive pronouns நாம் (we), நமது (our) that include the addressee and exclusive pronouns நாங்கள் (we), எமது (our) that do not.


Tamil is a consistently head-final language. The verb comes at the end of the clause, with typical word order Subject Object Verb (SOV). However, word order in Tamil is also flexible, so that surface permutations of the SOV order are possible with different pragmatic effects. Tamil has postpositions rather than prepositions. Demonstratives and modifiers precede the noun within the noun phrase. Subordinate clauses precede the verb of the matrix clause.

Tamil is a null subject language. Not all Tamil sentences have subjects, verbs and objects. It is possible to construct grammatically valid and meaningful sentences which lack one or more of the three. For example, a sentence may only have a verb—such as ("completed")—or only a subject and object, without a verb such as ("That [is] my house"). Tamil does not have a copula (a linking verb equivalent to the word is). The word is included in the translations only to convey the meaning more easily.


The vocabulary of Tamil is mainly Dravidian. A strong sense of linguistic purism is found in Modern Tamil, which opposes the use of foreign loan-words. Nonetheless, a number of words used in classical and modern Tamil indicate borrowing from languages of neighbouring groups, or with whom the Tamils had trading links, including Munda (e.g. "frog" from Munda ), Malay (e.g. "sago" from Malay ), Chinese (e.g. "skiff" from Chinese san-pan) and Greek (e.g. from Greek ὥρα). In more modern times, Tamil has imported words from Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Marathi, reflecting groups that have ruled the Tamil area at various points of time, and from neighbouring languages such as Telugu, Kannada and Sinhala. During the modern period, words have also been borrowed from European languages, such as Portuguese, French and English.

The strongest impact of purism in Tamil has been on loanwords from Sanskrit. During its history, Tamil, along with other Dravidian languages like Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam etc., was influenced by Sanskrit in terms of vocabulary, grammar and literary styles, reflecting the increased trend of Sanskritisation in the Tamil country. Tamil vocabulary never became quite as heavily Sanskritised as that of the other Dravidian languages, and unlike in those languages, it was and remains possible to express complex ideas - including in science, art, religion and law - without the use of Sanskrit loan words. In addition, Sanskritisation was actively resisted by a number of authors of the late medieval period, culminating in the 20th century in a movement called (meaning pure Tamil movement), led by Parithimaar Kalaignar and Maraimalai Adigal, which sought to remove the accumulated influence of Sanskrit on Tamil. As a result of this, Tamil in formal documents, literature and public speeches has seen a marked decline in the use Sanskrit loan words in the past few decades, under some estimates having fallen from 40-50% to about 20%. As a result, the Prakrit and Sanskrit loan words used in modern Tamil are, unlike in some other Dravidian languages, restricted mainly to some spiritual terminology and abstract nouns.

In the twentieth century, institutions and learned bodies have, with government support, generated technical dictionaries for Tamil containing neologisms and words derived from Tamil roots to replace loan words from English and other languages.

Words of Tamil origin occur in other languages. Popular examples in English are cheroot (meaning "rolled up"), mango (from mangai), mulligatawny (from meaning pepper water), pariah (from paraiyar), ginger (from ingi), curry (from kari), and catamaran (from , கட்டு மரம், meaning "bundled logs"), pandal (shed, shelter, booth), tyer (curd), coir (rope).

See also


  • Caldwell, Robert. 1974. A comparative grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp.
  • Herman Tieken(2001) Kavya in South India: Old Tamil Cankam Poetry. Groningen: Forsten 2001
  • Hart, George L. (1975), The poems of ancient Tamil : their milieu and their Sanskrit counterparts. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0520026721
  • Lehmann, Thomas (1989). A Grammar of Modern Tamil. Pondicherry, Pondicherry Institute of Linguistics and Culture.
  • Mahadevan, Iravatham (2003). Early Tamil Epigraphy from the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. Cambridge, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674012275
  • Johann Philip Fabricius (1933 and 1972), Tamil and English Dictionary. based on J.P. Fabricius Malabar-English Dictionary, 3rd and 4th Edition Revised and Enlarged by David Bexell. Evangelical Lutheran Mission Publishing House, Tranquebar; called Tranquebar Dictionary.
  • Pope, GU (1868). A Tamil hand-book, or, Full introduction to the common dialect of that language. (3rd ed.). Madras, Higginbotham & Co.
  • Rajam, VS (1992). A Reference Grammar of Classical Tamil Poetry. Philadelphia, The American Philosophical Society. ISBN 087169199X
  • Schiffman, Harold F. (1998). "Standardization or restandardization: The case for ‘Standard’ Spoken Tamil". Language in Society 27, 359–385.


External links


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