Tamil language

Last updated

Word Tamil.svg
Pronunciation [t̪amiɻ] ; Loudspeaker.svg pronunciation  
Native to India and Sri Lanka
Region Tamil Nadu [lower-alpha 1] (India)
Northern and Eastern Provinces (Sri Lanka)
Ethnicity Tamils
Native speakers
75 million (2011–2019) [1] [2]
L2 speakers: 8 million (2011) [1]
Early forms
Tamil (Brahmic)
Tamil-Brahmi (historical)
Grantha (historical)
Vatteluttu (historical)
Pallava (historical)
Kolezhuthu (historical)
Arwi (Abjad)
Tamil Braille (Bharati)
Latin script (informal)
Signed Tamil
Official status
Official language in
Flag of India.svg  India

Flag of Sri Lanka.svg  Sri Lanka
Flag of Singapore.svg  Singapore

Infobox ASEAN flag.png  ASEAN [5]
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ta
ISO 639-2 tam
ISO 639-3 Either:
tam   Modern Tamil
oty   Old Tamil
oty Old Tamil
Glottolog tami1289   Modern Tamil
oldt1248   Old Tamil
Linguasphere 49-EBE-a
Idioma tamil.png
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Tamil ( /ˈtæmɪl/ ; தமிழ்Tamiḻ [t̪amiɻ] , Loudspeaker.svg pronunciation  ) is a Dravidian language natively spoken by the Tamil people of South Asia. Tamil is an official language of the sovereign nations of Sri Lanka and Singapore, [8] [9] the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and the Union Territory of Puducherry. Tamil is spoken by significant minorities in the four other South Indian states of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is also spoken by the Tamil diaspora found in many countries, including Malaysia, Myanmar, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and Mauritius. Tamil is also natively spoken by Sri Lankan Moors.


One of 22 scheduled languages in the Constitution of India, Tamil was the first to be classified as a classical language of India and is one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world. [10] [11] [12] A. K. Ramanujan described it as "the only language of contemporary India which is recognizably continuous with a classical past." [13] The variety and quality of classical Tamil literature has led to it being described as "one of the great classical traditions and literatures of the world". [14]

A recorded Tamil literature has been documented for over 2000 years. [15] The earliest period of Tamil literature, Sangam literature, is dated from ca. 300 BC – AD 300. [16] [17] It has the oldest extant literature among Dravidian languages. [11] The earliest epigraphic records found on rock edicts and 'hero stones' date from around the 3rd century BC. [18] [19] About 60,000 of the 100,000 odd inscriptions found by the Archaeological Survey of India in India are in Tamil Nadu Of them, most are in Tamil, with only about 5 per cent in languages other than Tamil. [20] Tamil language inscriptions written in Brahmi script have been discovered in Sri Lanka and on trade goods in Thailand and Egypt. [21] [22] The two earliest manuscripts from India, [23] [24] acknowledged and registered by the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 1997 and 2005, were written in Tamil. [25]

In 1578, Portuguese Christian missionaries published a Tamil prayer book in old Tamil script named Thambiran Vanakkam , thus making Tamil the first Indian language to be printed and published. [26] The Tamil Lexicon, published by the University of Madras, was one of the earliest dictionaries published in Indian languages. [27] According to a 2001 survey, there were 1,863 newspapers published in Tamil, of which 353 were dailies. [28]


Tamil belongs to the southern branch of the Dravidian languages, a family of around 26 languages native to the Indian subcontinent. [29] It is also classified as being part of a Tamil language family that, alongside Tamil proper, includes the languages of about 35 ethno-linguistic groups [30] such as the Irula and Yerukula languages (see SIL Ethnologue).

The closest major relative of Tamil is Malayalam; the two began diverging around the 9th century AD. [31] Although many of the differences between Tamil and Malayalam demonstrate a pre-historic split of the western dialect, [32] the process of separation into a distinct language, Malayalam, was not completed until sometime in the 13th or 14th century. [33]


Tamil inscriptions on a pillar at Brahadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, also called as "Thanjai Periya Koil", means Big "Temple of Tanjore". Tamil inscriptions.jpg
Tamil inscriptions on a pillar at Brahadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, also called as "Thanjai Periya Koil", means Big "Temple of Tanjore".

According to linguists like Bhadriraju Krishnamurti, Tamil, as a Dravidian language, descends from Proto-Dravidian, a proto-language. Linguistic reconstruction suggests that Proto-Dravidian was spoken around the third millennium BC, possibly in the region around the lower Godavari river basin in peninsular India. The material evidence suggests that the speakers of Proto-Dravidian were of the culture associated with the Neolithic complexes of South India. [34] The earliest epigraphic attestations of Tamil are generally taken to have been written from the 2nd century BC. [35]

Among Indian languages, Tamil has the most ancient non-Sanskritic Indian literature. [36] Scholars categorise the attested history of the language into three periods: Old Tamil (300 BC–AD 700), Middle Tamil (700–1600) and Modern Tamil (1600–present). [37] In November 2007, an excavation at Quseir-al-Qadim revealed Egyptian pottery dating back to first century BC with ancient Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. [21] There are a number of apparent Tamil loanwords in Biblical Hebrew dating to before 500 BC, the oldest attestation of the language. [38] John Guy states that Tamil was the lingua franca for early maritime traders from India. [39]


Mangulam Tamil Brahmi inscription in Mangulam, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, dated to Tamil Sangam period (c. 400 BC to c. 200 AD) Mangulam inscription.jpg
Mangulam Tamil Brahmi inscription in Mangulam, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, dated to Tamil Sangam period (c. 400 BC to c. 200 AD)
Explanation for Mangulam Tamil Brahmi inscription in Mangulam, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, dated to Tamil Sangam period (c. 400 BC to c. 200 AD) Tamil Inscriptions.jpg
Explanation for Mangulam Tamil Brahmi inscription in Mangulam, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, dated to Tamil Sangam period (c. 400 BC to c. 200 AD)
Tamil Brahmi script in the reverse side of the bilingual silver coin of king Vashishtiputra Satakarni (c. AD 160) of Deccan. Rev: Ujjain/Satavahana symbol, crescented six-arch chaitya hill and river with Tamil Brahmi script Obv: Bust of king; Prakrit legend in the Brahmi script Satavahana Bilingual Coin.jpg
Tamil Brahmi script in the reverse side of the bilingual silver coin of king Vashishtiputra Sātakarni (c. AD 160) of Deccan. Rev: Ujjain/Sātavāhana symbol, crescented six-arch chaitya hill and river with Tamil Brahmi script Obv: Bust of king; Prakrit legend in the Brahmi script

According to Hindu legend, Tamil or in personification form Tamil Thāi (Mother Tamil) was created by Lord Shiva. Murugan, revered as the Tamil God, along with sage Agastya, brought it to the people. [44]


The earliest extant Tamil literary works and their commentaries celebrate the Pandiyan Kings for the organization of long-termed Tamil Sangams, which researched, developed and made amendments in Tamil language. Even though the name of the language which was developed by these Tamil Sangams is mentioned as Tamil, the period when the name "Tamil" came to be applied to the language is unclear, as is the precise etymology of the name. The earliest attested use of the name is found in Tholkappiyam, which is dated as early as late 2nd century BC. [45] [46]

The Samavayanga Sutra dated to the 3rd century BC contains a reference to a Tamil script named 'Damili'. [47]

Southworth suggests that the name comes from tam-miḻ > tam-iḻ "self-speak", or "one's own speech". [48] Kamil Zvelebil suggests an etymology of tam-iḻ, with tam meaning "self" or "one's self", and "-iḻ" having the connotation of "unfolding sound". Alternatively, he suggests a derivation of tamiḻ < tam-iḻ < *tav-iḻ < *tak-iḻ, meaning in origin "the proper process (of speaking)". [49] However, this is deemed unlikely by Southworth due to the contemporary use of the compound 'centamiḻ', which means refined speech in the earliest literature. [48]

The Tamil Lexicon of University of Madras defines the word "Tamil" as "sweetness". [50] S. V. Subramanian suggests the meaning "sweet sound", from tam — "sweet" and il — "sound". [51]

Old Tamil

Old Tamil is the period of the Tamil language spanning the 3rd century BC to the 8th century AD. The earliest records in Old Tamil are short inscriptions from between the 3rd and 2nd century BC in caves and on pottery. These inscriptions are written in a variant of the Brahmi script called Tamil-Brahmi. [52] The earliest long text in Old Tamil is the Tolkāppiyam , an early work on Tamil grammar and poetics, whose oldest layers could be as old as the late 2nd century BC. [37] [46] Many literary works in Old Tamil have also survived. These include a corpus of 2,381 poems collectively known as Sangam literature. These poems are usually dated to between the 1st century BC and 5th century AD. [37] [46]

Middle Tamil

Tamil inscriptions in Vatteluttu script in stone during Chola period c.1000 AD at Brahadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. Tanjavur Tamil Inscription2.jpg
Tamil inscriptions in Vatteluttu script in stone during Chola period c.1000 AD at Brahadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.

The evolution of Old Tamil into Middle Tamil, which is generally taken to have been completed by the 8th century, [37] was characterised by a number of phonological and grammatical changes. In phonological terms, the most important shifts were the virtual disappearance of the aytam (ஃ), an old phoneme, [53] the coalescence of the alveolar and dental nasals, [54] and the transformation of the alveolar plosive into a rhotic. [55] In grammar, the most important change was the emergence of the present tense. The present tense evolved out of the verb kil (கில்), meaning "to be possible" or "to befall". In Old Tamil, this verb was used as an aspect marker to indicate that an action was micro-durative, non-sustained or non-lasting, usually in combination with a time marker such as (ன்). In Middle Tamil, this usage evolved into a present tense marker – kiṉṟa (கின்ற) – which combined the old aspect and time markers. [56]

Modern Tamil

The Nannul remains the standard normative grammar for modern literary Tamil, which therefore continues to be based on Middle Tamil of the 13th century rather than on Modern Tamil. [57] Colloquial spoken Tamil, in contrast, shows a number of changes. The negative conjugation of verbs, for example, has fallen out of use in Modern Tamil [58] – instead, negation is expressed either morphologically or syntactically. [59] Modern spoken Tamil also shows a number of sound changes, in particular, a tendency to lower high vowels in initial and medial positions, [60] and the disappearance of vowels between plosives and between a plosive and rhotic. [61]

Contact with European languages affected written and spoken Tamil. Changes in written Tamil include the use of European-style punctuation and the use of consonant clusters that were not permitted in Middle Tamil. The syntax of written Tamil has also changed, with the introduction of new aspectual auxiliaries and more complex sentence structures, and with the emergence of a more rigid word order that resembles the syntactic argument structure of English. [62] Simultaneously, a strong strain of linguistic purism emerged in the early 20th century, culminating in the Pure Tamil Movement which called for removal of all Sanskritic elements from Tamil. [63] It received some support from Dravidian parties. [64] This led to the replacement of a significant number of Sanskrit loanwords by Tamil equivalents, though many others remain. [65]

Geographic distribution

Tamil is the primary language of the majority of the people residing in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, (in India) and in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. The language is spoken among small minority groups in other states of India which include Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra and in certain regions of Sri Lanka such as Colombo and the hill country. Tamil or dialects of it were used widely in the state of Kerala as the major language of administration, literature and common usage until the 12th century AD. Tamil was also used widely in inscriptions found in southern Andhra Pradesh districts of Chittoor and Nellore until the 12th century AD. [66] Tamil was used for inscriptions from the 10th through 14th centuries in southern Karnataka districts such as Kolar, Mysore, Mandya and Bangalore. [67]

There are currently sizeable Tamil-speaking populations descended from colonial-era migrants in Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Mauritius, South Africa, Indonesia, [68] Thailand, [69] Burma, and Vietnam. Tamil is used as one of the languages of education in Malaysia, along with English, Malay and Mandarin. [70] [71] A large community of Pakistani Tamils speakers exists in Karachi, Pakistan, which includes Tamil-speaking Hindus [72] [73] as well as Christians and Muslims – including some Tamil-speaking Muslim refugees from Sri Lanka. [74] There are about 100 Tamil Hindu families in Madrasi Para colony in Karachi. They speak impeccable Tamil along with Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi. [75] Many in Réunion, Guyana, Fiji, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago have Tamil origins, [76] but only a small number speak the language. In Reunion where the Tamil language was forbidden to be learnt and used in public space by France it is now being relearnt by students and adults. [77] Tamil is also spoken by migrants from Sri Lanka and India in Canada, the United States (especially New Jersey and New York City), Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and many other European and Middle Eastern countries.[ citation needed ]

Tamil is the official language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and one of the 22 languages under schedule 8 of the constitution of India. [78] It is one of the official languages of the union territories of Puducherry and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. [79] [80] Tamil is also one of the official languages of Singapore. Tamil is one of the official and national languages of Sri Lanka, along with Sinhala. [8] It was once given nominal official status in the Indian state of Haryana, purportedly as a rebuff to Punjab, though there was no attested Tamil-speaking population in the state, and was later replaced by Punjabi, in 2010. [81] In Malaysia, 543 primary education government schools are available fully in Tamil medium. [82] The establishment of Tamil medium schools has been in process in Myanmar to provide education completely in Tamil language by the Tamils who settled there 200 years ago. [83] Tamil language is available as a course in some local school boards and major universities in Canada and the month of January has been declared "Tamil Heritage Month" by the Parliament of Canada. [84] [85] Tamil enjoys a special status of protection under Article 6(b), Chapter 1 of the Constitution of South Africa and is taught as a subject in schools in KwaZulu-Natal province. [86] [87] Recently, it has been rolled out as a subject of study in schools in the French overseas department of Réunion. [88]

In addition, with the creation in October 2004 of a legal status for classical languages by the Government of India and following a political campaign supported by several Tamil associations, [89] [90] Tamil became the first legally recognised Classical language of India. The recognition was announced by the contemporaneous President of India, Abdul Kalam, in a joint sitting of both houses of the Indian Parliament on 6 June 2004. [91] [92] [93]


Jambai Tamil Brahmi inscription near Tirukkoyilur in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu dated to the early Tamil Sangam age (c. 400 BC). Jambai Tamil Brahmi.jpg
Jambai Tamil Brahmi inscription near Tirukkoyilur in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu dated to the early Tamil Sangam age (c. 400 BC).

Region-specific variations

The socio-linguistic situation of Tamil is characterised by diglossia: there are two separate registers varying by socioeconomic status, a high register and a low one. [94] [95] 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"—iṅku in Centamil (the classic variety)—has evolved into iṅkū in the Kongu dialect of Coimbatore, inga in the dialect of Thanjavur, and iṅkai in some dialects of Sri Lanka. Old Tamil's iṅkaṇ (where kaṇ means place) is the source of iṅkane in the dialect of Tirunelveli, Old Tamil iṅkiṭṭu is the source of iṅkuṭṭu in the dialect of Madurai, and iṅkaṭe in some northern dialects. Even now, in the Coimbatore area, it is common to hear "akkaṭṭa" 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, [37] [96] and use many other words slightly differently. [97] Tamil dialects include Central Tamil dialect, Kongu Tamil, Madras Bashai, Madurai Tamil, Nellai Tamil, Kumari Tamil in India; Batticaloa Tamil dialect, Jaffna Tamil dialect, Negombo Tamil dialect in Sri Lanka; and Malaysian Tamil in Malaysia. Sankethi dialect in Karnataka has been heavily influenced by Kannada.

Loanword variations

The dialect of the district of Palakkad in Kerala has many Malayalam loanwords, has been influenced by Malayalam's syntax, and has a distinctive Malayalam accent. Similarly, Tamil spoken in Kanyakumari District has more unique words and phonetic style than Tamil spoken at other parts of Tamil Nadu. The words and phonetics are so different that a person from Kanyakumari district is easily identifiable by their spoken Tamil. Hebbar and Mandyam dialects, spoken by groups of Tamil Vaishnavites who migrated to Karnataka in the 11th century, retain many features of the Vaishnava paribasai, a special form of Tamil developed in the 9th and 10th centuries that reflect Vaishnavite religious and spiritual values. [98] 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. [99] Tamil in Sri Lanka incorporates loan words from Portuguese, Dutch, and English.

Spoken and literary variants

In addition to its dialects, Tamil exhibits different forms: a classical literary style modelled on the ancient language (sankattamiḻ), a modern literary and formal style (centamiḻ), and a modern colloquial form (koṭuntamiḻ). These styles shade into each other, forming a stylistic continuum. For example, it is possible to write centamiḻ with a vocabulary drawn from caṅkattamiḻ, or to use forms associated with one of the other variants while speaking koṭuntamiḻ. [100]

In modern times, centamiḻ 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, koṭuntamiḻ has been making inroads into areas that have traditionally been considered the province of centamiḻ. Most contemporary cinema, theatre and popular entertainment on television and radio, for example, is in koṭuntamiḻ, and many politicians use it to bring themselves closer to their audience. The increasing use of koṭuntamiḻ in modern times has led to the emergence of unofficial ‘standard' spoken dialects. In India, the ‘standard' koṭuntamiḻ, rather than on any one dialect, [101] 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

Historical evolution of Tamil writing from the earlier Tamil Brahmi near the top to the current Tamil script at bottom. History of Tamil script.jpg
Historical evolution of Tamil writing from the earlier Tamil Brahmi near the top to the current Tamil script at bottom.
Thirukkural palm leaf manuscript. Tirukkural manuscript.jpg
Thirukkural palm leaf manuscript.

After Tamil Brahmi fell out of use, Tamil was written using a script called vaṭṭeḻuttu amongst others such as Grantha and Pallava. The current 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 (12 + 18 + 1 + (12 x 18)). All consonants have an inherent vowel a, as with other Indic scripts. This inherent vowel is removed by adding a tittle called a puḷḷi, to the consonantal sign. For example, is ṉa (with the inherent a) and ன் is (without a vowel). Many Indic scripts have a similar sign, generically called virama, but the Tamil script is somewhat different in that it nearly always uses a visible puḷḷi to indicate a 'dead consonant' (a consonant without a vowel). In other Indic scripts, it is generally preferred to use a ligature or a half form to write a syllable or a cluster containing a dead consonant, although writing it with a visible virama is also possible. The Tamil script does not differentiate voiced and unvoiced plosives. Instead, plosives are articulated with voice depending on their position in a word, in accordance with the rules of Tamil phonology.

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 adopted 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. [102] ISO 15919 is an international standard for the transliteration of Tamil and other Indic scripts into Latin characters. It uses diacritics to map the much larger set of Brahmic consonants and vowels to Latin script, and thus the alphabets of various languages, including English.

Numerals and symbols

Apart from the usual numerals, Tamil has numerals for 10, 100 and 1000. Symbols for day, month, year, debit, credit, as above, rupee, and numeral are present as well. Tamil also uses several historical fractional signs.

daymonthyeardebitcreditas aboverupeenumeral


Tamil phonology is characterised by the presence of retroflex consonants and multiple rhotics. Tamil does not distinguish phonologically between voiced and unvoiced consonants; phonetically, voice is assigned depending on a consonant's position in a word. [103] 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 has five vowel qualities, namely /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/. Each may be long or short. [ɯ] is an allophone of /u/ at the end of words. There are two diphthongs, /aɪ/ and /aʊ/. Long vowels are about twice as long as short vowels. The diphthongs are usually pronounced about 1.5 times as long as short vowels. Most grammatical texts place them with the long vowels.

Short Long
Front Central Back Front Central Back
Close iu/ɯ
Mid eo
Open a(aɪ̯)(aʊ̯)


Tamil consonants are presented as hard, soft and medial in some grammars which roughly corresponds to plosives, nasals and approximants. Unlike most Indian languages, Tamil does not distinguish aspirated and unaspirated consonants. In addition, the voicing of plosives is governed by strict rules in centamiḻ. Plosives are unvoiced if they occur word-initially or doubled. Elsewhere they are voiced, with a few becoming fricatives intervocalically, which means that voicing is not a phonological trait for plosives. Nasals and approximants are always voiced. [104]

Tamil is characterised by its use of more than one type of coronal consonants: like many of the other languages of India, it contains a series of retroflex consonants. Notably, the Tamil retroflex series includes the retroflex approximant /ɻ/ () (example Tamil; often transcribed 'zh'), which is rare in the Indo-Aryan languages. Among the other Dravidian languages, the retroflex approximant also occurs in Malayalam (for example in 'Kozhikode'), disappeared from spoken Kannada around 1000 AD (although the character is still written, and exists in Unicode, ೞ as in ಕೊೞೆ), and was never present in Telugu. In some dialects of colloquial Tamil, this consonant is seen as disappearing and shifting to the alveolar lateral approximant /l/. [105] Dental and alveolar consonants also historically contrasted with each other, a typically Dravidian trait not found in the neighbouring Indo-Aryan languages. While this distinction can still be seen in the written language, it has been largely lost in colloquial spoken Tamil, and even in literary usage the letters (dental) and (alveolar) may be seen as allophonic. [106] Likewise, the historical alveolar stop has transformed into a dental stop in many modern dialects.

The alveolar stop *ṯ developed into an alveolar trill /r/ in many of the Dravidian languages. The stop sound is retained in Kota and Toda (Subrahmanyam 1983). Malayalam and Sri Lankan Tamil dialects still retain the original (alveolar) stop sound in gemination (ibid). In Old Tamil it took the enunciative vowel like the other stops. In other words, *ṯ (or *ṟ) did not occur word-finally without the enunciative vowel (ibid). [107]

[n] and [n̪] are in complementary distribution and are predictable, [n̪] word initially and before [d̪] and [n] elsewhere, ie they are allophonic. [108]

/ɲ/ is extremely rare word initially and is only found before /t͡ɕ/ word medially. [ŋ] only occurs before [g]. [108]

In most of the dialects /t:, nd/ are pronounced as [t͡r̥, nd͡r]. [109] [110]

A chart of the Tamil consonant phonemes in the International Phonetic Alphabet follows: [96]

Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex (Alveolo-)
Nasal mnɳɲŋ
Tap ɾ
Trill r
Appro. Centralʋɻj
Lateral lɭ

The plosives are voiced when medial and after nasals. The sounds /f/ and /ʂ/ are peripheral to the phonology of Tamil, being found only in loanwords and frequently replaced by /p/ and /s/ respectively. There are well-defined rules for elision in Tamil categorised into classes based on the phoneme which undergoes elision.


Classical Tamil had a phoneme called the āytam , written as ‘'. Tamil grammarians of the time classified it as a dependent phoneme (or restricted phoneme [111] ) (cārpeḻuttu), 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. [112] The āytam, in modern Tamil, is also used to convert p to f when writing English words using the Tamil script.


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 vocabulary is itself Tamil, as opposed to the Sanskrit that is standard for most Aryan languages. [113] [114]

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 Naṉṉūl which restated and clarified the rules of the Tolkāppiyam, with some modifications. Traditional Tamil grammar consists of five parts, namely eḻuttu, sol, poruḷ, yāppu, aṇi. Of these, the last two are mostly applied in poetry. [115]

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 many suffixes, which would require several words or a sentence in English. To give an example, the word pōkamuṭiyātavarkaḷukkāka (போகமுடியாதவர்களுக்காக) means "for the sake of those who cannot go" and consists of the following morphemes:

participle markernominalizer
he/she who does
plural markertofor


Tamil nouns (and pronouns) are classified into two super-classes (tiṇai)—the "rational" (uyartiṇai), and the "irrational" (akṟiṇai)—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. [116]

peyarccol (Name-words) [117]
Example: the Tamil words for "doer"
He who did
She who did
They who did
That which did
Those ones which did

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, [118] and that Tamil usage is best understood if each suffix or combination of suffixes is seen as marking a separate case. [101] Tamil nouns can take one of four prefixes: i, a, u, and e which are functionally equivalent to the demonstratives in English. For example, the word vazhi (வழி) meaning "way" can take these to produce ivvazhi (இவ்வழி) "this way", avvazhi (அவ்வழி) "that way", uvvazhi (உவ்வழி) "the medial way" and evvazhi (எவ்வழி) "which way".

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.

transitivity marker
aspect marker
aspect marker
tense marker
past tense
person marker
first person,

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. [120] Tamil has many ideophones that act as adverbs indicating the way the object in a given state "says" or "sounds". [121]

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. [122] In the first person plural, Tamil makes a distinction between inclusive pronouns நாம்nām (we), நமதுnamatu (our) that include the addressee and exclusive pronouns நாங்கள்nāṅkaḷ (we), எமதுematu (our) that do not. [122]


Tamil is a consistently head-final language. The verb comes at the end of the clause, with a typical word order of subject–object–verb (SOV). [123] [124] 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 muṭintuviṭṭatu ("completed")—or only a subject and object, without a verb such as atu eṉ vīṭu ("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, [125] which opposes the use of foreign loanwords. [126] Nonetheless, a number of words used in classical and modern Tamil are loanwords from the languages of neighbouring groups, or with whom the Tamils had trading links, including Munda (for example, tavaḷai "frog" from Munda tabeg), Malay (e.g. cavvarici "sago" from Malay sāgu), Chinese (for example, campān "skiff" from Chinese san-pan) and Greek (for example, ora from Greek ὥρα). In more modern times, Tamil has imported words from Urdu and Marathi, reflecting groups that have influenced the Tamil area at times, and from neighbouring languages such as Telugu, Kannada, and Sinhala. During the modern period, words have also been adapted from European languages, such as Portuguese, French, and English. [127]

The strongest impact of purism in Tamil has been on words taken 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, [128] [129] [130] [131] reflecting the increased trend of Sanskritisation in the Tamil country. [132] 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. [133] [134] [135] In addition, Sanskritisation was actively resisted by a number of authors of the late medieval period, [136] culminating in the 20th century in a movement called taṉit tamiḻ iyakkam (meaning "pure Tamil movement"), led by Parithimaar Kalaignar and Maraimalai Adigal, which sought to remove the accumulated influence of Sanskrit on Tamil. [137] 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, [138] under some estimates having fallen from 40 to 50% to about 20%. [65] 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. [139]

In the 20th 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. [63] As of 2019, the language had a listed vocabulary of over 470,000 unique words, including those from old literary sources. In November 2019, the state government issued an order to add 9,000 new words to the vocabulary. [140]


Words of Tamil origin occur in other languages. A notable example of a word in worldwide use with Dravidian (not specifically Tamil) etymology is orange , via Sanskrit nāraṅga from a Dravidian predecessor of Tamil nartaṅkāy "fragrant fruit". One suggestion as to the origin of the word anaconda is the Tamil anaikkonda, "having killed an elephant". [141] Examples in English include cheroot (churuṭṭu meaning "rolled up"), [142] mango (from māngāi), [142] mulligatawny (from miḷaku taṇṇīr, "pepper water"), pariah (from paraiyan), curry (from kari), [143] catamaran (from kaṭṭu maram, "bundled logs"), [142] and congee (from kanji – rice porridge or gruel). [144]

Sample text

The following is a sample text in literary Tamil of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Tamil in the Tamil script:

உறுப்புரை 1: மனிதப் பிறவியினர் சகலரும் சுதந்திரமாகவே பிறக்கின்றனர்; அவர்கள் மதிப்பிலும், உரிமைகளிலும் சமமானவர்கள், அவர்கள் நியாயத்தையும் மனச்சாட்சியையும் இயற்பண்பாகப் பெற்றவர்கள். அவர்கள் ஒருவருடனொருவர் சகோதர உணர்வுப் பாங்கில் நடந்துகொள்ளல் வேண்டும்.।

Romanized Tamil:

Uṟuppurai 1: Maṉitap piṟaviyiṉar cakalarum cutantiramākavē piṟakkiṉṟaṉar; avarkaḷ matippilum, urimaikaḷilum camamāṉavarkaḷ, avarkaḷ niyāyattaiyum maṉaccāṭciyaiyum iyaṟpaṇpākap peṟṟavarkaḷ. Avarkaḷ oruvaruṭaṉoruvar cakōtara uṇarvup pāṅkil naṭantukoḷḷal vēṇṭum.

Tamil in the International Phonetic Alphabet:

urupːurai ond̺rʉ | mənid̪ə piriʋijinər səgələrum sud̪ən̪d̪irəmaːgəʋeː pirəkːin̺d̺ranər | əvərgəɭ məd̪ipːilum uriməigəɭilum səməmaːnəʋərgəɭ | əvərgəɭ nijaːjatːəijum mənətt͡ʃaːʈt͡ʃijəijum ijərpəɳbaːgə pet̺rəʋərgəɭ | əvərgəɭ oruʋəruɖənoruʋər sagoːdəɾə uɳərʋɨ paːŋgil nəɖən̪d̪ʉkoɭɭəl veːɳɖum |


Section 1: Human beings all-of-them freely are born. They rights-in-and dignities-in-and equal-ones. They law-and conscience-and intrinsically possessed-ones. They among-one-another brotherly feeling share-in act must.


Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They possess conscience and reason. Therefore, everyone should act in a spirit of brotherhood towards each other.

See also


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Malayalam is a Dravidian language spoken in the Indian state of Kerala and the union territories of Lakshadweep and Puducherry by the Malayali people. It is one of 22 scheduled languages of India and is spoken by 2.88% of Indians. Malayalam has official language status in Kerala, Lakshadweep and Puducherry (Mahé), and is spoken by 34 million people worldwide. Malayalam is also spoken by linguistic minorities in the neighbouring states; with significant number of speakers in the Kodagu and Dakshina Kannada districts of Karnataka, and Nilgiris and Kanyakumari, districts of Tamil Nadu. Due to Malayali expatriates in the Persian Gulf, Malayalam is also widely spoken in the Gulf countries.

Kannada Dravidian language

Kannada is a Dravidian language spoken predominantly by the people of Karnataka in the southwestern region of India. The language is also spoken by linguistic minorities in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Kerala and Goa; and also by Kannadigas abroad. The language had roughly 43 million native speakers by 2011. Kannada is also spoken as a second and third language by over 12.9 million non-native speakers in Karnataka, which adds up to 56.9 million speakers. Kannada was the court language of some of the most powerful dynasties of south and central India, namely the Kadambas, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Hoysalas and the Vijayanagara empire. It is one of the scheduled languages of India and the official and administrative language of the state of Karnataka.

Telugu language Dravidian language

Telugu is a Dravidian language spoken by Telugu people predominantly living in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where it is also the official language. Telugu is also an official language in West Bengal, Yanam district of Puducherry and a linguistic minority in the states of Odisha, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is one among the six languages designated as a classical language of India in the country. Telugu was also referred as Andhramu (ఆంధ్రము)

Tulu language Indian Dravidian language of Tulu Nadu region

Tulu is a Dravidian language whose speakers are concentrated in Dakshina Kannada and the southern part of Udupi of Karnataka in south-western India and in the northern part of the Kasaragod district of Kerala. The native speakers of Tulu are referred to as Tuluva or Tulu people and the geographical area is unofficially called Tulu Nadu.

Sinhala language Indo-Aryan language native to Sri Lanka

Sinhala, is an Indo-Aryan language primarily spoken by the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka, who make up the largest ethnic group on the island, numbering about 16 million. Sinhala is also spoken as the first language by other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, totaling about 4 million people as of 2001. It is written using the Sinhala script, which is one of the Brahmic scripts; a descendant of the ancient Indian Brahmi script closely related to the Kadamba script.

Meitei, or Meetei is a Tibeto-Burman language and the predominant language and lingua franca of the state of Manipur in northeastern India. It is one of the official languages of the Government of India.

Tolkāppiyam is the most ancient extant Tamil grammar text and the oldest extant long work of Tamil literature. The surviving manuscripts of the Tolkappiyam consists of three books (atikaram), each with nine chapters (iyal), with a cumulative total of 1,610 (483+463+664) sutras in the nūṛpā meter. It is a comprehensive text on grammar, and includes sutras on orthography, phonology, etymology, morphology, semantics, prosody, sentence structure and the significance of context in language.

Much of Tamil grammar is extensively described in the oldest available grammar book for Tamil, the Tolkāppiyam. Modern Tamil writing is largely based on the 13th century grammar Naṉṉūl, which restated and clarified the rules of the Tolkāppiyam with some modifications.

Sankethi is a South Dravidian language that is closely related to Tamil. It is sometimes considered a dialect of Kannada or Tamil, but there are considerable differences that make it unintelligible to speakers of both languages. It has strong lexical influences from Kannada, as well as Sanskrit. It is most commonly spoken in Karnataka, India by the Sankethi people, who migrated from Sengottai in Tamilnadu.

Linguistic history of India History of the languages of India

The languages of India are divided into various language families, of which the Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian languages are the most widely spoken, together known as Indic languages. There are also many languages belonging to unrelated language families such as Austroasiatic and Sino-Tibetan, spoken by smaller groups. Linguistic records begin with the appearance of the Gujarati from about the 3rd century BCE.

Sri Lankan Tamil dialects

The Sri Lankan Tamil dialects or Ceylon Tamil or commonly in Tamil language Eelam Tamil are a group of Tamil dialects used in Sri Lanka by its native Tamil people and Moors that is distinct from the dialects of Tamil spoken in Tamil Nadu. Tamil dialects are differentiated by the phonological changes and sound shifts in their evolution from classical or Old Tamil. It is broadly categorized into three sub groups: Jaffna Tamil, Batticaloa Tamil, and Negombo Tamil dialects. But there are number of sub dialects within these broad regional dialects as well. These dialects are also used by ethnic groups other than Tamils and Moors such as Sinhalese people, Portuguese Burghers and the indigenous Coastal Vedda people.

Tamil phonology is characterised by the presence of “true-subapical” retroflex consonants and multiple rhotic consonants. Its script does not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced consonants; phonetically, voice is assigned depending on a consonant's position in a word, voiced intervocalically and after nasals except when geminated. Tamil phonology permits few consonant clusters, which can never be word initial.

Bengali language Indo-Aryan language mostly spoken in Bangladesh and India

Bengali, also known by its endonym Bangla, is an Indo-Aryan language native to the Bengal region of South Asia. It is the official, national, and most widely spoken language of Bangladesh and the second most widely spoken of the 22 scheduled languages of India. With approximately 228 million native speakers and another 37 million as second language speakers, Bengali is the fifth most-spoken native language and the sixth most spoken language by total number of speakers in the world.

Konkani is a southern Indo-Aryan language belonging to the Indo-European family of languages spoken in the Konkan coast of India. It has approximately 3.6 million speakers.

Old Tamil

Old Tamil is the period of the Tamil language spanning the 450 BCE to the 7th CE. Prior to Old Tamil, the period of Tamil linguistic development is termed as Pre Tamil or Ancient Tamil. Post Old Tamil, Tamil becomes Middle Tamil. The earliest records in Old Tamil are inscriptions from between the 3rd and 1st century BCE in caves and on pottery. These inscriptions are written in a variant of the Brahmi script called Tamil Brahmi. The earliest long text in Old Tamil is the Tolkāppiyam, an early work on Tamil grammar and poetics, whose oldest layers could be as old as the mid 2nd century BCE. Old Tamil preserved many features of Proto-Dravidian, the earliest reconstructed form of the Dravidian including inventory of consonants, the syllable structure, and various grammatical features.

Jad language

Jad (Dzad), also known as Bhotia and Tchhongsa, is a language spoken by a community of about 300 in the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, in India. It is spoken in several villages, and the three major villages are Jadhang, Nelang and Pulam Sumda in the Harsil sub-division of the Uttarkashi District. Jad is closely related to the Lahuli–Spiti language, which is another Tibetic language. Jad is spoken alongside Garhwali and Hindi. Code switching between Jad and Garhwali is very common. The language borrows some vocabulary from both Hindi and Garhwali. It is primarily a spoken language.

Beary or Byari is a Dravidian language spoken by the Muslim communities mainly of Karnataka and extreme northern end of Kerala like Manjeshwaram, Kunjathur, Uppala, Hosangadi of Kasaragod district (Byaris). Bearys speak a language made of Malayalam idioms with Tulu phonology and grammar. This language is traditionally known as Mappila Bashe because of Bearys' close contact with Mappila, the Malayali Muslims. Due to the intensive influence of Tulu for centuries, it is today considered close to both Tulu and Malayalam.

Malaysian Tamil, also known as Malaya Tamil, is a local variant of the Tamil language spoken in Malaysia. It is one of the languages of education in Malaysia, along with English, Malay and Mandarin. There are many differences in vocabulary between Malaysian Tamil and Indian Tamil.

Middle Tamil

The development of Old Tamil into Middle Tamil, which is generally taken to have been completed by the 8th century, was characterised by a number of phonological and grammatical changes despite maintaining grammatical and structural continuity with the previous form of the language. In phonological terms, the most important shifts were the virtual disappearance of the aytam (ஃ), an old phoneme, the coalescence of the alveolar and dental nasals, and the transformation of the alveolar plosive into a rhotic.


Further reading