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Tamil ( ; ) is a Dravidian language spoken predominantly by Tamil people of the Indian subcontinent. It has official status in the Indian state of Tamil Nadumarker and in the Indian union territory of Puducherrymarker. Tamil is also an official language of Sri Lankamarker and Singaporemarker. It is one of the twenty-two scheduled languages of India and the first Indian language to be declared as a classical language by the government of India in 2004. Tamil is also spoken by significant minorities in Malaysiamarker, Mauritiusmarker and Réunionmarker as well as emigrant communities around the world.

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 300 BCE – 300 CE. Inscriptions in Tamil Language from 1st century BCE and 2nd century CE have been discovered in Egypt and Thailand. The first two ancient manuscripts from India, to be acknowledged and registered by UNESCO Memory of the World register in 1997 & 2005 were in Tamil. More than 55% of the epigraphical inscriptions – about 55,000 – found by the Archaeological Survey of India in India are in the Tamil language. According to a 2001 survey, there were 1,863 newspapers published in Tamil, of which 353 were dailies.


Tamil belongs to southern branch of the Dravidian languages, a family of around twenty-six languages native to the Indian subcontinent. It is also 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, Malayalam was a dialect of Tamil. Although many of the differences between Tamil and Malayalam evidence a pre-historic split of the western dialect, the process of separation into distinct language, Malayalam was not completed until sometime in the 13th or 14th century.


As a Dravidian language, Tamil descends from Proto-Dravidian. 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 the culture associated with the Neolithic complexes of south India. The next phase in the reconstructed proto-history of Tamil is Proto-South Dravidian. The linguistic evidence suggests that Proto-South Dravidian was spoken around the middle of the second millennium BC, and that proto-Tamil emerged around the third century BC. The earliest epigraphic attestations of Tamil are generally taken to have been written shortly thereafter.

Scholars categorise the attested history of the language into three periods, Old Tamil (300 BC – 700 CE), Middle Tamil (700–1600) and Modern Tamil (1600–present).


The exact 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 in a text that is perhaps as early as the 1st century BCE.

Southworth suggests that the name comes from > 'self-speak', or 'one's own speech'. Kamil Zvelebil suggests an etymology of , with meaning "self" or "one's self", and " " having the connotation of "unfolding sound". Alternately, he suggests a derivation of * * , meaning in origin "the proper process (of speaking)". (see Southworth's derivation of Sanskrit term for "others" or Mleccha)

Old Tamil

The earliest records in Old Tamil are short inscriptions from around the second 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 first century BC. A large number of 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 first and fifth centuries AD, which makes them the oldest extant body of secular literature in India. Other literary works in Old Tamil include two long epics, Cilappatikāram and Maṇimēkalai, and a number of ethical and didactic texts, written between the fifth and eighth centuries A.D.

Old Tamil preserved many features of Proto-Dravidian, including the inventory of consonants, the syllable structure, and various grammatical features. Amongst these was the absence of a distinct present tense – like Proto-Dravidian, Old Tamil only had two tenses, the past and the "non-past". Old Tamil verbs also had a distinct negative conjugation (e.g. "I do not see", "we do not see") Nouns could take pronominal suffixes like verbs to express ideas: e.g. "we are women" formed from "women" + - and the first person plural marker.

Despite the significant amount of grammatical and syntactical change between Old, Middle and Modern Tamil, Tamil demonstrates grammatical continuity across these stages: many characteristics of the later stages of the language have their roots in features of Old Tamil.

Middle Tamil

The evolution of Old Tamil into Middle Tamil, which is generally taken to have been completed by the eighth century AD, was characterised by a number of phonological and grammatical changes. In phonological terms, the most important shifts were the virtual disappearance of the aytam, an old phoneme, the coalescence of the alveolar and dental nasals, and the transformation of the alveolar plosive into a rhotic. In grammar, the most important change was the emergence of the present tense. The present tense evolved out of the verb , 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 . In Middle Tamil, this usage evolved into a present tense marker – – which combined the old aspect and time markers.

Middle Tamil also saw a significant increase in the Sanskritisation of Tamil. From the period of the Pallava dynasty onwards, a number of Sanskrit loan-words entered Tamil, particularly in relation to political, religious and philosophical concepts. Sanskrit also influenced Tamil grammar, in the increased use of cases and in declined nouns becoming adjuncts of verbs, and phonology. The Tamil script also changed in the period of Middle Tamil. Tamil Brahmi and Vaṭṭeḻuttu, into which it evolved, were the main scripts used in Old Tamil inscriptions. From the eighth century onwards, however, the Pallavas began using a new script, derived from the Pallava Grantha script which was used to write Sanskrit, which eventually replaced Vaṭṭeḻuttu.

Middle Tamil is attested in a large number of inscriptions, and in a significant body of secular and religious literature. These include the religious poems and songs of the Bhakthi poets, such as the Tēvāram verses on Saivism and Nālāyira Tivya Pirapantam on Vaishnavism, and adaptations of religious legends such as the 12th century Tamil Ramayana composed by Kamban and the story of 63 shaivite devotees known as Periyapurāṇam. Iraiyaṉār Akapporuḷ, an early treatise on love poetics, and Naṉṉūl, a 12th century grammar that became the standard grammar of literary Tamil, are also from the Middle Tamil period.

Modern Tamil

The Nannul remains the standard normative grammar for modern literary Tamil, which therefore continues to based on Middle Tamil of the 13th century rather than on Modern Tamil. 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 – negation is, instead, expressed either morphologically or syntactically. Modern spoken Tamil also shows a number of sound changes, in particular, a tendency to lower high vowels in initial and medial positions, and the disappearance of vowels between plosives and between a plosive and rhotic.

Contact with European languages also affected both 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. 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 and other foreign elements from Tamil. It received some support from Dravidian parties and nationalists who supported Tamil independence. This led to the replacement of a significant number of Sanskrit loanwords by Tamil equivalents.

Geographic distribution

Distribution of Tamil speakers in South India and Sri Lanka (1961).
Tamil is the first language of the majority in Tamil Nadumarker, Indiamarker and Northern Provincemarker, Eastern Provincemarker, Sri Lankamarker. The language is spoken by small groups of minorities in other parts of these two countries such as Karnatakamarker, Keralamarker, Andhra Pradeshmarker and Maharashtramarker in case of India and Colombomarker, the hill countrymarker, in case of Sri Lanka.

There are currently sizable Tamil-speaking populations descended from colonial-era migrants in Malaysiamarker, Singaporemarker, Mauritiusmarker, Réunionmarker, South Africa, Indonesiamarker, Thailandmarker, Burmamarker, and Vietnammarker. Many in Guyanamarker, Fijimarker, Surinamemarker, and Trinidad and Tobagomarker have Tamil origins, but only a small number speak the language. Groups of more recent migrants from Sri Lanka and India exist in Canadamarker (especially Torontomarker), USAmarker, 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 Pondicherrymarker and the Andaman & Nicobar Islandsmarker It is one of 23 nationally recognised languages in the Constitution of Indiamarker. Tamil is also one of the official languages of Sri Lankamarker and Singaporemarker. In Malaysiamarker, 543 primary education government schools are available fully in Tamil medium.

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 Coimbatoremarker, inga in the dialect of Thanjavurmarker, and in some dialects of Sri Lanka. Old Tamil's (where means place) is the source of in the dialect of Tirunelvelimarker, Old Tamil is the source of in the dialect of Maduraimarker, 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 Lankamarker retain many words and grammatical forms that are not in everyday use in Indiamarker, and use many other words slightly differently.

Loanword variations

The dialect of the district of Palakkadmarker 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 Karnatakamarker 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.Tamil in Sri Lankamarker incorporates loan words from Portuguese,Dutch and English also.

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 Indiamarker, the ‘standard' is based on ‘educated non-brahmin speech', rather than on any one dialect, but has been significantly influenced by the dialects of Thanjavurmarker and Maduraimarker. In Sri Lankamarker the standard is based on the dialect of Jaffnamarker.

Writing system

History of Tamil script.
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. All consonants have an inherent vowel a, as with other Indic scripts. This inherency is removed by adding an overdot called a , to the consonantal sign. For example, is ṉa (with the inherent a) and 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.

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.


Tamil phonology is characterised by the presence of retroflex consonants, 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. 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


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 distinguish aspirated and unaspirated 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 intervocalic. Nasal and approximant are always voiced.

As commonplace in languages of India, Tamil is characterised by its use of more than one type of coronal consonants. Retroflex consonants include the retroflex approximant (ழ) (example Tamil), which among the Dravidian languages is also found in Malayalam (example Kozhikode), disappeared from Kannada in pronunciation at around 1000 AD (the dedicated letter is still found in Unicode), and was never present in Telugu. Dental and alveolar consonants also contrast with each other, a typically Dravidian trait not found in the neighboring Indo-Aryan languages. In spoken Tamil, however, this contrast has been largely lost, and even in literary Tamil, and may be seen as allophonic.

A chart of the Tamil consonant phonemes in the follows:

Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar
Central approximants
Lateral approximants

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 and 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 ) 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, and 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.

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 case 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 prefix, 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 article. 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 copying 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 influenced 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 adapted from European languages, such as Portuguese, French and English.

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, 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), curry (from kari),"curry, n.2", The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 14 Aug. 2009/>. and catamaran (from , கட்டு மரம், meaning "bundled logs"), pandal (shed, shelter, booth), tyer (curd), coir (rope). Tamil words are also found in Sinhala and Malay.

See also


  • Caldwell, Robert. 1974. A comparative grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp.
  • Fabricius, Johann Philip (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.
  • (Translated from Tamil by E.Sa. Viswanathan)


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