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Tamil is a classical language and one of the major languages belonging to the Dravidian language family. It is predominantly spoken in South India and Sri Lanka, with smaller communities of speakers in many other countries. In 1996, it was the 18th most spoken language in the world with over 74 million speakers worldwide.
As one of the few living classical languages, Tamil has an unbroken literary tradition of over two millennia. The written language has changed little during this period, with the result that classical literature is as much a part of everyday Tamil as modern literature. Tamil schoolchildren, for example, are still taught the alphabet using the átticúdi, an alphabet rhyme written around the first century CE.
The name 'Tamil' is an anglicised form of the native name தமிழ் (IPA ). The final letter of the name, usually transcribed as the lowercase l or zh, is a retroflex r believed to only exist in Tamil and Malayalam. In phonetic transcriptions, it is usually represented by the retroflex approximant.
Like the other Dravidian languages, but unlike most of the other established literary languages of India, the origins of Tamil are independent of Sanskrit. Tamil has the longest unbroken literary tradition amongst the Dravidian languages. Tamil tradition dates the oldest works to several millennia ago, but the earliest examples of Tamil writing we have today are in inscriptions from the 3rd century BCE, which are written in an adapted form of the Brahmi script (Mahadevan, 2003). Dating the earliest literary works themselves is difficult, in large part because they were preserved either in palm leaf manuscripts (implying repeated copying and recopying) or through oral transmission. Internal linguistic evidence, however, indicates that the oldest extant works were probably composed sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 3rd century CE. The earliest available text is the Tolkāppiyam, a work on poetics and grammar which describes the language of the classical period, portions of which date back to around 200 BCE. Archaelogical evidence obtained from inscriptions excavated in 2005 dates the language to around 500 BCE . The most significant epic written in the ancient Tamil language is the Shilappadikaram, composed around 200-300 CE.
Linguists categorise Tamil literature and language into three periods: ancient (200 BCE to 700 CE), medieval (700 CE to 1500 CE) and modern (1500 CE to the present). During the medieval period, a number of Sanskrit loan words were absorbed by Tamil, which many 20th century purists, notably Parithimaar Kalaignar and Maraimalai Adigal , later sought to remove. This movement was called thanith thamizh iyakkam (meaning pure Tamil movement). As a result of this, Tamil in formal documents, public speeches and scientific discourses is largely free of Sanskrit loan words. Between 800 and 1000 CE, Malayalam is believed to have evolved into a distinct language.
Tamil is a member of the Tamil language family, which includes the Irula , Kaikadi , Betta Kurumba , Sholaga , and Yerukula languages. This group is a subgroup of the Tamil-Malayalam languages , which falls under a subgroup of the Tamil-Kodagu languages , which in turn is a subgroup of the Tamil-Kannada languages . The Tamil-Kannada languages belong to the southern branch of the Dravidian language family.
Tamil is the first language of the majority in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and in northern and northeastern Sri Lanka. The language is also spoken in other parts of these two countries, most notably in the Indian states of Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra, and in Colombo and the hill country in Sri Lanka.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tamil-speaking indentured servants from India and Sri Lanka were sent to many parts of the British empire where they founded Tamil-speaking communities. There are currently sizeable Tamil-speaking populations descended from them in Singapore, Malaysia, and Mauritius. Many people in South Africa, Guyana, Fiji, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago have Tamil origins, but the language is no longer spoken in those countries.
Tamil is the official language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and is one of 22 nationally recognised languages under the Indian Constitution. Tamil is also an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore, and has constitutional recognition in South Africa.
In addition, Tamil was recognised as a classical language by the Government of India in 2004, following a campaign by several Tamil associations supported by academics from India and abroad, most notably Professor George L. Hart, who occupies the Chair in Tamil Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. (See his statement.) It was the first Indian language to be so recognised. The recognition was announced by the President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam, in a joint sitting of both houses of the Indian Parliament on June 6, 2004. (See item 41 of his address and the BBC news item on the formal approval by the Indian Cabinet.)
Spoken and literary variants
In addition to its various dialects, Tamil also exhibits a rather sharp diglossia between its formal or classic variety, called centamil, and its colloquial form, called koduntamil, a broad term which traditionally referred to all spoken Tamil dialects rather than any one standard form. Diglossia has existed in the language since ancient times - the language used in early temple inscriptions differs quite significantly from the language of classical poetry. In consequence, standard centamil is not based on the speech of any one region, a fact which has helped keep the written language mostly the same across various Tamil speaking regions.
In modern times, centamil is generally used in formal writing and speech. It is, for example, the language of textbooks, of much of Tamil literature and of public speaking and debate. In recent times, however, koduntamil has been making inroads into areas that have traditionally been considered the province of centamil. Most contemporary cinema, theatre and popular entertainment on television and radio, for example, is in koduntamil, and many politicians use it to bring themselves closer to their audience.
Spoken dialects did not have much prestige: The grammatical rules of literary centamil were believed to have been formulated by the gods and therefore seen as being the only correct speech (see, for example, Kankeyar, 1840). In contrast to most European languages, therefore, Tamil did not have a standard spoken form for much of its history. In modern times, however, the increasing use of koduntamil has led to the emergence of unofficial 'standard' spoken dialects. In India, the 'standard' koduntamil is based on 'educated non-brahmin speech', rather than on any one dialect (Schiffman, 1998), but has been significantly influenced by the dialects of Thanjavur and Madurai. In Sri Lanka the standard is based on the dialect of Jaffna.
Tamil dialects are mainly differentiated from each other by the fact that they have undergone different phonological changes and sound shifts in evolving from Old Tamil. Thus the word for "here" - inge in chentamil - has evolved into inga in the dialect of Thanjavur, ingane in the dialect of Tirunelveli, inguttu in the dialect of Ramanathapuram, ingale and ingade in various northern dialects and ingai in some dialects of Jaffna.
Although most Tamil dialects do not differ very significantly in their vocabulary, there are a few exceptions. The dialects spoken in Sri Lanka retain many words that are not in everyday use in India, and use many other words slightly differently. The dialect of the Iyers of Palakkad has a large number of Malayalam loanwords, and has also been influenced by Malayalam syntax. Finally, the Hebbar and Mandyam dialects, spoken by groups of Tamil Vaishnavites who migrated to Karnataka in the 11th century, retains many features of the Vainava paribasai , a special form of Tamil designed in the 9th and 10th centuries to reflect Vaishnavite religious and spiritual values.
Tamil dialects vary according to both region and community. Several castes have their own dialects which most members of that caste traditionally used regardless of where they come from. Some of these differences have begun to fade away in recent years as a result of the anti-casteist movement, but many traces remain and it is often possible to identify a person's caste by their speech.
The Ethnologue lists twenty-two current dialects of Tamil, including Adi Dravida, Aiyar, Aiyangar, Arava, Burgandi, Kasuva, Kongar, Korava, Korchi, Madrasi, Parikala, Pattapu Bhasha, Sri Lanka Tamil, Malaya Tamil, Burma Tamil, South Africa Tamil, Tigalu, Harijan, Sanketi, Hebbar, Tirunelveli and Madurai. Other known dialects are Kongu and Kumari.
Main article: Tamil alphabet
Tamil writing is phonetic, and is subject to well-defined rules of elision and euphony. The present script used to write Tamil text is believed to have evolved from the Brahmi script of the Ashoka era. Later, a southern variant of the Brahmi script evolved into the Grantha script, which was used to write both Sanskrit and Tamil texts. Between the 6th and 10th centuries, a new script called vettezhuthu (meaning letters that are cut) evolved in order to make it easy for creating inscriptions on stone. Some people also call this vattezhuthu (meaning curved letters). Some major changes, such as the introduction of the overdot diacritic for pure consonants and the ligatures for the compounds of the vowel "E", etc., were made to the script on suggestions from Veeramaamunivar. Around 1935, Periyar suggested some changes to make it amenable to printing. Some of these suggestions were incorporated by the M.G. Ramachandran government in 1975.
While the script was still evolving, many Sanskrit words were borrowed into Tamil. To facilitate writing these words, some characters from the Grantha script are still retained. However, there are many purists who would argue against the use of such characters as there are well-defined rules in the Tolkāppiyam for Tamilising loan words.
The vowels are called uyir ezhuthu (uyir - life, ezhuthu - letter). The vowels are classified into short and long (five of each type) and two diphthongs.
The long (nedil) vowels are about twice as long as the short (kuRil) 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.
The consonants are classified into three categories with 6 in each category: vallinam - hard, mellinam - soft or nasal, and idayinam - medium. Tamil has very restricted consonant clusters (eg: never word initial etc.) and has neither aspirated nor voiced stops. Some scholars have suggested that in Chenthamil (which refers to Tamil as it existed before Sanskrit words were borrowed), stops were voiceless when at the start of a word and voiced allophonically otherwise. However, no such distinction is observed by most modern Tamil speakers.
The special character 'ஃ' (pronounced 'akh') is called āytham in the Tolkāppiyam (see Tolkāppiyam 1:1:2). The āytham is rarely used by itself: it normally serves a purely grammatical function as an independent vowel form, the equivalent of the overdot diacritic of plain consonants. The rules of pronunciation given in the Tolkāppiyam suggest that the āytham could have glottalised the sounds it was combined with. Although the character was common in classical Tamil, it fell out of use in the early modern period and is now very rare in written Tamil. It is occasionally used with a 'p' (as ) to represent the phoneme [f].
The āytham is also called ahenam (literally, 'the "ah" sound'). Its resemblance to the three dots that were found on shields in mediaeval times, and the similarity of the name āytham to the word āyutham meaning 'weapon' or 'tool' has resulted in it often being called āyutha ezhuthu (literally, 'the war-weapon letter').
Unlike most other Indian languages, Tamil does not have aspirated consonants. The Tamil script also does not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced sounds, although both are present in the spoken language. Voiced and unvoiced sounds are not quite allophones, however. Tamil speakers are aware of the difference, and the Tolkāppiyam cites detailed rules as to when a letter is to be pronounced with voice and when it is to be pronounced unvoiced. The letter 't', for example, was to be pronounced voiced if it was at the beginning of a word, doubled or followed by another hard consonant, and unvoiced otherwise.
With the exception of one rule - the pronunciation of the letter c at the beginning of a word - these rules are largely followed even today in pronuncing centamil. The position is, however, much more complex in relation to spoken koduntamil. The pronunciation of southern dialects and the dialects of Sri Lanka continues to reflect these rules to a large extent, though not completely. In northern dialects, however, sound shifts have changed many words so substantially that these rules no longer describe how words are pronounced. In addition many, but not all, Sanskrit loan words are pronounced in Tamil as they were in Sanskrit, even if this means that consonants which should be unvoiced according to the Tolkāppiyam are voiced.
Phonologists are divided in their opinion over why written Tamil did not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced characters. One point of view is that Tamil never had conjunct consonants or voiced stops - voice was rather the result of elision or sandhi. Consequently unlike Indo-European languages and other Dravidian languages, Tamil did not need separate characters for voiced consonants. A slightly different theory holds that voiced consonants were at one stage allophones of unvoiced consonants, and the lack of distinction between the two in the modern script merely reflects that.
Elision is the reduction in the duration of sound of a phoneme when preceded by or followed by certain other sounds. There are well-defined rules for elision in Tamil. They are categorised into different classes based on the phoneme which undergoes elision.
- Kutriyalukaram - the vowel u
- Kutriyalikaram - the vowel i
- Aiykaarakkurukkam - the diphthong ai
- Oukaarakkurukkam - the diphthong au
- Aaythakkurukkam - the special character akh (aayutham)
- Makarakkurukkam - the phoneme m
Main article: Tamil grammar
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.
Modern Tamil vocabulary still retains most of the words from classical Tamil. Due to this and because of the emphasis on learning classical works like Tirukkural, classical Tamil is comprehensible in various degrees to most native speakers of today. However, a number of Sanskrit loan words have been adapted and used commonly in modern Tamil. But, unlike some other Dravidian languages, these words are restricted mainly to spiritual terminology and abstract nouns. Besides Sanskrit, there are a few loan words from Persian and Arabic implying trade ties in ancient times. Since around the 20th century, English words have also begun to be used freely in colloquial Tamil. Some modern technical terminology is borrowed from English, though attempts are being made to have a pure Tamil technical terminology. Many individuals, and some institutions like the Government of Sri Lanka and Tamil Virtual University have generated technical dictionaries for Tamil.
There are also many instances of Tamil loan words in other languages. Popular examples are cheroot (churuttu meaning "rolled up"), mango and catamaran (from kattu maram meaning "bundled logs"). For more such words, see here.
A sample passage in Tamil script with a Romanised transcription:
ஆசிரியர் வகுப்பறையுள் நுழைந்தார். அவர் உள்ளே நுழைந்தவுடன் மாணவர்கள் எழுந்தனர். வளவன் மட்டும் தன் அருகில் நின்றுகொண்டிருந்த மாணவி கனிமொழியுடன் பேசிக் கொண்டிருந்தான். நான் அவனை எச்சரித்தேன்.
aasiriyar vakuppaRaiyuL nuzhainthaar. avar uLLE nuzhainthavudan maaNavarkaL ezhunthanar. vaLavan mattum than arukil ninRu kondiruntha maaNavi kanimozhiyudan pEsik kondirunthaan. naan avanai echarithEn.
English translation of the passage given above:
The teacher entered the classroom. As soon as he entered, the students got up. Valavan alone was talking to Kanimozhi who was standing next to him. I warned him.
Note: Tamil does not have articles. The article the used above is merely an artefact of translation.
To understand why Valavan would want to be warned, it is necessary to comprehend asian social etiquette. It is considered impolite to be distracted when a person of eminence (the teacher in this case) makes an entry and the teacher may feel insulted or slighted.
|Word (romanised)||Translation||Morphemes||Part of speech||Person, Gender, Tense||Case||Number||Remarks|
|aasiriyar||Teacher||aasiriyar||noun||n/a, gender-neutral, n/a||Nominative||honorific plural indicated by suffix ar||use of aasiriyai for feminine gender (in honorific sense) is not uncommon|
|vakuppaRaiyuL||inside the class room||vakuppu+aRai|
|adverb||n/a||Locative||n/a||Sandhi (called puṇarci in Tamil) rules in Tamil require complicated euphonic changes during agglutination (such as the introduction of y in this case)|
|nuzhainthaar||entered||nuzhainthaar||verb||third, gender-neutral, past||honorific plural||the masculine and feminine equivalents nuzhainthaan and nuzhainthaaL are almost invariably replaced by the collective nuzhainthaar in a honorific context|
|avar||He||avar||pronoun||third, gender-neutral, n/a||Nominative||honorific plural indicated by suffix ar||the masculine and feminine forms avan and avaL are not used in a honorific sense|
|nuzhainthavudan||upon entering||nuzhaintha +|
|adverb||n/a||n/a||Sandhi rules require a v to be inserted between a a and a u during agglutination.|
|maaNavarkaL||students||maaNavarkaL||collective noun||n/a, masculine, often used with gender-neutral connotation, n/a||Nominative||plural indicated by suffix aL|
|ezhunthanar||got up||ezhunthanar||verb||third, gender-neutral, past||plural|
|VaLavan||VaLavan (name)||VaLavan||Proper noun||n/a, masculine, usually indicated by suffix n, n/a||Nominative||singular|
|than||his (self) own||than||pronoun||n/a, gender-neutral, n/a||singular|
|arukil||near (lit. "in nearness")||aruku + il||adverb||n/a||Locative||n/a||The postposition il indicates the locative case|
|ninRu kondiruntha||standing||ninRu + kondu + iruntha||adverb||n/a||n/a||the verb has been morphed into an adverb by the incompleteness due to the terminal a|
|maaNavi||student||maaNavi||pronoun||n/a, feminine, n/a||singular|
|kanimozhiyudan||with Kanimozhi (name of a person)||kanimozhi + udan||adverb||n/a||Comitative||n/a||the name Kanimozhi literally means sweet language|
|pEsik kondirunthaan||had been chatting||pEsi + kondu +irunthaan||verb||third, masculine, past perfect||singular||continuousness indicated by the incompleteness brought by kondu|
|naan||I||naan||pronoun||first person, gender-neutral, n/a||Nominative||singular|
|avanai||him||avanai||pronoun||third, masculine, n/a||Accusative||singular||the postposition ai indicates accusative case|
|echarithEn||cautioned||echarithEn||verb||first, indicated by suffix En, gender-neutral, past||singular, plural would be indicated by substituting En with Om|
Translations of commonly used phrases
- Tamil: தமிழ்/Tamizh /tamiɮ/
- hello: வணக்கம்/Vanakkam /vanakːam/
- good-bye: சென்று வருகிறேன்/sentru varukireen /sentu varukireen/
- please: தயவு செய்து/dayavu seithu /tajavu sei/
- thank you: நன்றி/nandri /nantʕi/
- sorry: மன்னிக்கவும்/mannikkavum /
- that one: அது/adhu /a tʰu/
- how much?: எவ்வளவு/evvalavu /evːalavu/
- yes: ஆம்/amaam /aːm/
- no: இல்லை/illai /ilːaj/
- I don't understand: எனக்குப் புரியவில்லை / enakku puriyavillai/
- Where's the bathroom?: குளியலறை எங்கே உள்ளது? / kuLiyalarai enge uLLadhu?/
- generic toast (not used in formal conversations and to elders): (Hey): டேய்!/dei /de:i/dai(like the 'dai' in daisy)
- English: ஆங்கிலம்/aangilam /aːŋilam/
- Do you speak English?: நீங்கள் ஆங்கிலம் பேசுவீர்களா? / neengaL aangilam pEsuveergaLaa?/
- Kāṅkēyar (1840). Uriccol nikaṇṭurai. Putuvai, Kuver̲an̲mā Accukkūṭam.
- Mahadevan, Iravatham (2003). Early Tamil Epigraphy from the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. Cambridge, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674012275.
- Natarajan, T. (1977), The language of Sangam literature and Tolkāppiyam. Madurai, Madurai Publishing House.
- Pope, GU (1862). First catechism of Tamil grammar: Ilakkaṇa vin̲aviṭai - mutar̲puttakam. Madras, Public Instruction Press.
- 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.
- Schiffman, Harold F. (1999). A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521640741.
- Asher, Ron and E. Annamalai (2002) Colloquial Tamil: The Complete Course for Beginners Routledge. ISBN: 0415187885
- Pavaṇanti Muṉivar, Naṉṉūl Mūlamum Viruttiyuraiyum, (A. Tāmōtaraṉ; ed., 1999), International Institute of Tamil Studies, Chennai.
- Pavaṇanti, Naṉṉūl mūlamum Kūḻaṅkaittampirāṉ uraiyum (A. Tāmōtaraṉ ed., 1980). Wiesbaden, Franz Steiner Verlag.
- Taṇṭiyāciriyar, Taṇṭiyāciriyar iyaṟṟiya taṇṭiyalaṅkāram: Cuppiramaṇiya Tēcikar uraiyuṭaṉ. (Ku. Mutturācaṉ ed., 1994). Tarmapuri, Vacanta Celvi Patippakam.
- Tolkāppiyar, Tolkāppiyam Iḷampūraṇar uraiyuṭaṉ (1967 reprint). Ceṉṉai, TTSS.
- Ethnologue report
- Omniglot resource
- Rosetta Project Archive
- Language Museum report
- UCLA Tamil Profile
- A brief review of its history and characteristics
- International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil
- Tamil Language & Literature
Resources for learning
- UPENN course page - University of Pennsylvania's web based courses for learning Tamil
- Tamil virtual University has the largest collection of digitised Tamil literary works and web based courses for learning Tamil
- IITS - Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies, University of Cologne, Germany
- University of California, Berkeley
- Find in a library: Tamil
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