Tamil belongs to the Dravidian language family and is the official language of the Indian State of Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Pondicherry. Apart from India, Tamil is also an official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore. There are a large number of Tamil speakers even in Malaysia, Mauritius, Fiji and South Africa.

Tamil has officially been recognised among the twenty two languages under the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. It was also declared a classical language of India as late as 2004. To be declared a classical language, there are three criteria to be met - the origin of the language has to be an ancient one, it should have an independent tradition and it has to contain a considerable volume of ancient literature.

Tamil is one of the two classical and traditional languages of India, the other being Sanskrit. Relatively speaking, Tamil is the oldest living language in India because Sanskrit is mostly used in religious or scholarly context. The capital of the Pandya Dynasty, Madurai, is generally linked with the development of the language due to the tradition of the Tamil Sangams that was hosted in Madurai.


Tamil and Hinduism

The Tamil region in India is a center of traditional Hinduism. Tamil schools of personal religious Bhakti and devotion movements have always been important with Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. These three religions were widespread among the Tamil people in the early part of the first six centuries after Christ. Although the present day Tamil are mostly Hindus, there are a sizeable number of Christians, Muslims and Jains among them.

The Tamil Hindus have a long history of being achievers. Commerce and urban development have always been important in priority among them. Tamil trade with the ancient Greeks and the Romans is highlighted by archaeological and linguistic evidence. The rich literary tradition of Tamil goes back to the early Christian age.

The Chera, Chola and the Pallava dynasties ruled over the Tamil region before the Vijayanagar Empire extended its influence in the fourteenth century. Under the Pallavas, the Tamilians built great temples, irrigation tanks and dams and roads and they played an important part in spreading the Indian culture in South East Asia.

The Cholas were known for their naval power and brought the Malaysian Kingdom of Sri Vijaya under their rule in 1030 AD. Though the Tamil region was culturally integrated with the rest of India for a long period, it remained a separate entity until the British came into India.

Tamil is of particular importance as the language with the longest continuous written history with the earliest extant literature on Hinduism being typically Dravidian.



The earliest Tamil writings can be found in the inscriptions from the Chera Dynasty and also from the potsherds from the fifth century before Christ. Three distinct periods have been classified through analysis of grammatical and lexical changes down the ages. The Old Tamil period is from 3000 BC to 700 AD. The Middle Tamil period is from 700 AD to 1600 AD and the Modern Tamil period is from 1600 AD onwards.

As a Dravidian language, Tamil comes from the Proto – Dravidian. Linguists suggest that the Proto-Dravidian was spoken around 3000 BC in the regions near the Godavari river basin in peninsular India. The poems from the old Tamil period are probably the oldest extant body of secular literature in India. There were some phonological changes during the Middle Tamil period. During this period, there was an increase in the Sankritisation of Tamil. Quite a few number of Sanskrit loanwords entered Tamil from the time of the Pallava Dynasty, particularly in terms of political, religious and philosophical concepts.  



The Tamil writing system came from the Brahmi script. Over a period of time, the shape of the letters changed enormously and stabilised when printing of Tamil was introduced in the late nineteenth century. Currently, the script known as Vatteluttu, which means rounded letters, is in common use.

In the ancient times, Tamil Brahmi and Vatteluttu were the main scripts used. Grantha script replaced Tamil Brahmi later. The earliest inscriptions of Tamil are found in the Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur. The current Vatteluttu script consists of a dozen vowels and eighteen consonants and one special character which is the Ayatam. The vowels and the consonants combine to form two hundred and sixteen compound characters. 



 Tamil is characterised by a series of retroflex consonants like the other Dravidian languages. The retroflex consonants are made by curling the tip of the tongue back to the roof of the mouth. As far as structure is concerned, Tamil is a verb final language. Adjectives and relative infinitive clauses normally go before the term that they modify while the inflections for tense, number and case are indicated with suffixes. Tamil is also characterised by a number of stylistic features.

Extensive use of suffixes leads to ambiguity often at word levels. There is a heavy system of aspects in Tamil which calls for special attention to write words as well as to speak them. The traditional Tamil grammar has four aspectual forms. They are perfective aspect, competitive aspect, progressive aspect and reflexive aspect. A major addition to the Tamil alphabet was the adoption of the Grantha letters to write in non assimilated Sanskrit words.

Tamil has three types of subjects. They are nominative, dative and instrumental subjects. In majority of cases, the subject position is filled with nominative cases. Tamil can be characterised as a subject-object-verb language as far as the typical order of words is concerned. Those words that need to be inflected are usually placed in the initial positions in a sentence. This influences the place of occurrence of all the other words in the sentence except the main verb.

The other important feature of the Tamil language is the use of reflexive pronoun. Old Tamil had preserved the consonants of Proto-Dravidian and the syllable structure. There was no definite present tense in Old Tamil. It only had two tenses, the past and the non past.

The grammatical continuity remained across the stages from the Old Tamil to Middle Tamil and from Middle Tamil to Modern Tamil. Sanskrit also influenced Tamil grammar in the use of cases and in phonology.

`Nannul’ became the standard grammar for modern literary Tamil.  Tamil was affected when it came into contact with European languages. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Pure Tamil Movement, aimed to remove all Sanskritic and other foreign elements from Tamil.  

Tamil vowels are called `Uyireluttu’. They are both short and long. Tamil consonants are known as `Meyyeluttu’. The consonants are classified into three categories – hard, soft (nasal) and medium.

Tamil is a null subject language. Not all Tamil sentences have subjects, verbs and objects. The vocabulary of Tamil is mainly Dravidian. Along with other Dravidian languages like Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, Tamil was influenced by Sanskrit in terms of vocabulary and grammar. In the last few decades, institutions have generated technical dictionaries for Tamil with government support. These dictionaries contain words that are derived from Tamil roots to replace loanwords from English and other languages.



Spoken Tamil has changed considerably over a period of time and there have been many changes in the phonological structure of the words. This has created a system in which there are definite differences between the colloquial forms and those that are used in formal context. The major regional variation is between the form spoken in India and that which is spoken in Sri Lanka, which was a former Tamil State of India in the ancient ages.

Within Tamil Nadu, there are phonological differences between the northern, western and southern dialects. The regional variations of the language overlap with the varieties that are based on social class and caste. Tamil belongs to the southern branch of the Dravidian languages which contains a family of twenty six languages that are native to the Indian sub-continent.

The closest relative of Tamil is Malayalam, which was a dialect of Tamil until almost the ninth century. Although many differences between Tamil and Malayalam indicate a prehistoric split of the western dialect, Malayalam took around five centuries to develop into a distinct language.

Tamil dialects are differentiated from each other by phonological changes and sound shifts. The dialects do not differ much in their vocabulary. The dialects spoken in Sri Lanka retain many grammatical forms and words that are not in daily use in India. In Sri Lanka, they use many other words differently. The Tamil dialects are also differentiated as per the areas of prestige as they are called. They are the Madras Tamil, the Madurai Tamil, Kangu Tamil, Nellai Tamil, and Kanya Kumari Tamil, Tiruchirapalli Tamil, Jaffna or Yazhpanam Tamil, Trincomalee or Tiriconamalai Tamil, Batticaloa or Mattakkalappu Tamil.

The dialect of the district of Palakkad in Kerala has a large number of Malayalam loanwords. The dialect has also been influenced by the Malayalam syntax and it also has a distinct Malayalam accent. Tamil spoken in the Kanya Kumari district has unique words and phonetic style than the Tamil spoken in other parts of Tamil Nadu. The style is so unique that anyone from the Kanya Kumari district is easily identified by their spoken Tamil.

Hebbar and Mandyam dialects spoken by groups of Tamil Vaishnavites who migrated to Karnataka retain many features of the Vaishnava Paribhashai which is a special form of Tamil developed in the tenth century that reflects Vaishnavite religious and spiritual values. In Tamil Nadu, it is often possible to identify a person’s caste by his or her speech.

Apart from its various dialects, Tamil also has different literary styles. The classic style is based on the ancient language known as `Sankat Tamil’. The modern literary style is `Cen Tamil’ with a modern colloquial form known as `Kotun Tamil’. Cen Tamil is used generally in speech and formal writing. Most of the contemporary cinema, theatre and popular entertainment on radio and television are in Kotun Tamil. This dialect is influenced by the dialects of Thanjavur and Madurai.

The slight regional differences in spoken Tamil have risen because of increase in educational and transport facilities. Besides mass media such as newspapers and journals, television and radio have also been contributing factors. There are some differences between Tamil spoken in Thanjavur and Tiruchirapalli districts. Tamil spoken in the city of Chennai differs from all the other regions because of the free borrowing of words from Telugu, Urdu and English. There are similar differences that exist in phonetics also.

English and Hindi words are used in spoken Tamil by the people who live in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu. Such borrowed words are not changed much phonetically but they are written in the same way as they are pronounced in the original languages.

A few Sanskrit words have also been intermixed with Tamil. It can be expressed that among most of the languages in India, Tamil has the least number of loanwords that have been borrowed from other languages.




Tamil is one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world. Its literature has existed for more than two thousand years. It has one of the richest literatures in the world. The earliest records are found on the rock edicts and stones that date back to 300 BC. Around this period, Tamil literature was known as Sangam literature. The Tamil literature inscriptions have been discovered in Egypt, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Even as Tamil has the oldest literature among the Dravidian languages, there are almost 1,860 newspapers that are published in Tamil today. Out of these, 350 are dailies.

The poems from the Old Tamil period are probably the oldest collection of literature in India. Other literary works in the old Tamil period include two epics, `Cilappatikaram’ and `Manimekalai’. There were some didactic and philosophical texts that were also written during this period.

The only work of importance that was a product of this age was the Tamil grammar, `Tolkappiyam’. `Thirukural’, written by Thiruvalluvar, is regarded as the corner stone of Tamil literature. This is a collection of one thousand three hundred and thirty couplets which are divided into three sections. It is a code of ethics and is secular in nature.

Tamil has five great epics. The most famous, `Silapadikaram’, was written in the sixth century after `Thirukural’. Apart from these two works, the other epics are `Thevaram’, ‘Thiruvasagam’ and `Diviyaprabandam’ which were written by the Nayanmar Saints.


More than sixty six million people speak Tamil worldwide. Tamil is also spoken in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Maharashtra. Quite recently, it has been made an official language also in Andaman & Nicobar Islands. In Malaysia, there are over five hundred primary education government schools in Tamil medium. 

Article Posted By : tahnaklView All Articles

Tahseen Nakavi Juror

Article Source :


Keywords :


Submit an Article

Related Articles


Asomiya is the Assamese language which belongs to the Eastern Indo Aryan group, genealogical..


ORIGIN Bengali is a language of eastern Indo-Aryan origin. It is native to Bengal in the ..


ORIGIN Dogri belongs to the Indo-Aryan sub group of the Indo-Persian languages. It is actuall..