An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification: Dravidian, Southern Dravidian. Tamil is most closely related to Irula and Malayalam.

Overview. The archetypal Dravidian language with more than two millennia of evolution, possessing an ancient traditional literature. One of the two classical languages of India alongside Sanskrit. Its phonological system and grammar correspond in many points to the ancestral parent language, called Proto-Dravidian. It is agglutinative, adding suffixes to nominal and verbal stems to indicate grammatical categories like case, number, person and tense.

Distribution. Tamil is spoken in southern India, mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu, and in the northeast of Sri Lanka. There is a Tamil diaspora in Southeast Asia, South Africa, the South Pacific and the Caribbean.

Speakers. Tamil has some 78 million speakers distributed in the following countries:





Sri Lanka





South Africa








In India, Tamil speakers are found mainly in Tamil Nadu [including Puducherry](93.4 %) but also in Karnataka (3 %), Andhra Pradesh (1.3%), Kerala (1%) and Maharashtra (0.9%).

Status. Tamil is one the 23 scheduled languages of India and the official language of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. It is also one of the two official languages of Sri Lanka (the other is Sinhalese) and one of the four official languages of Singapore (the others are Chinese, Malay and English).


Varieties. Tamil has a number of varieties arising from diglossia, caste divisions and geography.

  1. Diglossia exists when two varieties of the same language are used under different conditions within a community, often by the same speakers; this is the case for Literary Tamil (centamil) and Colloquial Tamil (kotuntamil). The first is used in most writing, radio, TV, and public speeches; the second in face to face communication and, sometimes, in literary works.

  2. Caste division explains the existence of 'brahmans' and 'non-brahmans' speech which differ in many lexical items and in some grammatical particulars.

  3. Several regional dialects are the result of geographic conditions. They constitute six groups. Five of them are spoken in Tamil Nadu: Northern (Kanchipuram, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore, Cuddalore and Villupuram districts), Western (Coimbatore, Salem and Dharmapuri districts), Central (Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur and Madurai districts), Eastern (Pudukkottai and Ramanathapuram districts), Southern (Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts). Outside India, we find the conservative Sri Lankan dialect. Besides, there are Burmese, Malaysian, and South African dialects.

Modern Standard Tamil combines features of Literary Tamil with those of the spoken Central dialects.


Old Tamil (300 BCE-700 CE).

Middle Tamil (700 CE-1500 CE).

Modern Tamil (1500 CE to present).

Oldest Documents. The earliest is a rock inscription in Tamil Brāhmī script dating back to 254 BCE. Similar inscriptions were engraved in Buddhist and Jain caves until the first century BCE.


Vowels (10). Tamil has five basic vowels each with short and long varieties, plus two diphthongs (front ai, back au):


Consonants (16). Tamil has voiceless and voiced stops but they are in complementary distribution, i.e. in some environments a stop is pronounced as voiceless while in other environments the same stop (articulated at the same place) is pronounced as voiced; each allophone occurs only in its particular environment and never in the environment of the other. This rule is not observed in borrowed and onomatopoeic words.

    The consonant system is distinguished by having a complete series of retroflex sounds, including stop, nasal, approximant and liquid, and by the lack of fricatives. The dental rhotic (r-like sound) is a flap. Stops are excluded from word-final position. Sound changes, called sandhi, may occur when morphemes combine and compound words are formed.


Stress. It is weak and falls always on the first syllable of a word.

Script and Orthography

Tamil is written with Tamil Elluttu ("Tamil letter"), an abugida script, derived from Brāhmī in which every consonant carries an inherent a. Another script (Grantha) is used for Sanskrit loanwords. Tamil Elluttu has 12 vowels and 18 consonants. The signs for initial vowels are shown in the first row (below their transliteration), the other rows show all possible consonant-vowel combinations.


The Tamil alphabet has 12 vowel signs corresponding to the 10 vowel phonemes (5 short and 5 long vowels) plus 2 diphthongs. Long vowels are transliterated with a macron. It has 18 consonant signs, including one nasal (n) and an alveolar stop (r) representing phonemes that no longer exist in Modern Tamil. The first one is realized as [n] and the second as [ɾ].

  1. [ʈ] is represented ṭ

  2. [tʃ] is represented c

  3. [ɳ] is represented ṇ

  4. [ŋ] is represented ṅ

  5. [ɲ] is represented ñ

  6. [ɭ] is represented ḷ

  7. [ɻ] is represented l

  8. [j] is represented y


Tamil is an agglutinative language in which suffixes are added to a nominal or a verbal lexical root to convey grammatical information, like person, number, mood, tense, or to form derivative words.

  1. Nominal. Nouns, adjectives, pronouns and numerals are inflected for case, gender and number.

  1. gender and number: Nouns are classified in two broad categories: rational (gods and humans), and irrational (all other nouns). Rational nouns may be masculine singular, feminine singular or plural; the irrational may be singular or plural. Plurality  is marked with one of several suffixes added to the singular; a typical one is -kaḷ. The final consonant of the stem may be changed by sandhi:

  1. āḷ (‘person’)  →  āṭkaḷ (‘persons’)

  2. maram (‘tree’) → maraṅkaḷ (‘trees’)

  3. pū (‘flower’)  →  pūkkaḷ (‘flowers’)

  1. case: nominative, accusative, dative, sociative, genitive, instrumental, locative, ablative.

  1. The sociative or comitative case indicates company. The ablative indicates source (equivalent to ‘from’).

  2. Case declension is easily predictable given the singular oblique and nominative plural stems. As an example, let's see the declension of the irrational noun maram (‘tree’).


  1. black: stem, blue: case marker, red: plural marker.

  1. Locative and ablative markers differ in rational and irrational nouns: rational locative -iṭam, irrational locative -il, ablative rational -iṭamiruntu, ablative irrational -iliruntu.

  2. In Old Tamil there was an equative case used for comparisons that has disappeared in Modern Tamil having been replaced by a postposition (meaning 'than').

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative.

  1. Pronouns are declined like nouns (same cases and same suffixes). Personal pronouns distinguish gender in the 3rd person singular, and between inclusive and exclusive in the 1st person plural ('we and you' and 'we but not you', respectively).

  1. Demonstrative pronouns are invariable and make three deictic distinctions: inta means 'this', anta 'that' and unta 'beyond that'. They have prefixal forms which are, respectively: i-, a-, u-.

  2. In contrast to demonstrative pronouns, interrogative pronouns are inflected for case, gender and number: evan (‘who?’, masc.) evaḷ (‘who?’, fem.), etu (‘what?’) Tamil has no relative pronoun using participles for relative constructions.

  1. articles: Tamil has none, but the numeral one (oru) may act as an indefinite article; in its absence a rational noun may be assumed to be definite.

  1. compounds: coordinate and dependent nominal compounds are frequent. In the first type, two or more nouns/adjectives are joined by an imaginary 'and' ('cow-horse-goats' = 'cows and horses and goats'). In the second type, the last member of the compound is the main one and the others are their dependants ('tree-base-shadow' = 'shadow at the base of the tree').

  1. Verbal. The Tamil verb consists of stem + voice suffix + causative suffix + tense-mood marker + aspect marker + person-number marker. Voice, causative and aspect suffixes are optional. Auxiliary verbs are used to form compound tenses and to express attitudes related to the action like antipathy, relief, unhappiness about the result of an event, etc.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s honorific, 3s m, 3s f, 3s irrational; 1p, 2p, 3p rational, 3p irrational. The Tamil verb has a 3rd person singular honorific form and, besides, distinguishes masculine, feminine and irrational in the same person and number. In the 3rd person plural it distinguishes between rational and irrational only.

  1. tense: In Old Tamil there were only two tenses: past and non-past. Later, developed the present, future, and perfects.

  1. Past, present and future are formed without auxiliary verbs, all the other tenses require one. There is a negative conjugation for each of the three moods.

  2. The present is formed by adding the suffixes -kir/-kind/-kitp to the verbal stem.

  3. The past by adding the suffixes -t/-tt/-nt to the stem. The future by adding -p/-pp/-v to the stem. For example, the verb seyta ('to do', 'to make') conjugates as follows:

  1. black: root, brown: tense marker

  2. blue: personal endings


  1. mood: indicative, optative, imperative.

  2. The imperative has a 2nd person singular impolite form which is identical to the verbal root, and a polite form in which the plural suffix -kaḷ is added to the singular form. The optative is formed by adding -ka or -attum to the stem.

  1. voice: affective and effective. In the affective voice the subject undergoes the action named by the verb  stem; in the effective voice the subject directs the action named by the stem.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, adverbial participles, conditional participles, verbal nouns, relative participles.

  2. Infinitives as well as adverbial and conditional participles combine with a following verb, forming often compound verbs. Relative participles are marked for tense having present, past, future, and negative forms; they are employed in relative clauses. Verbal nouns are derived from verbs but behave as nouns and can, thus, take case suffixes.


Word order is flexible though Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) is the most frequent. The verb occupies the final position in the clause. Genitives always precede their heads, main verbs precede their auxiliaries, and relative clauses precede main ones. The subject is generally in the nominative case but sometimes it takes the dative. There is subject-verb agreement, verbs agree with their subjects in person, number and, in the third person, gender. Besides case inflection, Tamil uses a variety of postpositions to indicate syntactical relations. No more than one finite verb is allowed in a sentence and, thus, complex sentences must resort to non-finite verbs.


Tamil has comparatively less lexical borrowings than other Dravidian languages but it has been influenced by Sanskrit, Prakrit and Hindi, adopting some Portuguese and English words as well. Since the 20th century, the use of native words has been promoted to the detriment of foreign ones. Onomatopoeic words are very numerous and many of them are formed by reduplication.

Basic Vocabulary

Key Literary Works (all dates CE). For simplification, diacritics are not used in the following titles.

100-500    Ettuttogai (Eight Antologies). Several authors

  1. A compilation of some 2.300 brief poems about love and war composed by some 400 poets. Codified by precise rules, their language is suggestive and elliptic, and similes including images of nature are one of its most expressive devices.

300-400    Tolkappiyam (Old Composition). Anonymous

  1. A treaty about grammar and poetics, invaluable to understand early Tamil poetry, explaining the different poetic genres and the rules for poetical composition.

200-600    Pattuppattu (The Ten Songs). Several authors

  1. Ten long poems in which a poet who has been sponsored by a patron advices a candidate how to reach him and receive his support, including in the guide to his itinerary picturesque descriptions of a pastoral character.

400-500    Tirukkural (Sacred Kural). Tiruvalluvar

  1. One of the most popular works of Tamil literature. In it, the weaver Tiruvalluvar expounds in a very concise manner his thoughts about the best way to accomplish the three traditional goals of a Hindu (morals, prosperity, pleasure).

500-600    Cilappatikaram (The Ankle Bracelet). Ilango Adigal

  1. Long, elaborate, narrative poem influenced by Sanskrit literature consisting of a series of adventures combining realistic descriptions of city and country life with magic and folk elements, history with myth.

500-600    Manimekalai (Manimekalai). Sittalai Sattanar

  1. A poem similar to the previous one in form and content.

600-700    Tiruvacakam (Sacred Utterance). Manikka Vasagar

  1. The most intense and original of the poets devoted to Śiva.

900-930    Tiruvaymoli (Words from the Sacred Mouth). Nammalvar

  1. A collection of devotional poems dedicated toVishnu organized in groups of ten, each group sharing the same subject and meter.

  1. 12th c.    Ramayanam (Ramayana). Kampan

  2. A free adaptation of the famous Hindu epic, in 40.000 verses, mingling narrative with folkloric elements and humor with a refined lyricism.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages. R. Caldwell. Oriental Books (1974). Originally published in 1875.

  2. -The Grammatical Structure of Dravidian Languages. J. Bloch. Deccan College Handbook Series (1954).

  3. -A Standard Reference Grammar of Modern and Classical Tamil. M. Andronov. New Century Book House (1969).

  4. -A Grammar of Modern Tamil. T. Lehmann. Pondicherry Institute of Linguistics and Culture (1993).

  5. -A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil. H. Schiffman. Cambridge University Press (1999).

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