If you have read an Introduction to Tamil Language, you will know that it is one of the oldest living language in the world and is spoken by over 80 million people today. It is the official language in the state of Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry. It is also one of the official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore.
As a person who speaks Tamil as my first language, I learned how to read and write Tamil from a young age. I have always focused on the technicalities of the language like the alphabets, grammar and pronunciations. However, as I started to write this article, I learned that the Tamil language has a rich and interesting history.
The Tamil Thai Temple in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, is the world's only temple dedicated to a language. Let me take you on a journey to the roots of Tamil language to its current state today.
The Roots of Tamil Language
There are around 70 languages that belong to the Dravidian family. All Dravidian languages are believed to have evolved from a single Proto-Dravidian language which overtime developed into distinct languages as we know today. According to the new linguistic analysis which was published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, Dravidian languages are 4500 years old. However, the exact origin of Dravidian language is yet to be determined.
The Dravidian family can be divided into North, Central, South Central and South branches. The Tamil language belongs to the South branch. The largest four languages from the Dravidian family are Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. A fun fact about Malayalam is that its a palindrome. Try saying it backwards! Malayalam which is largely spoken in Kerala, is the closest to Tamil. There is a limited degree of mutual intelligibility between these two languages.
From the four largest languages, Tamil is believed to be the oldest. Tamil along with Sanskrit falls under the classical language category. However, Tamil unlike Sanskrit has a continuity from ancient times to today which can be seen in various inscriptions, poems, religious texts, songs and even movies.
Historians are not able to give an exact date of origin for Tamil language which is a common issue in determining the origin of languages. The formation of a language is a gradual process, from sounds to alphabets, grammar and literature. The earliest Tamil inscriptions can be dated back to third century BCE. This shows that Tamil language must have been spoken earlier to have a written record.
Click here to find out the benefits of learning Tamil here and how to enhance learning it.
Development of the Tamil Language
The history of Tamil language can be divided into three periods which are separated by distinct grammatical and lexical differences. Old Tamil (300 BC - AD 700), Middle Tamil (700 - 1600) and Modern Tamil (1600 - present).
A variant of Brahmi script called Tamil Brahmi which were found in caves are one of the earliest records of Old Tamil period. It has two simple tenses which are the past and non-past. Old Tamil preserved many features from the Proto-Dravidian like the consonants, syllable structure, and various grammatical forms. The verb during this period is said to have negative conjugation. Nouns could take pronominal suffixes like verbs to express ideas. Old Tamil is believed to have been spoken throughout southern India which in present day are the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala as well as in northern Sri Lanka. It is the immediate predecessor of not only Middle Tamil, but also Malayalam.
Old Tamil period lasted roughly until 700 AD and transitioned into Middle Tamil. Middle Tamil was a phase that saw significant phonological and grammatical changes and has the present tense. There was an increase in the use of Sanskrit in Tamil during this period. It is believed that a number of Sanskrit words were included in Tamil during the Pallava dynasty ruling in relation to politics, religion and philosophy. The Tamil script also went through changes where it evolved from using Tamil Brahmi and Vatteluthu to using Pallava Grantha script. Large number of inscriptions exist from this period such as the famous Ramayana by Kamban and Iraiyanar-Akkaporul an early treatise on love poetics) and Nannul (12th century grammar) to name a few.
Somewhere around the 1600, Middle Tamil develops into Modern Tamil, a language spoken by many today. Modern Tamil still uses the mainstream normative grammar from Nannul which is from the Middle Tamil period. However, changes are seen in colloquial spoken Tamil where negative verb conjugation is no longer used but negativity is represented morphologically or syntactically. There were quite a few sound changes as well. The exposure to European languages has an impact on both written and spoken Tamil. In the early 20th century, the Tanittamil Iyakkam (Pure Tamil Movement), emphasized on removing Sanskrit and other foreign influences from Tamil to keep it pure. This resulted in removal of many Sanskrit words but not all.
Golden Age of Tamil Language
The golden age of Tamil language where the beauty and purity were at its best was during the Sangam age which occurred roughly between 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD. During this period Tamil Nadu was ruled by three dynasties: Chera, Chola and Pandya who relentlessly patronised the Tamil poets which helped bring Tamil literature to its peak. The word Sangam means a group of people who gather periodically for a particular purpose. It is an assembly of poets who gathered from time to time to discuss and publish their work.
The earliest work of Tamil literature date back somewhere between 300 BCE and 200 CE. The literature of this period has been referred to as the Sangam literature and the period in which these work were composed is referred to as Sangam period. The were three Sangams held in ancient South India which was well known as Muchchangam. The first Sangam which is called Mudhal Sangam is believed to have been held in Madurai. Sadly, there are no literary work from this period available today. The second Sangam known as Idai Sangam was held in Kapadapuram. The only surviving work from this period is Tolkapiyam. The third Sangam was also held in Madurai and it is referred to as Kadai Sangam. There are a few surviving literary work from this period which helped reconstruct the history of the Sangam period.
Sangam literature is the root of Tamil language. It has 18 books which are called Ettuthokai which means eight anthologies and Pattupattu which means 10 long songs. The 18 books combined has 2381 poems in it.
Ettuthokai consists of the following:
Pattupattu consists of the following:
Sangam literature is classified under two different categories which are Aham and Puram. The 18 books falls under one of these two categories. Some books have both Aham and Puram. Aham means what is in our mind or what we see in our mind. It is the abstract discussion on human aspects like love. Puram on the other hand, is what you see outside. Puram is mostly what really happened in certain areas during the given period. It basically describes human experiences such as heroism or customs.
Pathinenkilkanakku fall under the post Sangam period. Silappadikaram, Manimekalai, Jivaka chintamani, Valaiyapati, and Kundalakesi were all written during this period. Some sources claim that Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar was written during the third Sangam period while others claim that it was from the Post sangam period. As for contemporary period literature, there is a long list. Subramania Bharathi, Kannadasan, Vairamuthu and many more.
Tamil as We Know it Today
The modern Tamil language is spoken by many today and not jus within India. While most of them are located in southern India and northern Sri Lanka, there are Tamil speakers all around the world. Significant numbers exist in Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius and even South Africa. Tamil is even taught in vernacular schools in Malaysia.
The revival of Tamil literature in the later half of the 19th century contributed in vast variety of literary works being produced, from religious to philosophical in nature. These new works were written similar to the spoken colloquial Tamil compared to the Sangam literature period which made it more relatable to people today. As a result, Tamil literature has a vast variety of poetry, plays and prose.
The evolution of technology has helped standardise the shapes of Tamil letters. The typesetting technology has improved the aesthetic appeal of the letters. Technology did not only help with the letters but it also help to spread Tamil language to the younger generation. There are various resources available online to learn Tamil in interesting ways.
From the entertainment sector, the popularity of Tamil movies has helped spread the language. For example, one of the most famous Tamil actor is Rajinikanth. His movies are very popular in Japan with a big fan base there. There are many songs that depicts the beauty of Tamil language. For example, the song SemMozhi, Tamil Anthem is the official theme song for the World Classical Tamil Conference 2010. It pays tribute to the Tamil language. There are various Tami language TV channel available like Vijay TV, Sun TV, Zee Tamil from India which are very popular around the world. Singapore has Vasantham which is focused towards the Singaporean Indian community in the country. In Malaysia, government owned TV station TV2 airs Tamil programmes. Pay to view television provider Astro has four channels which are Astro Vellithirai, Astro Box Office Movies Thangathirai, Astro Vinmeen HD and Astro Vaanavil. This shows the popularity of the language even today.
There is a continuous battle from the Tamil people around the world to keep the language thriving. In India, this is seen by the rejection of Hindi in South India. They continue to fight for their rights to use the Tamil language and are very passionate about it.
Tamil people had to fight to have Tamil as one of the official language in Sri Lanka. It was initially declared that Sinhalese was the one and only official langue of Sri Lanka. This was met with great resistance in forms of protests and riots by the Tamil people. In 1958, the government established the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, which permitted the use of the Tamil language for various administrative and educational purposes.
The passion shown by the Tamil people to keep the language alive and thriving is the reason for it to survive till today. If you a interested to learn Tamil, you can find Superprof tutors who are native speakers of the language to begin your journey!
The platform that connects tutors and students