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Definition: Tamil from Philip's Encyclopedia

Language spoken in S India, chiefly in the state of Tamil Nadu, by up to 50 million people. In addition, there are c.3 million speakers in N Sri Lanka and c.1 million distributed throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Mauritius and Guyana.

Summary Article: TAMIL
from Dictionary of Languages
52,000,000 SPEAKERS

India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore

Belonging to the family of DRAVIDIAN LANGUAGES, Tamil is the first language of the Indian state of Tamilnadu and is spoken by a minority of over 2,000,000 speakers in northeastern Sri Lanka.

Tamiḻ or Tamiẓ is a Tamil form of the old Sanskrit name for the southern Indian kingdom, Drāviḍa, and is thus the term that foreigners have applied to the region and the language for nearly two thousand years.

For all this time, and even for longer, Tamil has been spoken in the area of modern Tamilnadu. Cave inscriptions, in a mixture of early Tamil and Prakrit, date back as far as the 3rd century BC. The earliest Tamil literature goes back perhaps to the 1st century ad: partly Buddhist—inspired, it consists of lyric poems, epics – and a grammar, Tolkappiyam.

Medieval Tamil is dated from AD 700 to 1500: Hindu religious influence now supplanted Buddhism, but Tamil, unlike its twin language MALAYALAM, remained not especially receptive to Sanskrit loanwords. It is from this period that the written and spoken forms of the language have grown apart, for literary Tamil remains close to the prescriptions of the grammarian PavaNantimunivar's Nannul, compiled in the 13th century and itself drawing on the more ancient texts.

The 19th century saw attempts to bring modern spoken Tamil into written form, partly in the context of Christian missionary activity. The style of, for instance, school readers and of the dialogue passages in fiction still differs very strongly from that of formal prose.

Tamil has a much smaller range of consonant phonemes than other Indian languages (see box). Verb forms include suffixes for person, number, and in the case of the third person also for one of three genders (male, female, non—human). Verbs also have a negative conjugation. There are many differences in noun and verb forms between literary and spoken Tamil.

Beyond India

Tamil speakers have been among the readiest of the inhabitants of India to migrate for work and to settle abroad. The first records of Tamil trading colonies overseas are in Tamil inscriptions from southern Thailand, in the 9th century, and from northern Sumatra, dating from 1088 onwards. Tamil is now spoken in Malaysia, in Vietnam, in Singapore (where it is one of the four national languages), on the island of Zanzibar, and in many other countries.

In nearby Sri Lanka there are two layers of Tamil speech. The ‘indigenous’ dialects, long established in the country, have over 2,000,000 speakers in the north of the island. The 900,000 speakers of ‘Indian Tamil’ are the descendants of tea plantation workers brought to the central hills in the mid 19th century. The dialects may begin to converge as speakers of indigenous Tamil become familiar with Indian Tamil through imported films, radio and television.

Sri Lanka has suffered serious linguistic unrest. The Sinhala-Only Bill of 1956, requiring the use of Sinhala in official contexts, eroded the position not only of English (its stated intention) but also of Tamil. Rebellion flared. Over 200,000 Tamil speakers fled abroad in the course of the 1980s. In 1987 Tamil and English nominally regained their old position as official languages, but the dispute, once aroused, has not been easy to calm.

Tamil and Malayalam

Tamil is spoken in the Indian state of Tamilnadu, in Sri Lanka (3,100,000), and by large communities in Malaysia (1,750,000), Vietnam (perhaps 1,000,000), Singapore (200,000) and other countries across the world.

Malayalam, historically an offshoot of Tamil, is the language of the Indian state of Kerala. Malayalam communities abroad tend to be counted with Tamil communities and to assimilate to Tamil as their home language.

The Tamil script

As with other scripts descended from Brahmi, consonants are combined with following vowels to make a single character group. Unlike others, Tamil has no compound consonant symbols.

The Tamil script, admirably efficient in plan, is strictly limited to what is necessary to write Tamil phonemically. It works well in writing the literary language and for traditional vocabulary. Speakers from written texts, actors for example, learn to make a fairly complex set of conversions, subconsciously, as they speak.

However, Tamil script does not go well with the way that Tamil speakers now use language. Sanskrit words can be inserted in Tamil texts with the help of extra ‘grantha’ characters; but English and other loanwords have no such traditional help and are difficult to write. So the modern spoken language, now with many international loanwords and an extended range of sounds to accommodate them, cannot be fully written in Tamil script.

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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