"Evolution of Tamil Language"


The Tamil language has one of the oldest written traditions in all of Asia and boasts a rich body of literary work dating back 5,000 years.The term Tamil may be used to refer to either the Tamil people, found primarily in southern India and northern Sri Lanka, or the Tamil language, the Dravidian language of the Tamil people.


It appears that proto-Dravidians (the first or primitive Dravidians) occupied even the region stretching from Baluchistan to the Bengal, in the north. The Brahui language spoken even today in Baluchistan ( a province of Pakistan) is said to have a fantastic resemblance to Tamil!

It is conjectured that the Turanians came to India through the Khyber Pass and the Aryans through the Bolan Pass.The Turanians were one of the oldest races in the world. They lived east of Lake Ural. They were kind of Persian-Turkestanians.They spoke Ural-Altaic languages.

The intermingling of the proto-Dravidians of the North with the incoming Turanians and Aryans apparently resulted in the evolution of Prakrit and Pali. Prakrit was a derivation from pristine Sanskrit, and was impure. It was fit only for colloquial use by the common man. Pali was also derived from Sanskrit but was considered refined, and was extensively used by the Buddhists in their writings. Most of Asokan inscriptions are in Pali.Although Pali vanished from India, it is extant in other Buddhist cultures as in Sri Lanka and Myanmar where it is known as Magadhi.

It is said that even today some Dravidian languages are prevalent in North India, such as Kolami, Gondi, Oraon and Brahui.

The proto-Dravidian language continued its existence in South India in the form of Tamil. Other southern languages like Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam developed much later as new languages. In fact the word Dravida is derived from Tamil only.The sequence is Tamila, Tramila, Travida, Dravida.

Telugu and Kannada effected largescale borrowing from Sanskrit, some 1500 years ago. Malayalam did it about 800 years ago. In present Kerala, Tamil was the prevalent language till 500 AD or so. Many Tamilians who were Sangam poets ( in Tamil) lived in Kerala region.A saivite (Nayanar) saint-poet called Cheraman Perumal Nayanar and an Alwar (vaishnavite) saint-poet called Kulachekara Alwar were Kerala based. It may be recalled that the Chera Kingdom which covered the present Kerala was a Tamil-speaking area. Prince Ilango who was a Chera prince wrote the lovely Tamil epic "Silappadhikaram'. 

The ancient Tamil people carried sea-borne trade and were good businessmen, doing imports and exports.It is said that in the 10th century before Christ, King Solomon was sent articles from the Tamil country, such as peacock feathers, elephant tusks and spices. Later, the Tamils traded with the Roman Empire. Coins of Emperor Augustus have been discovered in Tamil Nadu. The Tamils brought silk and sugar from China. Hence the word 'Chini' for sugar.


The earliest inscription in Tamil is said to be nearly in 500 BC. The oldest Tamil text called Tolkappiyam is dated 200 BC. The Tamil script was derived initially from Brahmi, the mother of Indic scripts. Some scholars even say that the Indus Valley script, not yet fully deciphered, which was 1000 years older than Asokan Brahmi, was the mother of Tamil script. There is vast scholarship in this area.

The internet itself has material on Tamil that is mind-boggling, of the highest level of scholarship.Scholars sometimes differ terribly. One example is the word 'vettezhuthu' (வெட்டெழுத்து, rock-cut writing) and the word 'vattazhethu' (வட்டெழுத்து, rounded writing).Some scholars say that the oldest Tamil script is called 'vettezhuthu' and some others 'vattezhuthu'! Rounded writing was on palm leaves.The "letters" in Tamil ja, sha, sa, ha, ksha, that came in later to write Sanskrit based words, were known as "grantha letters". But "grantha script" as such is different.

Grantha script is ancient, and was used for writing Tamil. Grantha means manuscripts or compilation. It was rounded script derived from Brahmi. Brahmi script gave birth to nearly 40 Indian (Indic) scripts. Sanskrit, transmitted orally, had no script in the old times. It was written in the local Indic script.Devanagiri came into existence only in the 11 th century AD. From then, Sanskrit began to be written in Devanagiri script.

Tolkappiyam written in the Third Century BC, by Tolkappiyar, is regarded as the first grammatical compendium in Tamil.It refers to nearly 250 earlier Tamil texts! Tolkappiyam classified Tamil into two: (1) Senthamil, meaning literary Tamil (2)Kodunthamil, meaning spoken Tamil. No wonder, the spoken Tamil even today is nightmarishly so different from written Tamil! 

The Sanskrit scholars of South India tried to sanskritise Tamil to enhance its 'beauty'! The hybrid Tamil was called 'manipravaalam'  (மணிப்ரவாளம்), meaning a mixture of Mani (pearl) and corals. I could not find out if Tamil was considered Mani or coral, the inferior stuff! The Manipravalam Tamil was written in the Grantha script.Only in recent times, anti-North, anti-Sanskrit and anti-Brahmin attitudes emerged in the Tamil Nadu region. Scholars like V.K.Suryanarayana Sastriar and Maraimalai Adigal started total 're-Tamilisation' of the language.Their movement is called 'Thani Tamizh Iyakkam' ( தனித் தமிழ் இயக்கம் ). It is also a fact that a few Tamilians wrote great treatises in Sanskrit, but centuries ago. Examples are Dandin (from Kanchi), Sankara (from Kaladi) and Ramanujar (from Tanjore).

The earliest golden period of Tamil was the Sangam Literature period (BC 500 - 200 AD). Madurai was the seat of Sangam literature, promoted by Pandyan kings. The Chera and Chola kings also patronised Tamil poets. It is not proposed to go into further details of the Sangam literature here. In all, there were 2381 known poems in the Sangam classics. (Many have vanished, due to non-preservation).There were 31 royal persons amongst the Sangam poets.

In the Sangam period, Tamil is said to have had only about 1 percent of Sanskrit admixture. During the time of Nayanmars and Alwars (7th and 8th century AD), who composed devotional songs, the sanskrit admixture was estimated to have gone up to 3 to 5 percent. When 'manipravalam' evolved, in the 13th century, more of Sanskrit came into Tamil. It must be remembered that Jains and Buddhist scholars in the South were well versed in Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit.

While the Tamil Sangam period started from BC 500, literary works in Telugu and Kannada came into being only after the 8th century AD.

It is said that from one side of Shiva's 'damaru' came Sanskrit and from the other side Tamil. It is also said that Shiva taught Sanskrit to Panini and Tamil to Agastya.

Tamil is one of the world's six ancient and classic languages, namely Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Sanskrit and Tamil. If you are a Tamilian, you can be proud of yourself even though you may not read and write Tamil and you speak only in English ninety percent of the time!

Classification and Origins of the Tamil Language

Tamil is classified as a member of the Dravidian family of languages and is one of the most important members of this language family. Other Dravidian languages include Teluga, Kannada and Malayalam. Today, most of the major and minor Dravidian languages are spoken in the far north of India; however, many linguists believe that the Dravidian languages once covered a much greater expanse of land.

It is believed that the Dravidian languages all evolved from a single Proto-Dravidian language, gradually developing into the distinct languages we know today. Most scholars think that this process began as early as 4000 BCE, making Tamil one of the oldest living languages in the world.

Development of the Tamil Language

The history of the Tamil language can be divided into three primary periods of development: Old, Middle and Modern. Old Tamil dates from circa 450 BC to 700 CE, Middle Tamil dates from circa 700 to 1600 CE and modern Tamil from 1600 onwards. These periods are separated by distinct grammatical and lexical differences.

Spoken Tamil has evolved significantly over time. Consequently, the modern language is characterized as diglossic, meaning that it exhibits a division between the colloquial spoken form of the language and the written language used for formal purposes.

Evolution of the Written Tamil Language

The earliest known examples of the written Tamil language are found in inscriptions dating from the 5th century BCE. The written Tamil language is believed to have developed from the Brahmi script. Tamil script evolved in shape and style over the years, finally gaining stabilization with the introduction of printing in the 16th century.

The Tamil language boasts one of the most ancient literary traditions in all of Asia. A 19th century revival of Tamil literature resulted in the production of a great variety of works, from religious to philosophical in nature. These newer works were written in a language closer to the spoken colloquial Tamil than before. Today Tamil literature boasts a wide array of poetry, prose and plays.

Tamil Language and Dialects Today

The modern Tamil language is spoken by approximately 66 million people throughout the world, most of them located in southern India and northern Sri Lanka. Other areas where significant numbers of Tamil speakers can be found include Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, and South Africa.

A great variety of dialects are found in the various areas where Tamil is spoken. For example, the dialects spoken in India differ substantially from the dialect spoken in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Within the Indian province of Tamil Nadu alone, there are regional differences between northern, western and southern speakers, as well as differences in dialect based on social class.


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