Profile of the Thamil Language
[see also Tamil
Language & Literature]
28 June 2006
Thamil is one of the oldest living classical languages along with Greek,
Chinese, Hebrew and Arabic. Thamil encompasses antiquity, individuality, poetic
theory, grammatical tradition, large body of literature and a rich intellectual
tradition. These attributes differentiates Thamil from all other languages of
the world. Apart from these factors, Thamil is the only living classical
language in India.
Classical languages of the world such as Latin, Hebrew, Greek and Sanskrit
contain Thamil words, proving the antiquity of the Thamil language. Even,
English, the lingua franca of today, includes many Thamil words. Mango, rice,
cash, curry, coir, coolie, and sandal all originated from Thamil.
Thamil language has a distinctive structure that can only be compared to itself.
The phonological structure consists of 12 vowels and 18 consonants and an
additional 216 combinant letters (uyirmeyyeḻuttu) representing every possible
combination of a vowel and a consonant. These combinant letters are formed by
adding a vowel marker to the consonant. Thamil is also unique in the sense that
it consists of various endings pertaining to the particular nouns, gender,
person, number, and verbal inflexions for tense.
Thamil is rich in vocabulary showing subtle and minute differences in meaning.
For example, the word vaaymai denotes truth by words; the word unmai denotes
truth by mind (thought), while the word meymai stands for truth by body
(action). There are seven words in Thamil to denote the various stages of a
flower from bud to dry flower viz, arumpu, mottu, mukai, malar, alar, vii and
cemmal. An English scholar Rev. Peter Percival said, “No language combines
greater force with equal brevity than Thamil and it may be asserted that no
human speech is more close and philosophic in its expression as an exponent of
the mind than Thamil.”
There are around 70 million Thamils in the world today. Thamil ranks 17th
amongst the top twenty of the world’s most spoken languages. Perhaps it is safe
to assume that the Thamil alphabet was used for literary purposes about a
thousand years before the birth of Christ. There are 23 languages, including
Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Thulu, and Kudaku which originated from
proto-Thamil. Thamil is the official language and medium of instruction in
Thamil Nadu (India), Sri Lanka, Singapore and Mauritius.
According to archeological evidence Thamil civilization is over 5000 years old.
Thamils are the architects of the Indus Valley civilization that existed around
2500 BC. The planned cities seen in Mohanjadaro and Harappa and the literary
achievements during the Sangam era from 300 BC to 300 AD provide empirical
evidence of an outstanding Thamil civilization.
Thamil civilization is of great antiquity and they had three ruling dynasties
for almost two millenniums. Thamil Nadu and Kerala (states in India) and Eelam
(Northeast province in Sri Lanka) were the ancient abodes of the Thamil people.
During the 19th century Thamils settled in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius,
Myanmar, Fiji, West Indies and South Africa in large numbers. Similar migration
took place towards the end of the 20th century to North America, Europe and
Approximately 70 million Thamils live around the world - India (60 million) Sri
Lanka (4 million) and Malaysia (2 million). More than 2 million Thamils live in
Singapore, Myanmar, South Africa, Europe and North America. In addition there
are over 100, 000 Thamils in Australia and another 150,000 Thamils in
Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
Thamils are the inheritors of a rich culture and a pristine past. The book
Thirukkural written by Thiruvalluvar in the 1st century BC is a masterpiece on
ethics, morals, statecraft, love and a host of other topics. Thamil culture
gives priority to the strict observance of love, compassion, hospitality,
gratitude, forgiveness, fear of sin, charity, wisdom, manliness and respect for
elders and teachers. Thamils believed in universal brotherhood. Sangam poet
Kaniyan Puungkunranar declared “Every country is my country. Everyone is my
Thamil language is rich in fine arts like Music, Dance, Sculpture, Paintings and
Architecture. They have been preserved intact for the last 2500 years. The
Thamil epic Chilapathikaram is a masterly treatise on music and dance. Thamil
classical music described in Cilappathikaram was based on logical, systematic
and scientific calculations and was incorporated into the literary epic using
the arrangements of the dancers on the stage to represent the notes and paNs.
The words, azhaku and mAtthirai refer to musical pitch or the smallest
fraction of an audible sound distinguishable by the human ear. There are 108
melodies in music and 60 dialects in Thamil Dance. The most popular form is
Bharatham. Temples and temple towers depict the glory of Thamil sculpture and
architecture. Beautiful Thamil temples built in stone thousands of years ago
reflect Thamil’s architectural excellence. Many temples have been specially
mentioned as cultural heritage by UNESCO.
Thamil language possesses an unbroken literary history for the past twenty-five
centuries. In ancient times, all Thamil literary works have been composed in
poetic form and all books were written in verses. Manuals of grammar, lexicons,
medical books, astrological manuals, mathematical and architectural treatises
were all written in poetic format. Tholkaappiyam, a treatise on grammar written
about 300 BC, is the oldest book extant today. In more than 256 places the
author says “So they say” and “So say the poets” indicating that grammatical
treatises existed even before his days. Tholkaappiyam deals with letter, word
and theme or subject matter. The last topic which is unique to Thamil grammar
helps us a great deal to know the social life of ancient Thamils. As Max Muller
(German Scholar) observed “Thamil is the most highly cultivated language and
possesses the riches stores of indigenous literature.”
As a result of political and cultural invasion by foreigners coupled with
ignorance and lack of vision on the part of Thamils many works of Thamil
literature were lost to elements. However, collection of poems called
Pattuppaaddu (Ten Idylls) and the Ettuttokai (Eight Anthologies) composed by 473
poets during the last Sankam have survived. They are popularly called Sangam
literature or Thamil classical literature.
Sangam literature consisting of 2,426 verses (Ten Idylls) and 8,552 lines (Eight
Anthologies) dwells on love, valor, philanthropy etc. They describe the life
style of people based on the fauna and flora of geographic regions, their
vocations, beliefs and social values.
Works produced between AD 200 and AD 600 is mostly on ethics and morals. These
works explain what is morally right for individuals and the necessity to uphold
ethical values at all times. Thirukkural authored by Thiruvalluvar is acclaimed
to be the master-piece of Thamil literature. It expresses the highest and purest
expressions of human thought. The book is divided into 133 chapters each
containing 10 verses. The chapters are arranged in three books dealing with
virtue, wealth and pleasure. This book has been translated into eighty
languages. Dr. Albert Schweitzer (German Scholar) said “There hardly exists in
the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find such lofty
wisdom as in Thirukkural.” Rev. G.U. Pope (English Scholar) says “The weaver of
Mylapore was undoubtedly one of the greatest geniuses of the world.”
Hymns composed by Saivaite and Vaishnavaite Saints are termed devotional
literature. Thamil devotional literature is broken down into two main groups -
Thirumurai and Thivyaprapantham. Thirumurai hymns are sung by the Nayanmars
(Saivaite Saints) and Thivyaprapantham by the Alwars (Vaishnavaite Saints).
These were mostly written between AD 600 and AD 1000 in 108 melodies. Today we
have 18,346 Thirumurai hymns and 4 000 Thivyaprapantham hymns.
This category of literature that dwells on Virtue, Wealth, Love, and Salvation
are called epic literature or Perumkathai. Epic literature were composed during
varied times throughout Thamil History. We can name five important epics in
Thamil. They are Chilapathikaram, Manimekalai, Seevaga Sinthamany, Kundalakesi
and Valayapathy. These epics are considered the cultural treasures of Thamils,
especially Chilapathikaram. composed in AD 200.
There are 96 different types of minor works called Sitru Elakiyam in Thamil
language. Most of the minor works were composed between AD 1200 - AD 1600.
Large volumes of religious works written on Saivaism, Vaishnavaism, Jainism,
Buddhism, Islam and Christianity in Thamil language. These works describe
various religious philosophies.
People in rural areas use folk literature during activities such as ploughing,
planting, harvesting and thrashing to evade fatigue and exhaustion. They also
use this literature to show their inner feelings. These literatures passed down
from generation to generation orally are now available in print.
Works produced during the period from 20th – 21st century is termed modern
Thamil literature. As a result of English education, scientific and
technological advancement the core of Thamil literature under went change. This
helped to grow new literary forms and diverse styles like journalism, novel,
short story, drama and cinema. The topics covered Thamil patriotism, social
empowerment, political freedom, scientific knowledge and entertainment.
Thamil Diasporic Literature:
Significant movement of Thamil population took place as a result of economic
deprivations and political upheavals in their land of birth. Those who migrated
from their homeland and settled down in foreign climes wrote songs, short
stories, novels and drama in praise of their motherland. Such works are called
Thamil Diasporic Literature. The main theme of such works is the struggles for
survival in the new country and nostalgia of their Homeland.
Thamils are predominantly Hindus and belong to the Saivaite sect. About 75% of
the Thamils are Saivaites, 13% Muslims and 12% Christians.
They will if need be lay down their life to get fame
But will not accept even the whole world if it is associated with dishonour.
(Purananuuru 182 – Ilamperuvazuti)