Tamil is a classical language and one of the major languages belonging to the Dravidian language family. Spoken
predominantly by Tamilians in South India and Sri Lanka, it has smaller communities of speakers in many other countries. As of 1996, it was the 18th most spoken language in the world with over 74 million speakers worldwide.
As one of the few living classical languages, Tamil has an unbroken literary tradition of over two millennia. The written language has changed little during this period, with the result that classical literature is as much a part of everyday Tamil as modern literature. Tamil schoolchildren, for example, are still taught the alphabet using the átticúdi, an alphabet rhyme written around the first century CE.
The name 'Tamil' is an anglicised form of the native name
¾Á¢ú . The final letter of the name, usually transcribed as the lowercase l or zh, is a retroflex r. In phonetic transcriptions, it is usually represented by the retroflex approximant.
Like the other Dravidian languages, but unlike most of the other established literary languages of India, the origins of Tamil are independent of Sanskrit. Tamil has the longest unbroken literary tradition amongst the Dravidian languages. Tamil tradition dates the oldest works to several millennia ago, but the earliest examples of Tamil writing we have today are in inscriptions from the 3rd century BCE, which are written in an adapted form of the Brahmi script (Mahadevan, 2003). Dating the earliest literary works themselves is difficult, in large part because they were preserved either in palm leaf manuscripts (implying repeated copying and recopying) or through oral transmission. Internal linguistic evidence, however, indicates that the oldest extant works were probably composed sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 3rd century CE. The earliest available text is the Tolkāppiyam, a work on poetics and grammar which describes the language of the classical period, portions of which date back to around 200 BCE.
Archaeological evidence obtained from inscriptions excavated in 2005 dates the language to around 1000 BCE. The most significant epic written in the ancient Tamil language is the Silappadikaram, composed around 200-300 CE.Linguists categorise Tamil literature and language into three periods: ancient (200 BCE to 700 CE), medieval (700 CE to 1500 CE) and modern (1500 CE to the present). During the medieval period, a number of Sanskrit loan words were absorbed by Tamil, which many 20th century purists, notably Parithimaar Kalaignar and Maraimalai Adigal, later sought to remove. This movement was called thanith thamizh iyakkam (meaning pure Tamil movement). As a result of this, Tamil in formal documents, public speeches and scientific discourses is largely free of Sanskrit loan words. Between 800 and 1000 CE, Malayalam is believed to have evolved into a distinct language.
Tamil dialects are mainly differentiated from each other by the fact that they have undergone different phonological changes and sound shifts in evolving from Old Tamil. Thus the word for "here" - inge in chentamil (the classic variety) - has evolved into inga in the dialect of Thanjavur, ingane in the dialect of Tirunelveli, inguttu in the dialect of Ramanathapuram, ingale and ingade in various northern dialects and ingai in some dialects of
Although most Tamil dialects do not differ very significantly in their vocabulary, there are a few exceptions. The dialects spoken in Sri Lanka retain many words that are not in everyday use in India, and use many other words slightly differently. The dialect of the Iyers of Palakkad has a large number of Malayalam loanwords, and has also been influenced by Malayalam syntax. Finally, the Hebbar and Mandyam dialects, spoken by groups of Tamil Vaishnavites who migrated to Karnataka in the 11th century, retains many features of the Vainava paribasai, a special form of Tamil designed in the 9th and 10th centuries to reflect Vaishnavite religious and spiritual values.
Tamil dialects vary according to both region and community. Several castes have their own dialects which most members of that caste traditionally used regardless of where they come from. Some of these differences have begun to fade away in recent years as a result of the anti-casteist movement, but many traces remain and it is often possible to identify a person's caste by their speech.
The Ethnologue lists twenty-two current dialects of Tamil, including Adi Dravida, Aiyar, Aiyangar, Arava, Burgandi, Kasuva, Kongar, Korava, Korchi, Madrasi, Parikala, Pattapu Bhasha, Sri Lanka Tamil, Malaya Tamil, Burma Tamil, South Africa Tamil, Tigalu, Harijan, Sankethi, Hebbar, Tirunelveli and Madurai. Other known dialects are Kongu and Kumari.
Although not a dialect, the Tamil spoken in Chennai (Capital of Tamil Nadu) infuses English words and is called Madras Bashai.