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  • Vale Saavedra

Tamil: A Language of the World

Currently, there are more than 66 million Tamil speakers in the world (Tamil Language). The Tamil language is primarily spoken in India, being the official language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the union territory of Puducherry (Tamil Language). Tamil was declared a classical language of India in 2004, which means that it met three conditions: the language origins are ancient, the language has an independent tradition, and the language possess a substantial body of ancient literature (Tamil Language). Tamil is also an official language outside of India, in both Sri Lanka and Singapore, and there are sizable numbers of Tamil speakers in South Africa, Fiji, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Mauritius (Tamil Language).

Tamil is a member of the Dravidian language family (Tamil Language). The Dravidian language family, consisting of 80 varieties, originated about 4,500 years ago and the language family’s four largest languages, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu, have literary traditions spanning centuries, of which Tamil reaches the furthest back (Pti). It is one of the largest language families in the world, with a vast majority of linguists believing that it is unrelated to any other language family (Pti). Dravidian languages are mostly spoken in the south of the Indian subcontinent, while Indo-Aryan languages are concentrated in the north (Pti). It is thought that Dravidian languages were native to the Indian subcontinent and were originally spread across all of India and the Indo-Aryan languages were introduced by Aryan invaders from the north which pushed speakers of the original Dravidian languages out of the northern portion into the southern part of India (Dravidian Language Family - Structure & Dialects).

All Dravidian languages, including Tamil, are agglutinative, meaning grammatical relations are indicated by the addition of suffixes to stems, resulting in long words (Dravidian Language Family - Structure & Dialects). The standard word order in Dravidian languages is Subject-Object-Verb (Dravidian Language Family - Structure & Dialects). However, other orders are possible because inflectional endings take care of keeping clear grammatical relations and roles in the sentence (Dravidian Language Family - Structure & Dialects). Structurally, Tamil is a verb-final language that allows flexibility regarding the order of the subject and the object in a sentence (Tamil Language).

The Tamil language has five short and five long native vowels, with vowel length making a difference in word meaning (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet). The Tamil consonant system consists of sixteen consonants characterized by a contrast between apical and retroflex consonants, apical consonants being produced with the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth and retroflex consonants being produced with the curled tongue touching the roof of the mouth, a variety of nasal sounds, and a limited occurrence of consonant clusters (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet). In addition, stress in modern Tamil is fixed on the first syllable of the word (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet).

Nominals in Tamil include common nouns, proper names, numerals, and some adjectives, sorted into eight cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative, instrumental, ablative, and vocative (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet). Nominals can only be in the singular or the plural and have two genders, rational and irrational (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet). Rational nouns include human and deities while irrational nouns include animals, objects, and everything else, in addition to sometimes including women (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet). There are no articles in Tamil and personal pronouns are only marked for first and second person (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet).

Verbs in Tamil typically consist of a verb base and two suffixes, with one for voice and one to express causality (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet). There are two voices in Tamil: the affective voice, which indicates that the subject of the sentence undergoes or is the object of the action named by the verb stem, and the effective voice, which indicates that the subject of the sentence directs the action referred to by the verb stem (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet). Tamil also has three simple verb tenses (past, present, and future) marked by simple suffixes. However, Tamil has a negative tense which is suffixed to the verb stem forming a negative tense expressed by negative particles “alla” and “illa” in the final position of the verb (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet).

When it comes to writing, Dravidian languages are written with syllabic alphabets where all consonants have an inherent vowel (Dravidian Language Family - Structure & Dialects). Diacritics, above, below, before or after consonants indicate change to a different vowel or suppression of the vowel. However, when vowels appear the beginning of a syllable, they are written as independent letters (Dravidian Language Family - Structure & Dialects).

The first known work in the Tamil language, Tolkappiyam, is a book on grammar and poetics written between 1stcentury BCE and 4thcentury BCE (Dravidian Languages). Although the influence of early Sanskritgrammars, dating from the 5thcentury BCE, is obvious in certain grammatical concepts like Tamil kalam ‘tense, time’ (Sanskrit kāla ‘time, tense’), Tamil peyar ‘name’ for ‘noun’ (Sanskrit nāman ‘name, noun’), and Tamil wēṟṟumai ‘separation, division’ for ‘case’ (Sanskrit vibhakti- ‘case marker,’ literally ‘division’), a lot is original to Tamil and Tolkappiyam(Dravidian Languages).

A distinctive feature of Tamil is the diglosia present between the two varieties of the language, the “high variety” and the “low variety”. Diglosia is a system in which there are distinct differences between colloquial forms of a language and those that are used in formal and written contexts. The standard written and spoken variety of Tamil, called centamiẓ which translates to ‘beautiful Tamil,’ is based on the classical language of an earlier era and not on any of the contemporary regional dialects (Dravidian Languages). The many spoken varieties of Tamil are called koṭuntamiẓ, which translates to ‘crooked Tamil’ or ‘vulgar Tamil’, and are not used in formal speech and writing (Dravidian Languages). The newspaper language and the language of political speeches is centamiz even though it is not spoken widely amongst the people (Dravidian Languages).

There is also variation within spoken Tamil, with phonological differences present between northern, southern, and western speech. In addition, these regional varieties intersect with varieties based on social status, social class, and caste (Tamil Language). The caste dialects, which reflect the social distinctions between various castes are categorized as Brahmin and non-Brahmin (Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet).

When interviewing a speaker of Tamil, I wanted to focus on the diglosia present in the language. While preparing for the interview, there were certain questions I developed in order to explore this topic. I first wanted to make sure that the speaker, named Swathi, was familiar with both the spoken and written varieties of Tamil, as well as familiar with both formal and informal cultural products created in Tamil such as news, television, and music.

Swathi was able to provide me with her background in Tamil, stating that she had grown up with the language spoken at home and traveled frequently to India to visit her family where she also spoke and encountered Tamil. She also mentions that one of her mother’s priorities was making sure she could also read Tamil, so she is able to read books at an elementary level. Because of this familiarity, I was able to explore the distinctions between the varieties in Tamil that are considered higher and lower based on the diglosia present in the language.

Per her experience, Swathi states she is much more comfortable with the spoken variety. However, she mentions, “It is sometimes really interesting because when you turn on the news, the news anchors speak in the more, I’m not sure how to explain, but a more ‘Old English’ type of speech where it is more formal manner of speaking. Sometimes, I do not even understand what they are saying properly because they use words that just aren’t used colloquially. In literature, poetry, song lyrics, and the news, people use a more ‘high-brow’ way of speaking.”

Something that I had not considered when researching the diglosia would be the presence of the high variety in music and song lyrics. I had made the assumption that the language in songs, because it is popular culture, would be in the more spoken variety of Tamil. However, Swathi explained that most songs are incredibly poetic in nature when sung in Tamil. Because of this, they use the same language that the news anchors use in order for the song to be more “flowery and poetic” and written in “more poetic forms”.

Swathi draws parallels to Hindi when she explained the diglosia present in Tamil, saying “We call it ‘Shudh Hindi’ which means ‘pure Hindi’ and it is very similar to Tamil’s high variety because they also use this Hindi in song lyrics, poetry, and the news, while colloquially they speak very differently. I think that may be one parallel. In movies it can be really funny because the main characters are speaking in the colloquial version of Hindi and it will be immediately interrupted by the Shudh Hindithat is sung in the background or sung by the characters themselves. Narrators also speak in the colloquial version of the language.”

When looking at the diglosia in Tamil, I came across other ways that varieties of Tamil exist, such as through regional or caste differences, and wanted to ask Swathi how this worked as well. Swathi gave me so much insight on what these dialects can actually look like, saying, “My parents are from Chene, which used to be called Midras, and they have a very particular way of speaking in that region, but even within that, there are a lot off differences in accents between castes. There are accents associated with each caste level, which the caste system is very problematic if you think about it, but my family uses a very particular Tamil dialect and we use words and even conjugations that people even in our region don’t use because that is how people from our caste speak to each other. There is an inter-caste difference in word choice, conjugations, and dialect as well. There are also slang words that originate just in Cheneand if you go to different regions in Tamil, they don’t use those words. So, there are obviously regional differences like how Southern people in the United States use certain phrases, but there are also caste dialects as well.”

What I found extremely interesting about this was that a person could be in the same caste but from different places and speak differently and a person could also be from the same place but in a different caste and still speak differently. Because of all of these different dialects, I wanted to ask about the difficulty of mimicking another dialect of another caste and the possible negative or positive associations between dialects from certain castes. Specifically, I had prepared questions such as “What do you think about the dialects/ the different ways people speak based on the geographical region? Are there stereotypes based on the way people speak/ the place that they come from? Can you mimic what a dialect might sound like/ how it is different?”

Swathi says it is relatively easy for people to code-switch, but it is very difficult for her because she only grew up hearing and learning the varieties spoken by her family, her caste, and her region.

However, she mentions, “When I was growing up and my family would go to India, my parents when speaking to store vendors or taxi drivers they would switch into speaking the non-caste way of speaking. There is a general version of the language that is open to everyone and then there are off-shoots of the language based on caste. People will abandon their personal caste speech to speak the more general version of the language that is accessible no matter the caste. It is really interesting because people actually really don’t like speaking in higher caste language because it is extremely rejected. People are very angry at higher caste people so the general public doesn’t want to speak, mimic, or be associated with higher caste people because of the rejection of it culturally.”

Swathi also explains that because the higher caste speech is linked with systems of oppression, these speakers will try to mask their higher caste language or mimic other castes’ speech. “Currently, the caste system is similar to affirmative action in the United States. Certain jobs and political positions have certain quotas for how many people from each caste need to be included because they are trying really hard to reverse the caste system. That is why there is a lot of caste in-fighting because people from higher castes believe job opportunities are taken away from them because of these quotas. It is really similar to affirmative action debates where white and Asian people are saying that they aren’t getting into college because of their race. It is a very similar argument in that sense.”

I did not know much information about the caste system and how it operated before and how it operates now before this interview. Because of this, I was also unaware as to how connected the caste system could be with the speech within a region and how much it could affect not only the amount of varieties in a certain space but also the development of a variety that has no connections to caste speech and is instead a “general speech” excluded from castes.

Preparing for this interview and having an established relationship with the speaker made the interview go very smoothly with relatively no problems. We were even able to speak about sentence structure and conjugation in Tamil, but I felt it more productive to deep dive into one aspect of Tamil for the sake of the paper. The only obstacle I encountered was on my part, where I got confused about the complexity of the caste system’s influence on Tamil speech and had to ask Swathi to explain it again. However, over all this experience was very enlightening and the interview was invaluable in my understanding of the Tamil language.














Works Cited

A, Pti. (2018). “Dravidian Language Family Is 4,500 Years Old: Study”. The Hindu, The Hindu. www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/dravidian-language-family-is-4500-years-old-study/article23314180.ece.

“Dravidian Languages”. Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. www.britannica.com/topic/Dravidian-languages.

“Dravidian Language Family - Structure & Dialects”. (2016). MustGo.www.mustgo.com/worldlanguages/dravidian-language-family/.

“Tamil Language”. Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. www.britannica.com/topic/Tamil-language.

“Tamil Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet”. (2016). MustGo.www.mustgo.com/worldlanguages/tamil/.

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