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Tamil Citations Tamil Links Select a New Language
Number of Speakers: 66 million
Key Dialects: Sri Lanka; Northern, Western, Central, Eastern, Southern
Geographical Center: India, Sri Lanka
Tamil, a language with a long and ancient literary tradition, has been spoken in southern India for several millennia. Ninety-two percent of its speakers live in India's southern Tamil Nadu State, where it is spoken by 48 million first language speakers. By some accounts, second-language speakers also number in the millions in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent.
In northern Sri Lanka between three and four million people, about 20 percent of the population of that island state, speak Tamil. Elsewhere there are several hundreds of thousands of speakers in each of South Africa, Malaysia, and Singapore; some 6,000 live in Fiji. There are significant minorities in Mauritius, Great Britain, the US, and Canada. Total speakers, including second-language speakers, number about 66 million (Grimes 1992).
Tamil is a member of the Dravidian family, whose members are nearly all spoken in southern India. Other relatives are Telugu (spoken in south central India to the east coast), Malayalam (in Kerala State on the Malabar Coast of southwest India), Kannada (in Mysore, a region of southern India), Brahui (in southern Pakistan), and several other less well-known languages.
Tamil linguistic variation cross classifies through three dimensions: geography, caste, and diglossia. Six regional dialects can be classified as: East, West, North, South, Central, and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanken Tamil is relatively conservative, having retained older features while continental dialects have lost them or changed in different directions. Caste dialects mostly distinguish between Brahmin and non-Brahmin varieties. Overlaying all of this are diglossic variants (see below, Role in Society).
The high status non-Brahmin dialect--which is spoken in the Central dialect area, including the cities of Tanjore, Tirichirapalli and Madurai--is apparently gaining ground as a standard language.
Tamil is written in an alpha-syllabic system like that of other South Asian languages. It derives from the Ashokan Brahmi script. Vowels have two forms, once used at the beginning of a word, another used following consonant symbols. Each consonant graph symbolizes the consonant plus following vowel "a". When another vowel symbol is used the "a" vowel is suppressed. Consonant symbols with a diacritic are used to represent just the consonant itself. (See Steever 1987:734.)
Tamil, like other Dravidian languages, is an agglutinating language in which morphemes are transparently separable and analyzable affixes which are attached to roots or stems; such affixes in Tamil are nearly always suffixal. Words are made up of lexical roots, or stems (roots that have been expanded by a derivational suffix), followed by inflectional suffix(es) which mark such categories as, for example, person, number, mood, tense, etc.
Nouns, a broad classification in Tamil grammatical terminology, include common and proper nouns, numerals, pronouns and some so-called adjectives; they inflect for case, person, number (singular and plural), and gender. There are two genders which are based on the referent's natural gender and correspond roughly to the distinction human/nonhuman; they are called "rational" (e.g., nouns referring to men, deities, women in some dialects) and "irrational" (e.g., women in some dialects, children, animals) respectively. There are 8 cases (nominative, accusative, dative, sociative, genitive, instrumental, locative, and ablative).
Modern Tamil has no articles; definiteness and indefiniteness are signaled by other grammatical devices, such as the number "one," used as an indefinite article. Compound nouns are used as deictic pronouns (demonstratives), which are used to indicate objects close by, at a distance, and a kind of neutral; Sri Lankan Tamil has a fourth indicating medial distance.
Verbs are formally inflected principally for mood and tense by a grammatical particle suffixed to the stem. Most verbs also mark affective and effective "voice" (not equivalent to the notions "transitivity" or "causation") where the former indicates that the subject undergoes the action named by the stem, and the latter signals that the subject directs the action of the stem. Mood is also marked implicitly by grammatical formatives which also mark tense categories. These signal that the verbal event is, for example, unreal, possible, potential, or a real, and actual. There are three simple tenses (past, present, and future), and a series of perfects.
Word order is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) and even though case and postpositions are used to mark grammatical relations, word order is not completely free as it might be in similarly structured languages. Even where variation is allowed the verb in simple sentences must always come to the far right of the sentence.
Tamil has a verbal category called "attitude" which is used to indicate the speaker's state of mind and subjective attitude about the narrated event Verb auxiliaries are used for this purpose; examples of affected states projected are: pejorative opinion, antipathy, relief that a unpleasant event has ended, undesirability about the result of an event, and so on. (This grammatical sketch is based on Steever 1987, 1992.)
Besides loans from Sanskrit, and some borrowing from Persian and Arabic, English in modern times has supplied a lot of loan words, but because of the emphasis on linguistic purism in Tamil grammatical tradition loans are assimilated to the phonological system.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
All Tamil speakers, including the uneducated, use two varieties of the language which only roughly correspond to the difference between literary and spoken Tamil. A high status variety is used in most writing, the media--including radio and television broadcasts--political speeches and other similar occasions. In contrast, a low status variety is used in every day discourse and conversations. It is also used in film and some authors of fiction use the variety as do some politicians and lecturers to create solidarity, or enhance intimacy, with their audiences. (Diglossia is a situation in which variants of the same language exist side by side in the same linguistic community but are used for different purposes; this differs from bilingualism in which two different, unrelated, languages are used by an individual or community of speakers).
In both India and Sri Lanka, Tamil has the status of an official language. In India it is one of fourteen official languages, and in Sri Lanka it shares that status with Sinhalese. It is the first official language of India's Tamil Nadu state.
Tamil language newspapers, radio and television broadcasts exist in both India and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has both local and foreign service programming in Tamil.
Through the influence of the media, especially radio and films, a standard colloquial language is developing.
Among the four ancient literary languages of southern India (Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu) Tamil has the longest tradition. The earliest records date from inscriptions from 200 BC. Other early works exist which were preserved on manuscripts made by palm-leaf and through oral transmission. Part of this rich and varied literary output includes a Tamil indigenous grammatical tradition independent of that of the ancient Sanskrit grammarians. The earliest text which describes the language of the classical period is the Tolkappiyam (dating from around 200 BC); another dates from the year 1000.
Three stages appear in the written records: ancient (200 BC to 700), medieval (700 - 1500) and modern (1500 to the present). Sometime between 800 and the turn of the millennium, Mayalayam, a very closely related Dravidian language, split off and became a distinct language.
During the medieval period Tamil absorbed many loan words from Sanskrit in the verbal system, but in the 1900s attempts were made to purge Tamil of its Sanskrit loans with the result that modern scientific and bureaucratic terminology is Tamil-based and not Sanskrit-based as in other Indic languages.
Asher, R. E. 1994. "Tamil." in R. E. Asher, ed. 1994. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 9:4522-4523. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.
Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Hetzron, R. 1987. "Semitic Languages." In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 654-663. New York: Oxford University Press.
Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, D.C.: Linguistic Society of America.
Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.
Steever, S. B. 1987. "Tamil and the Dravidian Languages." In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 725-746. New York: Oxford University Press.
_____. 1992. "Tamil." In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 4:131-136. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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