The Tamil language has one of the oldest written traditions in all of Asia and boasts a rich body of literary work dating back 2,000 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.
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.
Tamil in India: Dialects and Relationship to the Caste System
The majority of Tamil speakers are found in southern India, notably in the union territory of Puducherry (also spelled Pondicherry) and the state of Tamil Nadu, where it serves as the official state language.
There are a number of Tamil language dialects within India. These various dialects are often a means of emphasizing class differences within India’s caste system.
A form of social hierarchy guarded for generations, the traditional caste system of India determines a person’s position in society based upon birth. Developed more than 3,000 years ago, the system has been condemned by such powerful leaders as Gandhi, but it has largely remained intact.
The lowest of Indian castes is that of the “Untouchables,” who are believed to be descended from the Dravidians, the native inhabitants of India. The Untouchables are essentially outcasts – social pariahs with limited rights who in recent years have been helped by various NGOs in India.
Tamil in Sri Lanka: Fight for Linguistic Rights
A large number of Tamil language communities are also found in northern Sri Lanka, where Tamil today serves as an official language. The Tamil people, however, had to fight for their language to gain official status in the country.
In 1956 the Sinhala Only Bill was passed by the government of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka; the name was changed in 1972). It declared that Sinhalese was the only official language of the country. The bill’s passing was met with resistance as the Tamil-speaking minority of the country staged riots to protest its passing and assert their language rights.
In hopes of conciliating the Tamil people, Ceylon’s government leader, SWRD Bandaranaike, made a pact with the leader of the Tamil Federal Party allowing for the official use of Tamil in the Tamil-speaking provinces of Ceylon. Bandaranaike later withdrew from the pact, resulting in a renewal of rioting and violence so extreme that a state of emergency had to be declared. Shortly after, in 1958, the Ceylon government established the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, which permitted the use of the Tamil language for various administrative and educational purposes.
The Tamil Tigers
After Ceylon adopted a new constitution and became Sri Lanka in 1972, Tamil minorities continued to protest the lack of protection for Tamil rights in the new constitution. In 1976, they formed the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).
In 1978, Sri Lanka introduced a new presidential system of government, and the same year a new constitution was adopted which declared both Sinhala and Tamil to be national languages of Sri Lanka.
Still, ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil continued. Violence between Sinhalese mobs in the early 1980s prompted guerilla attacks led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil nationalist movement. Civil war soon erupted. Tamil groups in southern India also became involved as they provided weapons and bases for the Sri Lankan Tamil guerillas, and violence in Sri Lanka continued, with periods of violence occurring until as recently as 2008.
Tamil Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Tamalsan, Tambul, Tamili, Tamal, Damulian
Language Family: Dravidian, Southern, Tamil-Kannada, Tamil-Kodagu, Tamil-Malayalam
Spoken by Approximately 66,020,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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