Monday, January 7, 2013

Language Profile: Tamil

This week's language profile is on Tamil. There are over 65 million native speakers of this member of the Dravidian language family. Tamil is an official language of Singapore and Sri Lanka as well as an official regional language in India, where it is the fifth most spoken language.
A tea plantation in Sri Lanka.
In 2004, Tamil became the first legally recognized classical language of India. It is also one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world, with literature that has been in existence for over 2000 years. The earliest known long text in Old Tamil is called the Tolkāppiyam, an early work on grammar, which covers linguistic topics such as morphology, semantics, phonology and orthography, as well as literature. Its age is widely disputed, but it is generally agreed to be at least 2000 years old.

Tamil uses two registers for formality in order to distinguish the social status of speakers. There are also many dialects of Tamil since it is spoken over such a wide area, though most differences between them are phonological and came about when the language evolved from Old Tamil. Throughout history, Tamil acquired words from neighboring languages such as Telugu and Marathi. However, in recent years most new words have been adapted from European languages. The Tamil spoken in Sri Lanka has loanwords from Portuguese, Dutch and English, though these words are not always used in the Indian dialects of the language. However, the language has developed more complex sentence structures because of the influence of European languages, especially its word order that now more closely resembles that of English.

The Tamil language was never as heavily influenced by Sanskrit as the other Dravidian languages, but it did historically use many Sanskrit terms. In the early 20th century, a group called the Pure Tamil Movement decided to try to remove all foreign terms from the language in order to achieve linguistic purism. A large number of Sanskrit words were removed from the lexicon and replaced with Tamil equivalents. Currently, the majority words of Sanskrit origin that are used in Tamil refer to abstract nouns and spiritual terms.
The Singapore skyline at night.
Besides the two registers and the many dialects, there are also three different forms of Tamil. There is a classical literary style based on the ancient classical language that is not often used. The other two are modern forms of the language. One is used for formal situations and literature, while the other style is colloquial.

Tamil is written in Tamil script, which has 18 consonants, 12 vowels, and an "ambiguous" character called the āytam which looks like ஃ. The āytam is often considered a vowel and was mainly used in Classical Tamil. Tamil script is syllabic, so the full script includes the 31 independent letters plus their 216 combined letters. That means there are 247 different combinations to learn when writing Tamil script! Tamil also has its own numerals and symbols which look pretty cool. Check out the character for "year" - ௵ everybody likes curves, right?