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Tamil: A Surviving Dravidian Language

Photograph of writing by Mahatma Gandhi in Tamil language
Tamil: A Surviving Dravidian Language
on August, 16 2013
The Tamil language belongs to the Dravidian language family and is one of the world’s longest surviving classical languages. The earliest inscriptions were seen on the hero stones that were from fifth century BCE. Tamil has one of the world’s richest literatures that had been in existence for more than 2,000 years.

Tamil, with about 70 million native speakers, is predominantly spoken by the Tamils of Northeast Sri Lanka and South India. Tamil and other languages in India are such important languages. A world-renowned mobile phone manufacturer has already installed a regional user interface for users in the region to access content in nine Indian languages, including Tamil.


While some of the languages in India are closely related to Sanskrit and actually derived most of their words from it, the closest to Tamil is Malayalam, a Tamil dialect that completely evolved into a separate language. Today, there are still 22 Tamil dialects in South Asia, Southeast Asia and even in South Africa. The Tamil spoken in Sri Lanka is distinct, as it was influenced by Dutch, English and Portuguese languages.

The exact origin of the word “Tamil” cannot be determined although it was already mentioned around the first century BCE in Tholkāppiyam, one of the earliest existing literary works in Tamil that dealt with its grammar.

Speakers of Tamil are very zealous in protecting their own language and in keeping it pure. The Pure Tamil Movement wanted foreign and Sanskrit elements removed from the language. Tamil has been legally recognized in 2004 as a classical language in India and is the first language to be given this honor, which was announced by then Indian President, Abdul Kalam.

Loan words

As one of the world’s oldest languages, it is not surprising that there are also some Tamil words that have found their way into the English language. But first, it should be noted that the word “orange” came from a Dravidian word through Sanskrit’s “nāraṅga,” although it was derived from a precursor of Tamil, “nartankāy” that translates to fragrant fruit.

Tamil loan words into English include words such as cheroot which came from the word for rolled up, “churuṭṭu,” mango from “mangai,” curry from “kari,” and pariah from “paraiyan.” The word catamaran came from the word “kaṭṭu maram” that meant bundled logs. “Kasu” is the Tamil word for cash while “kurundam” is the origin of corundum, the term for an abrasive mineral. The term “kattil” was the origin of the word cot (small bed) and lemon came from the Tamil word “elumuchankaai.” Candy originated from the Tamil word for crystalized sugar, “karcantu.” Rice is “arisi” in Tamil. Other words that originated from Tamil are ginger, anaconda, teak, coolie and coir.

The Tamil language may not be for everyone, but it does help to at least know some words in the language. When you want to say “hi” you only need to say “alo.” If you are greeting someone during a specific time of the day, you say “Kaalai Vanakkam” in the morning and “Maalai Vanakkam” in the evening. “Romba Nandri” is thanks or thank you very much. If you want to ask after someone, you usually say, “How are you?” In Tamil you say, “Eppati irukkinga?” or the more common “Nalamaa?”

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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