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Tamil (தமிழ்) belongs to the Southern branch of the Dravidian language family, spoken in southern India and northeastern Sri Lanka from prehistoric times. It is spoken as a native language by 61.5 million people in India, primarily in Tamil Nadu and neighboring states, and in northeastern Sri Lanka, as well as by 8 million second-language speakers (Ethnologue).

During the British rule of India, Tamil-speakingSriLanka map indentured laborers were sent to many parts of the British empire where they founded Tamil-speaking communities. Today, their descendants form sizeable Tamil-speaking populations in Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius and South Africa. Tamil is also spoken in Bahrain, Fiji, Germany, Netherlands, Qatar, Reunion, Singapore, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom. The worldwide population of first-language speakers of Tamil is estimated at around 69 million people with as many as additional 8 million speaking it as a second language.(Ethnologue).


Tamil is one of the 22 official languages and 14 regional languages of India. It is the official language of the state of Tamil Nadu.

Sri Lanka
Tamil is spoken by 3.8 million people in Sri Lanka. It is the national language of Sri Lanka along with Sinhalese (Ethnologue).

Tamil is spoken by 3.8 million people in Malaysia (Ethnologue),

Tamil is one of the official languages of Singapore, along with English, Malay, and Mandarin. It isi spoken in Singapore by 111,000 people (Ethnologue).


The dialects of Tamil have evolved along three different dimensions. These dialects differ in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary.

Geographic Dialects

  • Sri Lanka (the most conservative dialect)
  • Northern
  • Western
  • Central
  • Eastern
  • Southern


Caste Dialects(reflecting social distinctions between various castes)

  • Brahmin
  • non-Brahmin


Diglossic Variations

  • high variety used in most writing, media, speeches and public lectures
  • low variety used in face-to-face communication, movies and some modern fiction.



Sound system

The phonemes of modern standard Tamil include native sounds (‘low’ variety) and peripheral sounds that came from lexical borrowings (‘high’ variety). Both sets of sounds are used by educated speakers of Tamil. 

Tamil has 5 short and 5 long native vowels. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning. In the table below, vowel length is indicated by a macron over the vowel. Vowels in parentheses are peripheral, i.e., they are used exclusively in loanwords. In addition, there are two diphthongs /ai/ and /au/.

i, ī
u, ū
e, ē
o, ō
a, ā
  • /æ/ = a in cat
  • /ə/ = a in about
  • /ɔ/ = o in bog


Tamil has 16 consonants. Consonants in parentheses occur only in borrowed words. The consonant system is characterized by the following features:

  • a contrast between apical and retroflex consonants, e.g., /ṱ/ – /ʈ/. Apical consonants are produced with the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth, whereas retroflex consonants are produced with the tongue curled, so that its underside comes in contact with the roof of the mouth;
  • a variety of nasal sounds;
  • limited occurrence of consonant clusters in initial position.


Labiodental Alveolar Postalveolar
Stops voiceless
Affricates voiceless xx
  • /ʈ, ɖ, ɳ, ɭ, ɻ/ are retroflex consonants with no equivalents in English
  • /ṱ, ḓ, ṋ, ḽ / are pronounced with the tip of the tongue touching the back of the front teeth
  • /tʃ/ = ch in chop
  • /dʒ/ = j in job
  • /ɲ/ = first n in canyon
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /ʋ/ has no equivalent in English
  • /j/ = y in yet


Stress in modern Tamil is fixed on the first syllable of a word.


Like other Dravidian languages, Tamil is agglutinative, i.e., it adds suffixes, one after another, to stems to form words and to express grammatical functions. Since there is no limit on the number of suffixes, some words in Tamil can be very long.

This class of words includes common nouns, proper names, numerals, pronouns and some adjectives. They are inflected for the following categories:

  • eight cases: nominativeaccusativegenitivedativelocativeinstrumentalablative, and vocative
  • two numbers: singular and plural
  • two genders: rational and irrational. Rational nouns include humans and deities (women may be rational or irrational, depending on dialect); irrational nouns include animals, objects, and everything else. These classifications are not absolute. For instance, irrational forms can be used for humans in a pejorative sense.
  • There are no articles. Other devices are used instead, e.g., the numeral oru ‘one’ can function as an indefinite article.
  • Personal pronouns are marked for first and second person.
  • Prefixes, i, a, u, e act like demonstratives in English. For example, they can modify the word vali ‘way’ to produce ivvali ‘this way,’ avvali ‘that way,’uvvali ‘the medial (somewhere between this and that in English) way,’ and evvali ‘which way.’


A typical Tamil verb consists of a verb base plus a grammatical suffix. The base consists of a stem and two suffixes: one for voice, and one for expressing causality.

  • Voice
    There are two voices. The affective voice indicates that the subject of the sentence undergoes or is the object of the action named by the verb stem. The effective voice indicates that the subject of the sentence directs the action referred to by the verb stem. These voices are not equivalent to the notions of transitivity or causation, or to the active-passive or reflexive-nonreflexive division of voices in Indo-European languages.
  • Tense
    Tamil has three simple tenses (present, past, and future). They are marked by simple suffixes. Perfectives are marked by compound suffixes.
  • Negative tense
    There is a special verb paradigm in which a negative-tense marker is suffixed to the verb stem forming a negative tense. Negation is expressed by negative particles alla and illa in final position.
  • Mood
    Tamil mood indicates whether the action of the verb is unreal, possible, potential, or real.
  • Attitude
    Attitude is expressed by auxiliary verbs to show the speaker’s feelings towards an event expressed by the verb. For instance, the attitude can be a pejorative opinion, antipathy, relief, etc.


Word order
The standard word order in Tamil is Subject-Object-Verb. The verb must always be at the end of the sentence, even though variation in the order of other sentence constituents is sometimes possible. Not all Tamil sentences have subjects, verbs, and objects, but the those elements that are present must still follow the Subject-Verb-Object order.


Modern Tamil vocabulary is largely based on that of classical Tamil. This makes classical Tamil comprehensible to speakers of modern Tamil. The language has also retained some loanwords from Sanskrit, especially in the area of religion and spirituality. Tamil also has some loanwords from Persian and Arabic. Some modern technical terminology is borrowed from English, though attempts are being made to have a pure Tamil technical terminology. Technical dictionaries in Tamil are readily available.

There are lexical differences between Brahmin and non-Brahmin dialects, e.g., Brahmin word for ‘house’ is ām, whereas the non-Brahmin word is vītu.

Tamil uses compounding and reduplication to form new words. Compound nouns are extremely common, e.g., the noun maratt-ati-nizal ‘shadow at the base of the tree’ consists of maratt ‘tree’ + ʈai ‘base’ + ‘nizal’ shadow.’ In addition, there are numerous onomatopoeic words. Such words usually represents natural sounds, and many of them are reduplicated, e.g., muņumuņu ‘murmur’.

Below are a few basic words and phrases in Tamil given in romanization.

Hello vaṇakkam
Goodbye poiṭṭu varēṉ
Please thayavu ceythu
Thank you naṉṟi
Excuse me, sorry maṉṉikka vēṇṭukirēṉ


No illai
Man ān
Woman peņ


Below are Tamil numerals 1-10 given in romanization.




Tamil has the greatest geographical spread and the richest and most ancient literature of all Dravidian languages, paralleled only by that of Sanskrit. It has an unbroken literary tradition of over two thousand years, during which time the written language has undergone relatively little change. As a result, classical literature is a part of everyday Tamil along with modern literature. The rich and varied Tamil literature includes an indigenous grammar that was created independently from that of Sanskrit. The earliest records of Tamil are inscriptions on stone dating back from 200 BC. Along with these inscriptions, there is a large body of literature, inscribed on palm leaves and transmitted orally, that goes back two thousand years.

The Tamil script is derived from a descendant of the ancient Brahmi script of India. It was designed to write literary Tamil that has changed little in the past thousand years, but it is not particularly well-suited for writing modern colloquial Tamil that has many loanwords from other languages. Attempts were made in the 19th century to create a writing system for the colloquial spoken language, but these efforts met with mixed success. The colloquial written language today can be found mostly in textbooks and in dialogs in literature.

Tamil is written horizontally from left to right, and its basic set of symbols consists of 18 consonants and 12 vowels. It is written with a syllabic alphabet in which all consonants have an inherent vowel. Diacritics, which can appear above, below, before or after the consonant, indicate change to another vowel or suppression of the inherent vowel. In contrast to many other Indic scripts, Tamil uses a reduced inventory of consonants. For example, there are no symbols for aspirated consonants since these sounds do not occur in Tamil. European punctuation is used.

Click here to learn more about the Tamil alphabet and the sounds represented by its symbols.

Tamil letters have rounded shapes, so the Tamil script is sometimes referred to as the “round alphabet”. This is due to the fact that writing was done by carving symbols on palm leaves with a sharp instrument which made it easier to produce carved lines than straight lines and angles.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Tamil script and in romanization.

உறுப்புரை 1
மனிதப் பிறிவியினர் சகலரும் சுதந்திரமாகவே பிறக்கின்றனர் ; அவர்கள் மதிப்பிலும், உரிமைகளிலும் சமமானவர்கள், அவர்கள் நியாயத்தையும் மனச்சாட்சியையும் இயற்பண்பாகப் பெற்றவர்கள். அவர்கள் ஒருவருடனொருவர் சகோதர உணர்வுப் பாங்கில் நடந்துகொள்ளல் வேண்டும்.
Maṉitap piṛaviyiṉar čakalarum čutantiramākavē piṛakkiṉṛaṉar; avarkaḷ matippilum urimaikaḷilum čamamāṉavarkaḷ. Avarkaḷ niyāyattaiyum maṉačāṭčiyaiyum iyaṛpaṇpākap peṛṛavarkaḷ. Avarkaḷ oruvaruṭaṉoruvar čakōtara uṇarvup pāṅkil naṭantukoḷḷal vēṇṭum.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Did You Know?

These English words came from Tamil?

from Tamil kari ‘sauce, relish for rice’
possibly from Tamil kantu ‘candy’
from Tamil kattu-maram ‘tied wood’, from kattu ‘tie’ + maram ‘wood, tree’
possibly from Tamil kuli ‘to hire’
possibly from ancient Dravidian inchiver, from inchi ‘root’
from Tamil mankay, from man ‘mango tree’ + kay ‘fruit’
from Tamil paraiyar, plural of paraiyan ‘drummer’ (at festivals, the hereditary duty of members of the largest of the lower castes of southern India), from parai ‘large festival drum.’ Especially numerous at Madras, where its members supplied most of the domestics in European service. Applied by Hindus and Europeans to members of any low Hindu caste and even to outcastes. Meaning of ‘social outcast’ is first attested in 1819.



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Tamil?
There is no data on the difficulty level of Tamil for speakers of English.

17 Responses to Tamil

  1. K.T.Satheesh bowman

    above tables basic words and phrases in Tamil in romanization. please – makiḻvuṭṭu this is correct meaning (anbugoornthu), (thayavugoornthu)

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for the correction. We appreciate your interest in our website.

  2. Ragul

    but there is a mistake.
    th correct meaning for man is “ஆண்” Āṇ

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for the correction. We will make the changes.

  3. Mansoor

    Tamil is also one of the four official languages of Singapore. Please update.

  4. Isa Ibn Atman

    The word for “yes” is “Ām”. “ōm” i guess is only used in colloquial sri lankan tamil… “ōm” in Tamil Nadu only symbolizes a Hindu Mantra…

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for the correction.

      • ruban

        to be honest both are right. actually many educated indian people also agree that ‘colloquial’ sri lankan tamil is better than the indian tamil, a lot of the time.

        Both are correct.

        • Irene Thompson

          There is no such thing as a “better” language. It is an opinion, not a fact, but one must define what one means by “better” when describing a language.

  5. Rajesh Kanna

    There is a wrong meaning in vocabulary section, under Below are a few basic words and phrases in Tamil given in romanization.

    You mentioned: Man – kainiṟaiya(it means “Hand full of”)

    Correct meaning is: Man – Āṇ


    Firstly, the correction for Man – Aan is not yet made!
    Secondly, even Aam is the correct word for Yes – even in Srilanka!
    Thirdly, Please = Thayavu ceythu is correct; as “to please” = magilvuttu [verb]!

    Nanrigal pala!!

  7. Aswhk

    Very helpful and inyeresting. It would be even more helpful if you could add the corresponding tamil letter to the phonemic system. For example ழ would be which sound in the table?

    • Irene Thompson

      Tamil is on our “to-do” list for revision. Thanks for the suggestion.

  8. subramanian

    i feel like tamil is actually an easy language to learn because I learned it when I was little by watching a lot of movies. Also people in America are trying to bring it to their school curriculum as a second language.

    • Irene Thompson

      You were little when you learned Tamil. That’s probably key to your experience. Young children learn language differently from the way adults do. Whether Tamil is hard or easy depends on many factors, including degree of similarity to one’s first language or language(s) one has acquired in the past. It is possible that learning Tamil is easier for a speaker of Telugu than it is for a speaker of a non-Dravidian language.


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