Beginners’ Tamil: a taster course
Beginners’ Tamil: a taster course

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1 The Tamil language

Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world, and can be dated back to around 400 BC (Violatti, 2016). It is spoken by more than 85 million people (Ethnologue, 2021), most of them in Tamil Nadu (meaning ‘The Tamil Nation’), a state in southern India. Tamil is a language rich in literature, philosophy and music, and thus of interest to many people. It is one of the 22 official languages of India.

A model of the Mangulam Tamil Brahmi inscription
Figure 1 Tamil Brahmi inscription in Mangulam, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, dated to c. 400 BC to c. 200 AD (Violatti, 2016)
Map of India, with Tamil Nadu highlighted
Figure 2 A map of India, with Tamil Nadu in red

Tamil is the official language of Tamil Nadu and the Indian territory of Puducherry, and is one of the official languages in Sri Lanka and Singapore.

As well as in Singapore and Sri Lanka where Tamil is particularly prominent in Jaffna in the north of the island, and in the Vanni in the east, there are also large numbers of Tamil speakers in the diaspora in Malaysia, Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Australia and the USA. Significant Tamil minorities in the Indian states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana, and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, also speak the language.

Tamil is also used as a language of education in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore.

In England and Wales in 2011, the Tamil speaking-population was said to be 100 689 (Gopal and Matras, 2013) while Dissanayake some years earlier (2008) quoted a community estimate of 150 000.

The majority of Tamils are Hindus, with a smaller proportion being Christians and Muslims. Tamils tend to live in extended families, with the elderly often living with their adult children.

A tamil family
Figure 3 Three generations of a Tamil family – the women are wearing saris (saylay, in Tamil), while the patriarch is wearing a vertti, and the young girl in the front is wearing a pavaadai.

Activity 1

True or false. Tamil is an official language only in India.

a. 

True


b. 

False


The correct answer is b.

Discussion

False. As well as in India, Tamil is also an official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore.

True or false. Tamil is an ancient language.

a. 

True


b. 

False


The correct answer is a.

Discussion

True. Tamil is an ancient language, dating back to around 400 BC.

True or false. The majority of Tamils are Buddhists.

a. 

True


b. 

False


The correct answer is b.

Discussion

False. The majority of Tamils are Hindu.

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