Brahmin Tamil is the name of a dialect of Tamil traditionally spoken by Tamil Brahmins. The dialect, largely, uses Classical Tamil along with a heavy proportion of Sanskrit derivatives.[1][2] According to the linguist Sabari Ganesh, Brahmin Tamil dialect is closest to the Central Tamil dialect, particularly, the variant spoken by the once dominant and highly educated community colloquial spoken Tamil of Vellalars and Mudaliyars.[3]


See also: Manipravalam and Grantha alphabet

During the early 1900s, Brahmin Tamil was used as the lingua-franca for inter-caste communication.[3][4] The principal characters in the Tamil films of the period (1930s and 1940s) also spoke the Brahmin dialect.[5][6] However, with the rise of the Pure Tamil Movement and the entry of Dravidian ideologues into Tamil cinema in the 1950s, Brahmin Tamil was gradually displaced from public spheres.[3][5][7] Today, Brahmin Tamil is used in films and television soaps centred on the Brahmin society.[5] Brahmin Tamil, has however, continued to flourish among the Brahmin community including the expatriates. Often non-Brahmins use this dialect in soaps and films for comic effect while engaging with Brahmins conversationally. And Brahmins effortlessly code switch by speaking the standard Tamil while engaging with non-Brahmins and revert to Brahmin Tamil when conversing among themselves.

The first systematic study of Brahmin Tamil was undertaken by Jules Bloch in 1910.[3] However, the most detailed study was conducted by A K Ramanujan and William Bright in the 1960s.[3] More recent researches on Brahmin Tamil and other socio-dialects have been conducted by Kamil Zvelebil.[3]


There are many forms of Brahmin Tamil spoken. Brahmin Tamil, in general, is less influenced by regional dialects than the dialects used by other Tamil communities.[8] The two main regional variations are the Thanjavur and Palakkad sub-dialects. Other sub-dialects include Ashtagrama Iyer Tamil, Mysore Vadama Iyer Tamil, Mandyam Tamil and Hebbar Tamil.

The differences between Thanjavur and Palakkad sub-dialects are:

  1. In the words ending in m and n preceded by a vowel, the vowel is nasalised, but the nasal stops themselves are not pronounced except when followed by a word beginning with a vowel in the Thanjavur style. In the Palakkad style, the nasal stops in these cases are always pronounced.
  2. The accent, style and vocabulary of Tamil used by Tamil Brahmins from Palakkad is greatly influenced by Malayalam apart from Sanskrit, while the sub-dialects used in Tamil Nadu borrow only from Sanskrit.

The Iyengars, particularly those outside Tamil Nadu, speak a dialect retaining ancient lexicon from religious texts such as the Naalayira Divya Prabandham.

Differences with standard Tamil


Brahmin Tamil varies slightly several standard Tamil. It retains minor adaptations of classical Tamil (Sentamil) words that are no longer in common usage. For instance, ām, a Brahmin Tamil word for "house", is derived from the classical Tamil word agam. It also notably incorporates a plethora of Sanskrit words. This may be observed in the etymology of several words in the Brahmin Tamil lexicon such as namaskaram (greeting), tirtham (water), and bhakshanam (food offering). There are also unique words in the dialect for signifying time, such as kartala to indicate morning. While non-Brahmin Tamils generally tend to use Sanskrit derivatives in their Prakrit form, Brahmins tend to use original Sanskrit. According to Bright and Ramanujan (1964),

It is the Brahmin dialect which has innovated by introducing the loan words. Brahmin Tamil frequently preserves non-native phonology, which non-Brahmin Tamil assimilates to native pattern[3]

Differences with standard Tamil
Brahmin Tamil Standard Tamil English Notes
Avāl, Avā Avargal they Probably derived from 'Avarhal' where the r & h are silent. Alternatively derived from the Telugu word Vālu meaning "person"[9]
Ivāl, Ivā Ivargal these people
Ām/Aathu Veedu house Derived from Old Tamil Agam (with the g pronounced more like silent 'h' -- 'a(h)am') [7][10]
Tirtham, Jalam Taṇṇīr water Thūtham is largely used in the Thanjavur sub-dialect and is derived from the Sanskrit Tīrtham. Iyengars, however, use the Sanskrit original.[7][11]
Sittha Konjam some Probably derived from Tamil Sattru meaning "a little."
Manni Anni elder brother's wife[12] Derived from "Maru-annai" meaning "another mom"
Athimbēr Athai kozhunan paternal aunt's husband Derived from 'Ahathin Anbar'
Kshēmam/Sowkyam Nalam goodness (esp. with regard to health) Derived from Sanskrit
Ṉōkku Unakku For you Developed from Unakku[13]
Ṉēkku Enakku For me Developed from Enakku[13]
Vāṅgō Vāruṅgal (Literary), Vāṅga (Spoken) Come[7]
Pōṅgō Pōkuṅgal (Literary), Pōṅga (Spoken) Go[7]
Aatukaran Vītukkāran Husband Derived from Agam-udayān (house-holder)[10]

The Ramanujan-Bright hypothesis which examined Brahmin Tamil in detail concluded -

In general, the Brahmin dialect seems to show great innovation on the more conscious levels of linguistic change – those of borrowing and semantic extension—while the non-Brahmin dialect shows greater innovation in less conscious type of change—those involving phonemic and morphological replacements[3]

Bright attributes these changes to the comparatively high literacy rate of the Brahmin community.

A possible hypothesis is that literacy, most common among Brahmins has acted as a brake on change in their dialects-that the ‘frozen’ phonology and grammar of the literary language have served to retard change in Brahmin speech[3]


There are also a few nicknames and sobriquets used in Brahmin Tamil alone.

Nickname Source Meaning Usage
Ammānji Name for mother's brother's child (a cousin)
Pillaiyāndān Pillai and Āndavan Used to denote a dear child[14]

Structure and pronunciation

As in standard spoken Tamil, the temporal verbal participles (as in -ccē/-sē from 'samayam' (time)) in Brahmin Tamil, have been borrowed from relative participle constructions on the model varaccē < varuxiṟa samayam ('while coming') and pōxasē < pōxiṟa samayam ('while going').[15] Brahmin Tamil also uses the retroflex approximant |ɻ| used in Old Tamil, but no longer in use in most non-Brahmin dialects.[11]


Though mainly used by Tamil Brahmins, the Brahmin dialect is also used occasionally, and to a lesser extent, by other forward caste Tamils such as Vellalars and Mudaliyars.[3] Until the rise of the Self Respect movement, the usage of Brahmin Tamil was favoured by the Vellalars and Mudaliyars of Thanjavur and South Arcot districts.[3] In the early decades of the 20th century, the Brahmin Tamil variant spoken in Madras city was considered to be standard spoken Tamil.[5][7] However, since the 1950s and the gradual elimination of Sanskrit loan words from the spoken tongue, Brahmin Tamil has fallen into disuse and has been replaced by the Central and Madurai Tamil dialects, by all communities, including most Brahmins, as the preferred spoken dialects for day-to-day use.[4]

In ancient times, Brahmin Tamil was used only by Smartha Brahmins, the Vaishnavite Iyengars having a unique dialect of their own, called the Sri Vaishnava Manipravalam which interested linguistics for its peculiar grammatical forms and vocabulary.[16] However, due to the development of a homogenised Brahmin identity during the medieval period, Vaishnavite Brahmins in the Tamil country have largely assimilated Brahmin Tamil with their own dialect, retaining several words of the Vaishnava Manipravalam in their vocabulary. The Hebbar and Mandyam Iyengars who reside outside the Tamil country, however, continue to use Iyengar Tamil as their mother tongue. So do Ashtagrama Iyers and Mysore Vadama Iyers whose Tamil dialects while largely uses Brahmin Tamil has some Kannada influence. In contrast to peninsular India, the Brahmin dialect was never used by the Tamil Brahmins of Sri Lanka.[17]

The difference between the Smartha and Sri Vaishnava variants are currently limited to vocabulary, particularly to words related to ritual and familial ties, alone.[18]

Words unique to the Sri Vaishnava variant
Smartha Brahmin Variant Sri Vaishnava Variant English meaning
Rasam Sattru amudu Rasam.[18] Literally means the stew that is used to mix with rice.
Chithappa Chithiya Father's younger brother (colloquial)[18]
Abhishekham Thirumanjanam Bath of temple idols in a ceremonial way." />
Payasam Thirukanan amudhu Sweet Porridge
Samayal Thaligai Cooking
Adukull Thirumadapalli / Thaligai panra ull Kitchen. Under Sri Vaishnava variant, the first one is to refer kitchen in temples, while the second one is used to refer kitchen in houses.
Kari Kari amudhu Vegetable Fry
kozhambu, sambar Kozhambu Liquid gravy, with dhal or even without dhal (for Sri Vaishnava variant only).
Narukurathu Thirutharathu To cut (generally vegetables)
Thootham/Jalam Theertham Water
Thayir Saadham Dodhyonam Curd rice
Thaalikkarathu Thirupu maarapanrathu Process of frying mustard, asafoetida in oil or ghee for aroma
Vendikarathu Sevikkarathu To worship
Kumbabhishekam Samprokshanam Consecration of a temple.
Namam pottukarathu Thiruman ittukarathu To apply one or three stroke Namam (Iyengar tilakam) on forehead
Ecchal idardhu Ecchapiratal Cleaning the left overs after having food

See also


  1. ^ Pop Culture India!: Media, Arts, And Lifestyle. ABC-CLIO. 2006. p. 217. ISBN 1851096361.
  2. ^ Mohit K. Ray, ed. (2007). The Atlantic Companion to Literature in English. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors. p. 436. ISBN 978-8126908325.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Language variation in Tamil". Archived from the original on 2011-07-23. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  4. ^ a b Harold F. Schiffman. "Standardization or Restandardization: the case for 'Standard' Spoken Tamil".
  5. ^ a b c d Bate, Bernard (2009). "Notes - 12". Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic: Democratic Practice in South India. Columbia University Press. pp. 188–189. ISBN 978-0231147569.
  6. ^ Baskaran, S. Theodore (1996). The eye of the serpent: An Introduction to Tamil cinema. East West Books. p. 66.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Comrie, Bernard (1990). The Major Languages of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Taylor & Francis. p. 182. ISBN 0415057728.
  8. ^ C. Shapiro, Michael; F. Schiffman, Harold (1981). Language and society in South Asia. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 155.
  9. ^ Pillai, J. M. Somasundaram; Meenakshisundaram, T. P. (1968). "Introduction". A history of Tamil literature with texts and translations from the earliest times to 600 A.D. p. xiv.
  10. ^ a b Pillai, S. Anavartavinayakam (1974). "The Sanskritic Elements in the vocabulary of Dravidian languages". In Mark Collins (ed.). Dravidic Studies. University of Madras. p. 154.
  11. ^ a b Bright, William (1976). "Social dialect and language history". Variation and change in language: Essays. Stanford University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0804709262.
  12. ^ Sree Krishnan (ed.). Linguistic traits across language boundaries. Anthropological Survey of India. p. 20.
  13. ^ a b Andronov, p 162
  14. ^ Gupta, Baldev Raj (1990). Indian Linguistics. Ariana Publishing House. p. 28.
  15. ^ Andronov, p 258
  16. ^ Raman, Srilatha (2007). Self-surrender (prapatti) to God in Śrīvaiṣṇavism: Tamil Cats and Sanskrit Monkeys. Taylor & Francis. pp. 63–64. ISBN 978-0415391856.
  17. ^ Veluppillai, A. (1980). Epigraphical evidences for Tamil studies. International Institute of Tamil Studies. p. 175.
  18. ^ a b c Beteille, Andre (1965). Caste, Class, and Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village. University of California Press. p. 54. ISBN 0520020537.