Old Tamil
RegionTamiḻakam, Ancient India
Era300 BCE to 700 CE
Tamil-Brahmi, later Vaṭṭeḻuttu and the Pallava script
Language codes
ISO 639-3oty
oty Old Tamil
Glottologoldt1248  Old Tamil
A 2nd-century BCE Tamil Brahmi inscription from Arittapatti, Madurai India. The southern state of Tamil Nadu has emerged as a major source of Brahmi inscriptions in Old Tamil dated between 3rd to 1st centuries BCE.[1][2][3]

Old Tamil is the period of the Tamil language spanning from 300 BCE to 700 CE.[4] Prior to Old Tamil, the period of Tamil linguistic development is termed as Proto-Tamil. After the Old Tamil period, Tamil becomes Middle Tamil. The earliest records in Old Tamil are inscriptions from between the 3rd and 1st century BCE in caves and on pottery. These inscriptions are written in a variant of the Brahmi script called Tamil Brahmi.[1][5][6] The earliest long text in Old Tamil is the Tolkāppiyam, an early work on Tamil grammar and poetics, whose oldest layers could be as old as the mid 2nd century BCE.[7][8] Old Tamil preserved many features of Proto-Dravidian, the earliest reconstructed form of the Dravidian including inventory of consonants, the syllable structure, and various grammatical features.


According to Bhadriraju Krishnamurti, Tamil, as a Dravidian language, descends from Proto-Dravidian, a proto-language. Linguistic reconstruction suggests that Proto-Dravidian was spoken around the third millennium BCE, possibly in the region around the lower Godavari river basin in peninsular India. The material evidence suggests that the speakers of Proto-Dravidian were of the culture associated with the Neolithic complexes of South India.[9] The earliest epigraphic attestations of Tamil are generally taken to have been written from the 2nd century BCE.[10]

Among Indian languages, Tamil has the most ancient non-Sanskritic Indian literature.[11] Scholars categorise the attested history of the language into three periods: Old Tamil (300 BCE–700 CE), Middle Tamil (700–1600) and Modern Tamil (1600–present).[7] In November 2007, an excavation at Quseir al Qadim revealed Ancient Egyptian pottery dating back to first century BCE with ancient Tamil Brahmi inscriptions.[12] There are a number of apparent Tamil loanwords in Biblical Hebrew dating to before 500 BCE, the oldest attestation of the language.[13] John Guy states that Tamil was the lingua franca for early maritime traders from India.[14]

Tamil began to trade with Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Their ports were Tondi, Musiri and Comari, Colchi, Poduke and Sopatma. This was done during the period of Tamil independence from 600 BCE to 300 CE.[15] The different types of ships that would go into the port were small vessels, large vessels, and ocean-going vessels. They received the largest number the Roman coins-hoards in Tamil. This ranges from different emperors of Rome as their dates on the coins and as well as the emperors on the coins are different. This trade even continued to the end of the Roman Empire and continued into the time of the Byzantine Empire. The Tamil also trade along the Red Sea as we have seen some of their goods such as potsherds found in dig sites. Rice and salt were popular goods that came out as exports as well as used as currency for bargaining. They were used as a means of bartering as they were able to transport large amounts and the demand for these items was always there. There was a port called Cholas that traded with the west and the Malaya coast.[16]

There were large amounts of Roulette potteries and Roman coins were found in a brick jetty that they would put items into so they would be ready for when they needed to unload them a mound in Arikamedu with Rouletted ware, amphorae, conical jars, agate, and chalcedony. Two of the port cities were later destroyed by tsunamis. These were the cities of Thenmadurai and Kapatapuram. Archaeologist T. Satyamurth found 160 urns at their dig site. Dr. Jagor found 9000 objectives such as pottery, weapons, vessels, ornaments, stone beads, clothes, bones, ivory, sandalwood, and stone implements for grinding. The population wore cotton clothes and adorned the neck with ornaments made of beads, copper, and bronze.[17]

Literary work

Many literary works in Old Tamil have also survived. These include a corpus of 2,381 poems collectively known as Sangam literature. These poems are usually dated to between the 3rd century BCE and 5th century CE,[7] which makes them the oldest extant body of literature in India.[18] Other literary works in Old Tamil include Thirukural, Silappatikaram and Maṇimēkalai, and a number of ethical and didactic texts, written between the 5th and 8th centuries.[7][8][nb 1]

"Tamil is categorized as a classical language as it has a considerably extensive written tradition that is known for predating other classical works in India by over a thousand years."[24] In addition, to its thousands of years of history as a literary language, notably during the Sangam period. A major distinction in this regard, is that Tamil is classified as a Dravidian language, making it the oldest written tradition not descended from Sanskrit in India.

The term Sangam refers to multiple periods in which Sangam Tamil literature originates. Notably, there are to be considered three primary Sangam periods, as well as a Post Sangam period. However, all Sangam literature available to us dates from the third Sangam period, as well as the Post Sangam period. Regardless of this, Sangam Tamil literature still nevertheless boasts a literary history spanning over 2,000 years, marking it as the one of the oldest languages still in use today, as the Tamil from the Sangam period is still mutually intelligible to a degree by modern Tamil speakers.[25] The exact dates of Sangam publications are debated by scholars. “There are two primary styles defined through Sangam literature, Akam and Puram. Through Akam, aspects of love and romantic feelings are portrayed through five distinct categories, each relating to a unique landscape. Puram typically displays aspects of war and politics.” [26]

Sangam literature can be found from its first period around 250 BCE-200 CE. Regarding their pretexts, Puram poems most notably target specific morals that the author wishes to convey. One of the most notable works of Sangam literature is the Tirukkural, and serves as a prime example among other Sangam didactic texts. The Tirukkural is known for being a text in which the reader is taught morals in a poetic manner, typically through the use of couplets.[27]


Old Tamil preserved many features of Proto-Dravidian, including inventory of consonants,[28] the syllable structure,[29] and various grammatical features.[30] Amongst these was the absence of a distinct present tense – like Proto-Dravidian, Old Tamil only had two tenses, the past and the "non-past". Old Tamil verbs also had a distinct negative conjugation (e.g. kāṇēṉ [kaːɳeːn] 𑀓𑀸𑀡𑁂𑀷𑁆 (காணேன்)) "I do not see", kāṇōm [kaːɳoːm] (𑀓𑀸𑀡𑁄𑀫𑁆 (காணோம்) "we do not see").[31] Nouns could take pronominal suffixes like verbs to express ideas: e.g. peṇṭirēm [peɳɖiɾeːm] 𑀧𑁳𑀡𑁆𑀝𑀺𑀭𑁂𑀫𑁆 (பெண்டிரேம்) "we are women" formed from peṇṭir [peɳɖiɾ] 𑀧𑁳𑀡𑁆𑀝𑀺𑀭𑁆 (பெண்டிர்) "women" and the first person plural marker -ēm -𑀏𑀫𑁆 (-ஏம்).[32] Despite the significant amount of grammatical and syntactical change between Old, Middle and Modern Tamil, Tamil demonstrates grammatical continuity across these stages: many characteristics of the later stages of the language have their roots in features of Old Tamil.[7]


Old Tamil, the earliest attested branch of South Dravidian has preserved an inventory of 17 consonants very similar to Proto-Dravidian: /p t ṯ c ṭ k, m n ñ ṇ, r ẓ, l ḷ, y w *H/.[33]

The oldest depiction of Old Tamil’s phonology is found in Tolkappiyam.[34] This early record of the language dives into the sounds of the language as well as allophones which are used to help understand adjacent phonemes. According to a rough translation from Tolkappiyam, “It will be evident on careful observation that all the sounds (in the Tamil language) are but the results of the modifications which the air undergoes in starting from naval, and passing through the eight parts- chest, neck, head, tongue, hard palate, teeth, lips, and nose.”[34]

The language has Thirty linear phonemes ranging from a to n with the exception of three nonlinear phonemes. The non-linear phonemes consist of i’,u’, and o’.[34]

Writing system

Tamil’s writing system is widely believed to be inspired by the Asokan Brahmi system, which is the original Indian script that all modern Indian script derived from.[35] There are 5 main categories of writing system which are the alphabet, abugida, abjad, syllabary, and semanto-phonetic. Old Tamil’s writing system fits under the abugida. The letters in the Old Tamil abugida all appear to take the form of shapes like squares and circles.[36] In the language every consonant is combined with a vowel for example NA is the letter n in the English alphabet. If a letter in a word is followed by the same vowel it is written twice to distinguish between the constants adjacent vowel and the vowel following the consonant-vowel combination. In Tamil, constants occur usually at the end and the middle of words. There is an exception to this rule that occurs when a word starts with a vowel, and in this case, a character representing a singular syllable is used.

The following is an example of the Old Tamil abugida:

Regional dialects

The 12 mozhipeyar regions of Ancient Tamilakam

The Tolkappiyam mentions about 12 moḻipeyar lands apart from the region where Centamil was spoken.[37] Tolkappiyam 881 also mentions about dialectical words called Ticaicol. Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer in his work, Kerala Sahithya Charithram names these regions. Senavaraiyar and Mayilainatar, both interpret almost similar names for these twelve Tamil dialectical regions of Old Tamil.[38]

See also


  1. ^ The dating of Sangam literature and the identification of its language with Old Tamil was questioned by Herman Tieken who argued that the works are better understood as 9th century Pāṇṭiyan dynasty compositions, written in an archaising style to make them seem older than they were. Tieken's dating has, however, been criticised by multiple reviewers of his work.[19][20] [21][22][23]


  1. ^ a b Mahadevan, I.Early Tamil Epigraphy pp. 91–94
  2. ^ Mahadevan, I.Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions pp. 1–12
  3. ^ Souler, B. Handbook of Oriental Studies p. 44
  4. ^ Govindankutty, A. (1972), "From Proto-Tamil-Malayalam to West Coast Dialects" (PDF), BRILL, vol. 14, no. 1/2, pp. 52–60, JSTOR 24651352, retrieved 25 March 2023
  5. ^ Government of Tamilnadu, Department of Archeology. "Keeladi, Excavation Report, Urban Settlement, Sangam Age, River Vaigai". Retrieved 27 December 2020.
  6. ^ Vishnupriya, Kolipakam (2018). "A Bayesian phylogenetic study of the Dravidian language family". Royal Society Open Science. 5 (3): 171504. Bibcode:2018RSOS....571504K. doi:10.1098/rsos.171504. PMC 5882685. PMID 29657761.
  7. ^ a b c d e Lehmann 1998, pp. 75–76
  8. ^ a b Zvelebil, K. The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South p.XX
  9. ^ Southworth 2005, pp. 249–250
  10. ^ Southworth 2005, pp. 250–251
  11. ^ Sivathamby, K (1974), "Early South Indian Society and Economy: The Tinai Concept", Social Scientist, 3 (5): 20–37, doi:10.2307/3516448, JSTOR 3516448
  12. ^ "Tamil Brahmi script in Egypt", The Hindu, 21 November 2007, retrieved 5 January 2015
  13. ^ Rabin, C. Proceedings of the Second International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, p. 438
  14. ^ Scroll.in – News. Politics. Culture., scroll.in
  15. ^ El, David (2015). "Timeline of Tamil History". academia.
  16. ^ Saravanakumar, AR; Seetharaman, Paranthaman; Radha, R (June 2020). "Trade and Commerce of Ancient Tamilagam". researchgate.
  17. ^ Dokras, Uday (2020). "History of Ancient Tamil Civilization". academia.
  18. ^ Tharu & Lalita 1991, p. 70
  19. ^ Tieken 2001
  20. ^ Ferro-Luzzi, G. E.; Tieken, H. (2001). "Kavya in South India: Old Tamil Cankam Poetry". Asian Folklore Studies. 60 (2): 373. doi:10.2307/1179075. JSTOR 1179075.
  21. ^ Monius, A. E.; Dubianskii, A. M.; Tieken, H. (2002). "Ritual and Mythological Sources of the Early Tamil Poetry". The Journal of Asian Studies. 61 (4): 1404. doi:10.2307/3096501. JSTOR 3096501.
  22. ^ Wilden, E. V. A. (2003). "Towards an Internal Chronology of Old Tamil Cankam Literature or How to Trace the Laws of a Poetic Universe". Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens. 1 (16): 105. doi:10.1553/wzksXLVIs105.
  23. ^ R. Nagaswamy, Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit (2012), Section 2.18.2: Natural evolution of Sanskrit
  24. ^ Hart, George. “Statement on the Status of Tamil as a Classical Language.” The Institute for South Asia Studies, 11 Apr. 2000
  25. ^ Shanmugananthan, R. “An Overview of Sangam Literature சங்க இலக்கியம்.” – Ilankai Tamil Sangam, 22 Sept. 2022.
  26. ^ Gopal, Nanduri Raj. “Tamil Sangam Literature: A Journey through History, Culture, and Literary Brilliance.” View of Tamil Sangam Literature: A Journey through History, Culture, and Literary Brilliance, 2024, eduzonejournal.com/index.php/eiprmj/article/view/508/444.)
  27. ^ Rajagopal, Govindaswamy. “Virtues in Tirukkuṟaḷ and Other Tamil Didactic Works – a Bird’s Eye View.” Academia.Edu, 27 Sept. 2016
  28. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, p. 53
  29. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, p. 92
  30. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, pp. 182–193
  31. ^ Steever 1998, p. 24
  32. ^ Lehmann 1998, p. 80
  33. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, p. 53.
  34. ^ a b c Sankaran, C. R. (1947). "An Introduction to the Study of Old Tamil Phonemics". Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute. 8: 87–96. ISSN 0045-9801. JSTOR 42929588.
  35. ^ "Dravidian languages | History, Grammar, Map, & Facts | Britannica". www.britannica.com. 2 February 2024. Retrieved 20 March 2024.
  36. ^ "Dr.Gift Siromoney's Home Page". www.cmi.ac.in. Retrieved 20 March 2024.
  37. ^ Parameswara Iyer, Ulloor S. (1953). Kerala Sahithya Charithram, Part 1 (in Malayalam) (Digital ed.). Kerala: Kerala University. pp. 10–13. ISBN 9789354322914.
  38. ^ M. Mena, Kannan (2009). "Negotiations with the Past: Classical Tamil in Contemporary Tamil". Journal of the American Oriental Society: 320–323 – via JSTOR.