Old Tamil language

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Old Tamil
RegionTamiḻakam, Ancient India
EraDeveloped into Middle Tamil by the 8th century
Tamil-Brahmi, later Vaṭṭeḻuttu and the Pallava alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3oty
oty Old Tamil
Glottologoldt1248  Old Tamil[1]
Mangulam Tamil Brahmi inscription at Dakshin Chithra, Chennai

Old Tamil is the period of the Tamil language spanning the 3rd century BC to the 8th century AD.

The earliest records in Old Tamil are short inscriptions from between the 3rd and 2nd century BC in caves and on pottery. These inscriptions are written in a variant of the Brahmi script called Tamil Brahmi.[2] 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 1st century BC.[3] A large number of 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 1st and 5th centuries AD,[3][4] which makes them the oldest extant body of secular literature in India.[5] 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.[3]

Old Tamil preserved many features of Proto-Dravidian, including inventory of consonants,[6] the syllable structure,[7] and various grammatical features.[8] 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] காணேன்) "I do not see", kāṇōm [kaːɳoːm](காணோம் "we do not see")[9] Nouns could take pronominal suffixes like verbs to express ideas: e.g. peṇṭirēm [peɳʈiɽeːm] பெண்டிரேம்) "we are women" formed from peṇṭir [peɳʈiɽ] பெண்டிர்) "women" and the first person plural marker -ēm (ஏம்).[10]

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.[3]


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Old Tamil". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ Mahadevan 2003, pp. 90–95
  3. ^ a b c d Lehmann 1998, pp. 75–76
  4. ^ The dating of Sangam literature and the identification of its language with Old Tamil have recently been questioned by Herman Tieken who argues that the works are better understood as 9th century Pāṇṭiyan dynasty compositions, deliberately written in an archaising style to make them seem older than they were (Tieken 2001). Tieken's dating has, however, been criticised by reviewers of his work. See e.g.
    • Hart, G.; Tieken, H. (2004). "Kāvya in South India: Old Tamil Caṅkam Poetry". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 124: 180. doi:10.2307/4132191. JSTOR 4132191.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  5. ^ Tharu & Lalita 1991, p. 70
  6. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, p. 53
  7. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, p. 92
  8. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, pp. 182–193
  9. ^ Steever 1998, p. 24
  10. ^ Lehmann 1998, p. 80