The earliest known inscriptions in Tamil date back to 2,200 BC. Tamil literature emerged in around 300 BC, and the language used from then until the 700 AD is known as Old Tamil. From 700-1600 AD the language is known as Middle Tamil, and since 1600 the language has been known as Modern Tamil.
Tamil was originally written with a version of the Brahmi script known as Tamil Brahmi, and by the the 5th century AD this script had become more rounded and developed into the vaṭṭeḻuttu script. The modern Tamil script (தமிழ் அரிச்சுவடி tamiḻ ariccuvaṭi), however, was created during the 7th century based on the Grantha script, as descendent of Brahmi. Over time the script has changed somewhat, and it was simplified in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The alphabet is well suited to writing literary Tamil, centamiḻ (செந்தமிழ்). However it is ill-suited to writing colloquial Tamil, koṭuntamiḻ (கொடுந்தமிழ்). During the 19th century, attempts were made to create a written version of the colloquial spoken language. Nowadays the colloquial written language appears mainly in school books and in passages of dialogue in fiction.
Tamil is also written with a version of the Arabic script known as Arwi by Tamil-speaking muslims.
- Type of writing system: syllabic alphabet
- Direction of writing: left to right in horizontal lines
- When they appear the the beginning of a syllable, vowels are written as independent letters.
- Some of the non-standard consonant-vowel combinations are not used in official documents.
- The alphabet was originally written on palm leaves. As a result, the letters are made up mainly of curved strokes which didn’t rip the leaves.
Used to write:
Tamil (தமிழ்), a Dravidian language spoken by around 52 million people mainly in southern India and Sri Lanka, and also in Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Canada, the USA, UK and Australia. It is the first language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and is spoken by a significant minority of people (2 million) in north-eastern Sri Lanka.
Vowels and vowel diacritics
Non-standard consonant-vowel combinations
The final five consonants (the blue ones) are known as grantha letters and are used to write consonants borrowed from Sanskrit, and also some words of English origin.
The numerals rarely appear in modern Tamil texts. Instead, ‘Arabic’ numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) are used.