Tamil 101: For Non-Tamils​

Thoughts Jun 9, 2021

TLDR:  Spoken Tamil dialects are just fancy ways of shortening written Tamil. There is one unified written form, with well-defined grammar. But since the verb packs a ton of information as suffixes, which get shortened in spoken dialects, it might be hard to notice that pattern for beginners. Extracted from my convo with Kasun Withana.

Tolkappiyam (literally old epic), written 2200 years ago, defines the grammar of Tamil as used today. The first verse goes like "letters are 30. From a to na". So there goes the first misconception. Tamil doesn't have 248 letters. Only 30 prime ones. ​

12 vowels, 18 consonants. ​ The vowels are the ones in English (a,e,i,o,u) + their longer counterparts (5) + 'ai' + 'ou'. 6 extra consonants are borrowed from Sanskrit (although Tamil is from a different family) to get fancy sounds: sa, sha, ja, ha, ksha, shree. My name has one. There goes the second misconception. Tamil has fancy sounds.​

Third one: 'ae', 'aae' vowels of Sinhala are also there. They are implicit, they arise naturally when compounding with some consonants. But f, z are not there.​

Unlike some other similarly ancient classical languages (Arabic, Chinese, Greek), the grammar of Tamil has not changed much or diverged into varieties in 2200 years. However, the alphabet has changed. Started as Tamil Brahmi (Brahmi was the common script in India), it changed gradually. After a massive reform in 1978, the letters and their combinations are very consistent now.​

The spoken dialects are based on written Tamil, whose verbs are a bit complicated. Tamil is an agglutinative language. Unlike spoken Sinhala and English, the tense (past/present/future), sex (male/female/non-conscious), voice (active/passive), number (singular/plural) are all added as suffixes to the verb. This follows a well-defined order and set of rules, and unlike English, exceptions are extremely rare. ​

For example:​

avan saappitt-aan = he ate​
avan saappittu-vitt-aan = he has eaten​
avan saappitt-irupp-aan = he would have eaten​
avan saappittu-kkond-irunth-irupp-aan = he would have been eating​
avan saappittu-kkond-irunth-irukka-maattaan = he would not have been eating​

Breaking the verb:​

saappidu = eat (base verb - command)​
-vittu- = perfect​
iru = would​
ttaan = male, past​

Fun fact: The word "செல்லாதிருப்பவர்" (cellaathiruppavar) is ranked 8th in The Most Untranslatable Word In The World. ​

The pattern of suffixes is hard to notice from spoken dialects. Tamil is harder to speak than Sinhala, precisely due to this. Spoken dialects are simply different ways of shortening written Tamil. Jaffna Tamil, SL Muslim Tamil, Kotahena slang, Madras tamil... Tamil Nadu must have hundreds of dialects. If you speak the common written form, you'll sound like a newsreader or like a modern poet. But it will be intelligible and people will love you for the effort.

Irukkinraaya? - Written = Are (you) there?​
irukkiya? - Indian / sms​
irukkiriya? - Jaffna​
eekkiyaa? - Muslim​ (Akurana)

Madras Tamil is fun. It's the most optimized form of Tamil. They condense so much information into so few syllables. ​

Iluthuththuk kondu po = pull this and go (take it away)​
isthukinupo - Madras Tamil​

So, yeah... If you would like to learn spoken Tamil, you don't need to learn the written one. But it helps to know that seemingly arbitrary changes in verbs come from well-defined grammatical rules of written Tamil. You can find a youtube tutorial video of a cute girl and learn to speak from there 😉.

First posted on Facebook: facebook.com/abarajithan11/posts/10222627017895621