Old Tamil

Old Tamil is the period of the Tamil language spanning the 3rd century BCE to the 7th century CE. Prior to Old Tamil, the period of Tamil linguistic development is termed as Pre Tamil or Ancient Tamil. Post Old Tamil, 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][4][5] 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.[6][7] 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.

Old Tamil
RegionTamiḻakam, Ancient India
EraDeveloped into Middle Tamil by the 7th century
Tamil-Brahmi, later Vaṭṭeḻuttu and the Pallava alphabet
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]

Literary workEdit

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 1st century BCE and 5th centuries CE,[6] which makes them the oldest extant body of secular literature in India.[8] 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.[6][7][nb 1]


Old Tamil preserved many features of Proto-Dravidian, including inventory of consonants,[13] the syllable structure,[14] and various grammatical features.[15] 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")[16] Nouns could take pronominal suffixes like verbs to express ideas: e.g. peṇṭirēm [peɳɖireːm] பெண்டிரேம்) "we are women" formed from peṇṭir [peɳɖir] பெண்டிர்) "women" and the first person plural marker -ēm (ஏம்).[17] 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.[6]

See alsoEdit


  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 reviewers of his work.[9][10][11][12]

Cited literatureEdit

  1. ^ a b Mahadevan, I.Early Tamil Epigraphy p.91-94
  2. ^ Mahadevan, I.Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions p.1-12
  3. ^ Souler, B. Handbook of Oriental Studies p.44
  4. ^ Government of Tamilnadu, Department of Archeology. "Keeladi, Excavation Report, Urban Settlement, Sangam Age, River Vaigai". Retrieved 27 December 2020.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b c d Lehmann 1998, pp. 75–76
  7. ^ a b Zvelebil, K. The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South p.XX
  8. ^ Tharu & Lalita 1991, p. 70
  9. ^ Tieken 2001Hart, G.; Tieken, H. (2004). "Kāvya in South India: Old Tamil Caṅkam Poetry". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 124 (1): 180–184. doi:10.2307/4132191. JSTOR 4132191.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, p. 53
  14. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, p. 92
  15. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, pp. 182–193
  16. ^ Steever 1998, p. 24
  17. ^ Lehmann 1998, p. 80