History

Tamil or Thamil (தமிழ்) is a Dravidian language predominantly spoken by the Tamil people of India and Sri Lanka, and also by the Tamil diaspora, Sri Lankan Muslims, Burghers and Malays. Tamil is an official language of two countries, Sri Lanka and Singapore. It has official status in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry. It is also used as one of the languages of education in Malaysia, along with English, Malay and Mandarin. In India, outside of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, Tamil is also spoken in the states of Kerala and Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a secondary language, and by minorities in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India. It was declared as a classical language by the Government of India in 2004. Government of Canada declared January as Tamil heritage month. 

Tamil is one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world. Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions from 500 BC have been found on Adichanallur and 2,200-year-old Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions have been found on Samanamalai. It has been described as “the only language of contemporary India which is recognizably continuous with a classical past.” The variety and quality of classical Tamil literature has led to it being described as “one of the great classical traditions and literatures of the world”.

A recorded Tamil literature has been documented for over 2000 years. The earliest period of Tamil literature, Sangam literature, is dated from ca. 300 BC – AD 300. It has the oldest extant literature among other Dravidian languages. The earliest epigraphic records found on rock edicts and hero stones date from around the 3rd century BC. More than 55% of the epigraphical inscriptions (about 55,000) found by the Archaeological Survey of India are in the Tamil language. Tamil language inscriptions written in Brahmi script have been discovered in Sri Lanka, and on trade goods in Thailand and Egypt. The two earliest manuscripts from India, acknowledged and registered by UNESCO Memory of the World register in 1997 and 2005, were written in Tamil.

In 1578, Portuguese Christian missionaries published a Tamil prayer book in old Tamil script named ‘Thambiraan Vanakkam,’ thus making Tamil the first Indian language to be printed and published. In 2014 Tamil Lexicon, published by the University of Madras, was the first among the dictionaries published in any Indian language.