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The scope of this topic is very wide. I have tried to summarize the views of various scholars when they try to Introduce Tamil to readers in their respective books. I feel this essay would be the right place to start my mini series on Tamil Literature studies.
What does the word Tamil mean? Let’s have a look at the Tamil Lexicon entry for the word Tamil.
, n. perh. தமி¹. cf. dramiḍa. 1. Sweetness, melodiousness; இனிமை. (பிங்.) 2. Refined quality; நீர்மை. (பிங்.) 3. Tamil language, being divided into iyaṟ-ṟamiḻ, icai-t-tamiḻ, nāṭaka-t-tamiḻ; இயற்றமிழ், இசைத்தமிழ், நாடகத் தமிழ் என மூவகையாக வழங்கும் மொழி. 4. Tamil literature, Tamil work; தமிழ் நூல். 5. The Tamils; தமிழர். அருந்தமி ழாற்ற லறிந்திலர் (சிலப். 26, 161). 6. The Tamil country; தமிழ்நாடு. தண் டமிழ் வினைஞர் (மணி. 19, 109).
Texual reference for the word Tamil:
- The earliest textual reference of this word can be found in Tolkappiyam, the earliest tamil work( Ur text of the book can be as early as 100 B.C. – though the book has lot of interpolations). In Tolkappiyam Eluttatikaram 386 the following words occur ‘ Tamil en kilavi’ meaning ‘the word Tamil’.
- We also have two more occurrences of the word Centamil (‘refined Tamil’) in Tolkappiyam Colatikkaram(398.3 ,400.2).
- The preface to Tolkappiyam (later than the original text) also has occurrence of Tamil and Centamil.
- In the Sangam Literature (1 AD to 3 AD) there are atleast 14 references to Tamil.
The term is found in following meanings,
- Tamil Language (Puram 50.10,58.13 etc.)
- Tamil Country ( Puram 51.5)
- Tamil Warriors/army (Puram 19.2, Patirupattu 63.9)
- Tamil Literature (Cirpanaatrupadai 66)
Etymology of Tamil is connected with
- tami – ‘solitude;loneliness’–> ‘solitariness,uniqueness’ or
- tam- sweet , il- sound –> our sweet sound or
- Tamir ‘the proper(excellent) process(of speaking)’
The word ‘Dravida’ is etymologically connected to Tamil. Development suggested is as follows,
tamir > damil > damila > dravida.
Origins of Tamil:
Origins of Tamil are still left to speculation. As far as we know Tamil Language is member of the Dravidian Language Family. The name Dravidian for the language chain was coined by R.Cladwell in 1856 on the base of the Sanskrit term Dravida found in 7th century A.D.. Tamil is the oldest of the surviving Dravidian languages.
How old is Tamil? This question has resulted in many answers but none of them with any definitive proof, especially with a Language which has been dependent on Oral tradition for long time. Tamil has majorly been an oral Language. As per widely accepted theory the earliest system of Tamil writing is either called Tamil Brahmi or Dameli, is borrowed from the Ashokan Brahmi and changed to the phonetically needs of Tamil. The writing system came as late as 250BC (Ashoka period 272-232 BC). So any historical data regarding Tamil can be obtained only after the writing system got introduced.
The generally admitted fact by various scholars in historical Dravidian Linguistics is that Proto-South Dravidian linguistic unity disintegrated some time between 8th-6th century B.C. and Tamil began to be cultivated as literary language sometime about 4th or 3rd century B.C. During this period, pre literary Tamil developed into Old Tamil. Old Tamil is the first recorded stage of any Dravidian Language. This was followed by final stages of Tamil – Kannada split and beginning of ancient Tamil literature, which was accompanied by conscious efforts of grammarians and body formed by poetic bards to set up some kind of norm – a literary standard. This standard defined the refined, elegant ,high Tamil- ‘Centamil’. This was followed by creating of literature of High standard and descriptive grammar work Tolkappiyam.
There are at least 11 sites with Tamil Brahmi script dated to 2nd century B.C.
The following sites are listed by Iravatham Mahadevan to be dated to 2nd Century B.C. with Tamil Brahmi scripts,
Adichanallu excavations have brought to light rudimentary Brahmi scripts, approximately dated to 500 B.C., if these dates are confirmed this could change a lot of perceptions on Tamil Language.
Based on available and attested sources we can safely say that literary Tamil began by around 3rd Century BC. New evidences can push this period further to 5th century B.C. but I would safely assume 3rd century period based on attested data.
Part 2 – Sanskrit the magic wand?
Part 3 – Unique nature of Tamil
 Etymology of Tamil is discussed in detail by Dr.Zvelebil in his Companion studies to History of Tamil History, pg. ix-xvii
 The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil, pg. 4-5
 Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan, pg.97
Reference and Further Study:
- The Smile of Murugan : On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil
- Companion studies to History of Tamil History
- Tamil Literature by Kamil Zvelebil
- Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts by George L. Hart
- Tamil Heroic Poetry by K.Kailasapathy
- The Eight Anthologies by J.R. Marr
- The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology by A.K.Ramanujan
- Pattupattu: Ten Tamil Idylls by J.V. Chelliah
- A History of South India from prehistoric times to the fall of Vijayanagar by K.A.Nilakantasastri
- Early Tamil Epigraphy : From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan
- Tamil Lexicon – University of Madras
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