Middle Tamil

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Middle Tamil
EraDevelops into Modern Tamil by the 16th century and Old Malayalam by the 9th century
Early form
Tamil alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Tanjavur Tamil Inscription

The evolution of Old Tamil into Middle Tamil, which is generally taken to have been completed by the 8th century,[1] was characterised by a number of phonological and grammatical changes. In phonological terms, the most important shifts were the virtual disappearance of the aytam (ஃ), an old phoneme,[2] the coalescence of the alveolar and dental nasals,[3] and the transformation of the alveolar plosive into a rhotic.[4]

In grammar, the most important change was the emergence of the present tense. The present tense evolved out of the verb kil (கில்), meaning "to be possible" or "to befall". In Old Tamil, this verb was used as an aspect marker to indicate that an action was micro-durative, non-sustained or non-lasting, usually in combination with a time marker such as (ன்). In Middle Tamil, this usage evolved into a present tense marker – kiṉṟa (கின்ற) – which combined the old aspect and time markers.[5]

Early Middle Tamil is the common ancestor of both modern Tamil and Malayalam languages.[6] Both languages share multiple common innovations dating to this period. For example, Old Tamil lacks the first and second person plural pronouns with the ending kaḷ. It is in the Early Middle Tamil stage that kaḷ first appears:[7]

Language Plural Pronouns
Old Tamil yārn, nām, nīr, nīyir
Middle Tamil nānkaḷ, nām, nīnkaḷ, enkaḷ
Malayalam ñaṅṅaḷ, nām, niṅṅaḷ, nammaḷ

Indeed, most features of Malayalam morphology are derivable from a form of speech corresponding to early Middle Tamil.[8]

From the period of the Pallava dynasty onwards, a number of Sanskrit loan-words entered Tamil, particularly in relation to political, religious and philosophical concepts.[9] Sanskrit also influenced Tamil grammar, in the increased use of cases and in declined nouns becoming adjuncts of verbs,[10] and phonology.

The forms of writing in Tamil have developed through years.[11] The Tamil script also changed in the period of Middle Tamil. Tamil Brahmi and Vaṭṭeḻuttu, into which it evolved, were the main scripts used in Old Tamil inscriptions. From the 8th century onwards, however, the Pallavas began using a new script, derived from the Pallava Grantha script which was used to write Sanskrit, which eventually replaced Vaṭṭeḻuttu.[12]

Middle Tamil is attested in many inscriptions, and in a significant body of secular and religious literature.[13] These include the religious poems and songs of the Bhakti poets, such as the Tēvāram verses on Shaivism and Nālāyira Tivya Pirapantam on Vaishnavism,[14] and adaptations of religious legends such as the 12th century Tamil Ramayana composed by Kamban and the story of 63 shaivite devotees known as Periyapurāṇam.[15] Iraiyaṉār Akapporuḷ, an early treatise on love poetics, and Naṉṉūl, a 12th-century grammar that became the standard grammar of literary Tamil, are also from the Middle Tamil period.[16]

There is a famous saying

திருவாசகத்துக்கு உருகார் ஒரு வாசகத்திற்கும் உருகார்
(tiruvācakattukku urukār ǒru vācakattiṛkum urukār)

translating to 'He whose heart is not melted by Thiruvasagam cannot be melted by any other

vasagam [saying]'.[17] The Thiruvasagam was composed by Manikkavasagar.


  1. ^ Lehmann 1998, pp. 75–76
  2. ^ Kuiper 1958, p. 194
  3. ^ Meenakshisundaran 1965, pp. 132–133
  4. ^ Kuiper 1958, pp. 213–215
  5. ^ Rajam, V. S. (1985). "The Duration of an Action-Real or Aspectual? The Evolution of the Present Tense in Tamil". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 105 (2): 277–291. doi:10.2307/601707. JSTOR 601707. at pp. 284–285
  6. ^ Ayyar, Ramaswami (1936). The Evolution of Malayalam Morphology (1st ed.). Cochin, Kerala: Cochin government press. p. 1-37.
  7. ^ Ayyar, Ramaswami (1936). The Evolution of Malayalam Morphology (1st ed.). Cochin, Kerala: Cochin government press. p. 35-37.
  8. ^ Ayyar, Ramaswami (1936). The Evolution of Malayalam Morphology (1st ed.). Cochin, Kerala: Cochin government press. p. 2.
  9. ^ Meenakshisundaran 1965, pp. 173–174
  10. ^ Meenakshisundaran 1965, pp. 153–154
  11. ^ Meenakshisundaran 1965, pp. 145–146
  12. ^ Mahadevan 2003, pp. 208–213
  13. ^ Meenakshisundaran 1965, p. 119
  14. ^ Varadarajan 1988
  15. ^ Varadarajan 1988, pp. 155–157
  16. ^ Zvelebil 1992, p. 227
  17. ^ Macdonell 1994, p. 219


  • Kuiper, F. B. J. (1958), "Two problems of old Tamil phonology I. The old Tamil āytam (with an appendix by K. Zvelebil)", Indo-Iranian Journal, 2 (3): 191–224, doi:10.1007/BF00162818, S2CID 161402102
  • Lehmann, Thomas (1998), "Old Tamil", in Steever, Sanford (ed.), The Dravidian Languages, London: Routledge, pp. 75–99, ISBN 978-0-415-10023-6
  • Mahadevan, Iravatham (2003), Early Tamil Epigraphy from the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D, Harvard Oriental Series vol. 62, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-01227-1
  • Meenakshisundaran, T.P. (1965), A History of Tamil Language, Poona: Deccan College
  • Varadarajan, Mu. (1988), A History of Tamil Literature, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi (Translated from Tamil by E.Sa. Viswanathan)
  • Zvelebil, Kamil (1992), Companion studies to the history of Tamil literature, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-09365-2