Much of Tamil grammar is extensively described in the oldest available grammar book for Tamil, the Tolkāppiyam. Modern Tamil writing is largely based on the 13th century grammar Naṉṉūl which restated and clarified the rules of the Tolkāppiyam, with some modifications.
Parts of Tamil grammar
Traditional Tamil grammar consists of five parts, namely eḻuttu, sol, porul, yāppu, aṇi. Of these, the last two are mostly applicable in poetry. The following table gives additional information about these parts.
|Tamil name||Meaning||Main grammar books|
Most Tamil affixes are suffixes. Tamil suffixes can be derivational suffixes, which either change the part of speech of the word or its meaning, or inflectional suffixes, which mark categories such as person, number, mood, tense, etc. There is no absolute limit on the length and extent of agglutination, which can lead to long words with a large number of suffixes, which would require several words or a sentence in English. To give an example, the word pōkamuṭiyātavarkaḷukkāka (போகமுடியாதவர்களுக்காக) means "for the sake of those who cannot go", and consists of the following morphemes:
he/she who does
Words formed as a result of the agglutinative process are often difficult to translate. According to Today Translations, a British translation service, the Tamil word "செல்லாதிருப்பவர்" (cellaathiruppavar, meaning a certain type of truancy †) is ranked 8th in The Most Untranslatable Word In The World list.
Parts of speech
Tamil nouns (and pronouns) are classified into two super-classes (tiṇai) - the "rational" (uyartiṇai), and the "irrational" (aḵṟiṇai) - which include a total of five classes (paal, which literally means 'gender'). Humans and deities are classified as "rational", and all other nouns (animals, objects, abstract nouns) are classified as irrational. The "rational" nouns and pronouns belong to one of three classes (paal) - masculine singular, feminine singular, and rational plural. The plural form for rational nouns may be used as an honorific, gender-neutral, singular form. The "irrational" nouns and pronouns belong to one of two classes (paal) - irrational singular and irrational plural. As the example in the table indicates, the paal is often indicated through suffixes.
|Example: the Tamil words for "doer"|
He who did
She who did
They who did
That which did
Those ones which did
Suffixes are also used to perform the functions of cases or postpositions. Traditional grammarians tried to group the various suffixes into 8 cases corresponding to the cases used in Sanskrit. These were the nominative, accusative, dative, sociative, genitive, instrumental, locative, and ablative. Modern grammarians, however, argue that this classification is artificial, and that Tamil usage is best understood if each suffix or combination of suffixes is seen as marking a separate case.
Tamil nouns can also take one of four prefixes, i, a, u and e which are functionally equivalent to demonstratives in English. For example, the word vazhi (வழி) meaning "way" can take these to produce ivvazhi (இவ்வழி) "this way", avvazhi (அவ்வழி) "that way", uvvazhi (உவ்வழி) "the medial way" and evvazhi (எவ்வழி) "which way".
Some nouns are formed by means of agglutination. For example, "he-who-does" or "that-which-will-become" are the so-called participial nouns. Composite nouns are formed by combining adjectives and pronouns. For example, combining "good" and "he" into "good-he" we obtain the equivalent of the English "a good man". Correspondingly, the noun "good-they" is translated as "good people". Verbal nouns in Tamil are formed from the roots of verbs and are roughly equivalent to the English "-ing" nouns.
Like Tamil nouns, Tamil verbs are also inflected through the use of suffixes. A typical Tamil verb form will have a number of suffixes, which show person, number, mood, tense and voice, as is shown by the following example azḥintukkoṇṭiruntēṉ (அழிந்துக்கொண்டிருந்தேன்) "(I) was being destroyed":
Person and number are indicated by suffixing the oblique case of the relevant pronoun (ēn in the above example). The suffixes to indicate tenses and voice are formed from grammatical particles, which are added to the stem.
Tamil has two voices. The first - used in the example above - indicates that the subject of the sentence undergoes or is the object of the action named by the verb stem, and the second indicates that the subject of the sentence directs the action referred to by the verb stem. These voices are not equivalent to the notions of transitivity or causation, or to the active-passive or reflexive-nonreflexive division of voices found in Indo-European languages.
Tamil has three simple tenses - past, present, and future - indicated by simple suffixes, and a series of perfects, indicated by compound suffixes. Mood is implicit in Tamil, and is normally reflected by the same morphemes which mark tense categories. These signal whether the happening spoken of in the verb is unreal, possible, potential, or real. Tamil verbs also mark evidentiality, through the addition of the hearsay clitic ām.
Tamil has no articles. Definiteness and indefiniteness are either indicated by special grammatical devices, such as using the number "one" as an indefinite article, or by the context. In the first person plural, Tamil makes a distinction between inclusive pronouns that include the listener and exclusive pronouns that do not. Tamil does not distinguish between adjectives and adverbs - both fall under the category uriccol. Conjunctions are called iṭaiccol.
Verb auxiliaries are used to indicate attitude, a grammatical category which shows the state of mind of the speaker, and his attitude about the event spoken of in the verb. Common attitudes include pejorative opinion, antipathy, relief felt at the conclusion of an unpleasant event or period, and unhappiness at or apprehension about the eventual result of a past or continuing event.
Except in poetry, the subject precedes the object, and the verb concludes the sentence. In a standard sentence, therefore, the order is usually subject–object–verb (SOV), but object–subject–verb is also common.
Tamil is a null-subject language. Not all Tamil sentences have subjects, verbs and objects. It is possible to construct valid sentences that have only a verb, such as muṭintuviṭṭatu (முடிந்துவிட்டது) "It is completed", or only a subject and object, such as atu eṉ vīṭu (அது என் வீடு) "That is my house".
The elements that are present, however, must follow the SOV order. Tamil does not have an equivalent for the word is; the word is included in the translations only to convey the meaning. The verb to have in the meaning "to possess" is not translated directly, either. To say "I have a horse" in Tamil, a construction equivalent to "There is a horse to me" or "There exists a horse to me", is used.
Tamil lacks relative pronouns, but their meaning is conveyed by relative participle constructions, built using agglutination. For example, the English sentence "Call the boy who learned the lesson" is said in Tamil like "That-lesson-learned-boy call".
A sample passage in Tamil script with an ITRANS-like transliteration.
aasiriyar vakuppukkuL nuzhainthaar. avar uLLE nuzhainthavudan maaNavarkaL ezhunthanar. vaLavan mattum than arukil ninRu kondiruntha maaNavi kanimozhiyudan pEsik kondirunthaan. naan avanai echarithEn.
English translation of the passage given above: The teacher entered the classroom. As soon as he entered, the students got up. Only Valavan was talking to Kanimozhi who was standing next to him. I warned him.
- Tamil does not have a definite article. The definite article used above is merely an artefact of translation.
- To understand why Valavan would want to be warned, it is necessary to comprehend Indian social etiquette. It is considered impolite to be distracted when a person of eminence (the teacher in this case) makes an entry and the teacher may feel insulted or slighted.
|Word (romanised)||Translation||Morphemes||Part of speech||Person, Gender, Tense||Case||Number||Remarks|
|aasiriyar||teacher||aasiriyar||noun||n/a, gender-neutral, n/a||nominative||honorific plural indicated by suffix ar||The feminine gender aasiriyai can be used here too; the masculine gender aasiriyan is rarely used, considering the honored position of the teacher|
|vakuppaRaiyuL||inside the class room||vakuppu+aRai
|adverb||n/a||locative||n/a||Sandhi (called puṇarci in Tamil) rules in Tamil require euphonic changes during agglutination (such as the introduction of y in this case)|
|nuzhainthaar||entered||nuzhainthaar||verb||third, gender-neutral, past||honorific plural||In an honorific context, the masculine and feminine equivalents nuzhainthaan and nuzhainthaaL are replaced by the collective nuzhainthaar|
|avar||He||avar||pronoun||third, gender-neutral, n/a||nominative||honorific plural indicated by suffix ar||In honorific contexts, the masculine and feminine forms avan and avaL are not used|
|nuzhainthavudan||upon entering||nuzhaintha +
|adverb||n/a||n/a||Sandhi rules require a v to be inserted between an end-vowel and a beginning-u during agglutination.|
|maaNavarkaL||students||maaNavarkaL||collective noun||n/a, masculine, often used with gender-neutral connotation, n/a||nominative||plural indicated by suffix kaL|
|ezhunthanar||got up||ezhunthanar||verb||third, gender-neutral, past||plural|
|VaLavan||VaLavan (name)||VaLavan||proper noun||n/a, masculine, usually indicated by suffix an, n/a||nominative||singular|
|than||his (self) own||than||pronoun||n/a, gender-neutral, n/a||singular|
|arukil||near (lit. "in nearness")||aruku + il||adverb||n/a||locative||n/a||The postposition il indicates the locative case|
|ninRu kondiruntha||standing||ninRu + kondu + iruntha||adverb||n/a||n/a||The verb has been morphed into an adverb by the incompleteness due to the terminal a|
|maaNavi||student||maaNavi||pronoun||n/a, feminine, n/a||singular|
|kanimozhiyudan||with Kanimozhi (name of a person)||kanimozhi + udan||adverb||n/a||comitative||n/a||The name Kanimozhi literally means sweet language|
|pEsik kondirunthaan||was talking||pEsi + kondu +irunthaan||verb||third, masculine, past continuous||singular||Continuousness indicated by the incompleteness brought by kondu|
|naan||I||naan||pronoun||first person, gender-neutral, n/a||nominative||singular|
|avanai||him||avanai||pronoun||third, masculine, n/a||accusative||singular||The postposition ai indicates accusative case|
|echarithEn||cautioned||echarithEn||verb||first, indicated by suffix En, gender-neutral, past||singular, plural would be indicated by substituting En with Om|
- A. H. Arden, A progressive grammar of the Tamil language, 5th edition, 1942.
- Schiffman, Harold F. (1999). A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-64074-1.bgn
- "Five-fold grammar of Tamil". Retrieved 2007-06-01.
- Classes of nouns in Tamil. Retrieved 2007-06-01.
- Zvelebil, K. V. (Apr–Jun 1972). "Dravidian Case-Suffixes: Attempt at a Reconstruction". Journal of the American Oriental Society (American Oriental Society) 92 (2): 272–276. doi:10.2307/600654. JSTOR 600654.
The entire problem of the concept of 'case' in Dravidian will be ignored in this paper. In fact, we might posit a great number of 'cases' for perhaps any Dravidian language once we departed from the familiar types of paradigms forced upon us by traditional, indigenous and European grammars, especially of the literary languages. It is, for instance, sheer convention based on Tamil grammatical tradition (influenced no doubt by Sanskrit) that, as a rule, the number of cases in Tamil is given as eight.
- Harold Schiffman, "Standardization and Restandardization: the case of Spoken Tamil", Language in Society 27:3 (1998) pp. 359–385 and esp. pp.374–375.
- Steever, Sanford B. (2002). Güldemann, Tom; von Roncador, Manfred, eds. "Reported Discourse: A Meeting Ground for Different Linguistic Domains". Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company: 91–108. ISBN 90-272-2958-9.
|contribution=ignored (help) at p. 105.
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