Much of Tamil grammar is extensively described in the oldest available grammar book for Tamil, the Tolkāppiyam (dated between 1000 BC and 500 AD). 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 ezhuththu, sol, porul, yāppu, and 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|
eḻuttu defines and describes the letters of the Tamil alphabet and their classification. It describes the nature of phonemes and their changes with respect to different conditions and locations in the text.
Sol defines the types of the words based on their meaning and the origin. It defines the gender, number, cases, tenses, classes, harmony, etc. This chapter also provides rules for compounding the words.
Porul defines the contents of poetry. It gives guidance on which topic to choose for poetry based on certain conditions like the nature of the land or time or the people. It gives a distinction between Agam (Internal / love life) and Puram (external / worldly life).
yāppu defines rules for composing Traditional poetry. It defines the basic building block Asai and describes how asai should be joined to form a sīr, joining sīr for an adi.
aṇi defines techniques used for comparing, praising and criticizing the taken topics.
The script of Tamil Language consists of 247 letters. The script falls under the category Abugida, in which consonant-vowel sequences are written as a unit. The grammar classifies the letters into two major categories.
- Prime Letters - முதலெழுத்து
- Dependent Letters - சார்பெழுத்து
12 vowels and 18 consonants are classified as the prime letters.
- The vowels (உயிரெழுத்துகள்): அ (a), ஆ(ā), இ(i), ஈ(ī), உ(u), ஊ(ū), எ(e), ஏ(ē), ஐ(ai), ஒ(o), ஓ(ō), ஔ(au)
- The Consonants (மெய்யெழுத்துகள்): க், ங், ச், ஞ், ட், ண், த், ந், ப், ம், ய், ர், ல், வ், ழ், ள், ற்,ன்
The Vowels are called uyir, meaning soul, in Tamil. The consonants are known as mei, meaning body. When the alphasyllabary is formed, the letter shall be taking the form of the consonants, that is the body, and the sound shall be that of the corresponding vowel, that is the soul.
The vowels are categorized based on the length, as short (kuril) and long(nedil). The short vowels are pronounced for a duration 1 unit, while the long vowels take two units. Based on the duration of the sound, the vowels form 5 pairs. The other two vowels ஐ(ai) and ஔ(au) are diphthongs formed by joining the letters அ(a)+இ(i) and அ(a)+உ(u). Since these two are a combination two short letters, their pronunciation takes 2 units of time, that is they fall under nedil category. ஐ(ai) and ஔ(au) can also be spelt அய் and அவ். This form is known as eḻuttuppōli and is generally not recommended.
The consonants are categorised into three groups, வல்லினம்'vallinam'(hard), மெல்லினம்'mellinam'(soft) and இடையினம்'idaiyinam'(medium), based on the nature of the sound.
|க் k||ங் ŋ||ய் j|
|ச் tʃ||ஞ் ɲ||ர் ɾ̪|
|ட் ɽ||ண் ɳ||ல் l̪|
|த் t̪||ந் n̪||வ் ʋ|
|ப் p||ம் m||ழ் ɻ|
|ற் r||ன் n||ள் ɭ|
From the 30 prime letters, the dependent letters are formed.
Tamil grammar defines 10 categories of Dependent letters.
- Alphasyllabic letters உயிர்மெய் எழுத்து
- Aidam ஆய்த எழுத்து
- Elongated verb (Uyiralabedai) உயிரளபெடை
- Elongated consonant (Otralabedai) ஒற்றளபெடை
- Shortened u (Kutriyalukaram) குற்றியலுகரம்
- Shortened i (Kutriyalikaram) குற்றியலிகரம்
- Shortened ai (Aikarakurukkam) ஐகாரக் குறுக்கம்
- Shortened au (Aukarakurukkam) ஔகாரக் குறுக்கம்
- Shortened m (Makarakurukkam) மகரக்குறுக்கம்
- Shortened Aidam (Aidakurukkam) ஆய்தக்குறுக்கம்
The alphasyllabic letters are formed by combining the consonants and the vowels. The duration of the sound is that of the inherent vowel. They are 216 in total. For example, the table below shows the formation of க் based letters.
|Combination||Uyirmei form||ISO 15919||IPA|
|க் + அ||க||ka||[kʌ]|
|க் + ஆ||கா||kā||[kɑː]|
|க் + இ||கி||ki||[ki]|
|க் + ஈ||கீ||kī||[kiː]|
|க் + உ||கு||ku||[ku], [kɯ]|
|க் + ஊ||கூ||kū||[kuː]|
|க் + எ||கெ||ke||[ke]|
|க் + ஏ||கே||kē||[keː]|
|க் + ஐ||கை||kai||[kʌj]|
|க் + ஒ||கொ||ko||[ko]|
|க் + ஓ||கோ||kō||[koː]|
|க் + ஔ||கௌ||kau||[kʌʋ]|
Aidam is also known as thaninilai (stand alone). The aidam is always preceded by a single short letter (தனிக்குறில்) and followed by a hard alphasyllabic letter (வல்லின உயிர்மெய்). It takes half unit time for pronunciation.
Uyiralabedai (உயிரளபெடை) and Otralabedai (ஒற்றளபெடை) are formed by elongating the duration of pronunciation of a letter to satisfy certain grammatical rules while composing poetry. In Uyiralabedai, the intrinsic vowel of the letter that is elongated is written next to it, to indicate that the letter now is pronounced for 3 units of time.
In Kutriyalukaram, the duration of the short 'u' letters of vallinam category (கு, சு, டு, து, பு, று) is reduced to half units, when the letter is found at the end of the word, preceded by multiple letters or a single nedil(long) letter.
If a word with kutriyalikaram is followed by a word with 'ய'(ya) as the first letter, the u sound is corrupted to i sound and takes a half unit of time for pronunciation.
In Aikarakurukkam and Aukarakurukkam, the duration of the letters ஐ and ஔ are reduced to 1 1/2 units if they are the first letters of the word. If situated elsewhere it is reduced to 1 unit.
In Tamil, a single letter standing alone or multiple letters combined together form a word. Tamil is an agglutinative language. Tamil words consist of a lexical root to which one or more affixes are attached.
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 pōgamuḍiyādavargaḷukkāga (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
In Tamil, words are classified into four categories namely,
- Nouns Peyarsol
- Verbs Vinaisol
- Particles and Pre-/Postpositions Idaisol
- Adjective and Adverbs Urisol
All categories of nouns are declinable. Verbs are conjugated to indicate person, tense, gender, number and mood. The other two classes are indeclinable.
The nouns stand for the names of objects both animate and inanimate, and abstract concepts. Tamil is an agglutinative language and can be declined. Nouns are the collections of names of Animate/Inanimate objects (பொருட்பெயர்), Places (இடப்பெயர்), concepts of time (காலப்பெயர்), Names of limbs of Animate/Inanimate objects (சினைப்பெயர்), qualitative nouns (பண்புப்பெயர்) and Verbal nouns (தொழிற்பெயர்).
Nouns of place (இடப்பெயர்) stands for both conceptual names like town, village, heaven and real names like New York, Amsterdam.
Nouns of time (காலப்பெயர்), includes units of time, names of days of the week, names of months and seasons.
Nouns of Quality (பண்புப்பெயர்), includes the nature and quality of the abstract and tangible objects. Example: Names of tastes, shape, quantity, etc.
The nouns are divided into two main classes based on rationality: The "high class" (உயர்திணை uyartiṇai ), and the "lower class" ( அஃறிணை aḵṟiṇai).
All the rational beings fall under the category of "high class". Examples could be Adult humans and deities. All the irrational beings and inanimate objects fall under the "lower class". Examples could be animals, birds, plants and things. Since children are considered to be irrational, the word kuḻandai (Child) is considered "lower class" ( அஃறிணை aḵṟiṇai) or neuter.
Genders and number
The grammatical gender of Tamil nouns corresponds to their natural sex. Nouns in Tamil have two numbers, singular and plural.
Grammatical gender, known as pā in Tamil, encompasses both the concepts of gender and number. Masculine and Feminine genders are only applicable to "higher class" nouns. Even though the genders of animals are marked in a sentence (Eg: பெண் நாய்,), grammatically they are handled as a neuter noun. Thus there are five genders in Tamil. Namely, Masculine Singular(ஆண்பால் āṇpāl), Feminine Singular(பெண்பால் peṇpāl), high-class plural (பலர்பால் palarpāl), lower-class singular (ஒன்றன்பால் oṉṟaṉpāl), lower-class plural (பலவின்பால் palaviṉpāl). It is summarized in the table below.
|Example: the Tamil words for "doer"|
He who did
She who did
They who did
That which did
Those ones which did
Demonstratives and Interrogatives
|he, who is near to the 1st person||near deixis, demonstrative particle|
|he, who is near to the 2nd person||distant deixis, demonstrative particle|
|he, who is near to the 3rd person or someone not present||distant deixis, demonstrative particle|
|who? (male singular)||interrogative particle|
In Tamil, the demonstrative particles are a- (அ), i- (இ), and u- (உ) (archaic and has fallen out of use, except in Sri Lankan dialects). These demonstrative particles display deictic properties. i- (இ) is a near deixis form, which demonstrates the objects around/near the first person, while a- (அ) has distant deixis form, which demonstrates things near the 3rd person. u- (உ) was used indicate objects near the second person, but has gradually fallen out of use. In modern Tamil i- (இ) indicates objects nearer and a- (அ) indicates objects in a distance. Using these particles demonstrative pronouns are derived. The same set of pronouns is also used as personal pronouns in 3rd person. e.g. avan (he), adhu (that object/being), andha (that)
e- (எ) and yā- யா are the two important interrogative particles in Tamil. e- (எ) is used for deriving the interrogative pronouns. e.g. evan (which one, 3rd person singular masculine), endha (which), edaṟku (for what?)
First person plural pronouns in Tamil, distinguish between inclusive and exclusive we. In Tamil, plural terminators are used for honorific addressing. It could be noted in both 2nd and 3rd persons. There are unique personal pronouns available for first and second persons while demonstrative pronouns are used in place of personal pronouns as well.
|Person / Gender / Number|
|I||1st / neutral / singular|
|Inclusive we||1st / neutral / plural|
|Exclusive we||1st / neutral / plural|
|you||2nd / neutral / singular|
|honorific singular you||2nd / neutral / singular|
|you||2nd / neutral / plural|
|அவன் / இவன்
avan / ivan
|he||3rd / Masculine / singular|
|அவள் / இவள்
aval / ival
|she||3rd / Feminine / singular|
|அவர் / இவர்
avar / ivar
|Honorific he/she||3rd / neutral / singular|
|they (low class)||3rd / neutral / plural|
|அவர்கள் / இவர்கள்
|they (high class)||3rd / neutral / plural|
|அது / இது
adhu / idhu
|it (animals and objects)||3rd / neuter / singular|
|அவை / இவை
avai / ivai
|they (animals and objects)||3rd / neuter / plural|
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. The chart below outlines the most common set of suffixes used to conjugate for person and tense, but different groups of Tamil verbs may use other sets of suffixes or have irregularities.
|3rd Singular Masculine||-kir-ān||-t-ān||-v-ān|
|3rd Singular Feminine||-kir-āl||-t-āl||-v-āl|
|3rd Singular Honorific||-kir-ār||-t-ār||-v-ār|
|3rd Singular Irrational||-kir-atu||-t-atu||-y-um*|
|3rd Plural Rational||-kir-ārkal||-t-ārkal||-v-ārkal|
|3rd Plural Irrational||-kinr*-ana||-t-ana||-v-(an)a*|
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 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 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||Proper noun||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
- Lehmann, Thomas. A Grammar of Modern Tamil. Pondicherry Institute of Linguistics and Culture, 1989.
- "Five-fold grammar of Tamil". Retrieved 2007-06-01.
- வல்லெழுத் தென்ப க ச ட த ப ற.
- மெல்லெழுத் தென்ப ங ஞ ண ந ம ன.
- இடையெழுத் தென்ப ய ர ல வ ழ ள.
- Steever, Sanford B. (2002). "Direct and indirect discourse in Tamil". In Güldemann, Tom; von Roncador, Manfred (eds.). Reported Discourse: A Meeting Ground for Different Linguistic Domains. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 91–108. ISBN 90-272-2958-9. at p. 105.
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