Tamil phonology

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Tamil phonology is characterised by the presence of “true-subapical” retroflex consonants and multiple rhotic consonants. Its script does not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced consonants; phonetically, voice is assigned depending on a consonant's position in a word, voiced intervocalically and after nasals except when geminated.[1] Tamil phonology permits few consonant clusters, which can never be word initial.


Monophthongs of Tamil, from Keane (2004:114)

The vowels are called உயிரெழுத்து uyireḻuttu ('life letter'). The vowels are classified into short and long (five of each type) and two diphthongs.

The long (nedil) vowels are about twice as long as the short (kuṟil) vowels. The diphthongs are usually pronounced about one and a half times as long as the short vowels, though most grammatical texts place them with the long vowels.

Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i u/ɯ
Mid e o
Open ä äː

Tamil has two diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ , the latter of which is restricted to a few lexical items. [ɯ] is found as a variation of /u/ at the end of words.

Colloquially the initial /i(:), e(:)/ may have a [ʲ] onglide and [ʷ] for /o(:), u(:)/ eg [ʲeɾi, ʷoɾɯ].[3]

Colloquial Tamil also has nasalized vowels formed from word final /VN/ cluster in words which have more than 1 syllable for example அவன் /aʋan/ may be [aʋã] ([aʋẽ] in some dialects), மரம் /maɾam/ maybe [maɾõ], நீங்களும் /n̪iːŋgaɭum/ maybe [n̪iːŋgaɭũ], வந்தான் /ʋan̪d̪a:n/ [ʋan̪d̪ã:] etc.[3][4]

Colloquially the high short vowels /i, u/ in the first syllable when next to a short consonant and the vowel /a/ get lowered to [o, u] eg இடம் /iɖam/ to [eɖam], உடம்பு /uɖambu/ to [oɖambɯ].[4]


The consonants are known as மெய்யெழுத்து meyyeḻuttu ('body letters'). The consonants are classified into three categories with six in each category: vallinam ('hard'), mellinam ('soft' or nasal), and idayinam ('medium'). Tamil has very restricted consonant clusters (for example, there are no word-initial clusters) and has allophonic aspirated stops. There are well-defined rules for voicing stops in the written form of Tamil, Centamil (the period of Tamil history before Sanskrit words were borrowed). Stops are voiceless when at the start of a word, in a consonant cluster with another stop and when geminated. They are voiced otherwise.

The alveolar stop *ṯ developed into an alveolar trill /r/ in many of the Dravidian languages. The stop sound is retained in Kota and Toda (Subrahmanyam 1983).[5]

[n] and [n̪] are in complementary distribution and are predictable, [n̪] word initially and before [d̪] and [n] elsewhere, ie they are allophonic.[3]

/ɲ/ is extremely rare word initially and is only found before /t͡ɕ/ word medially. [ŋ] only occurs before [g].[3]

A chart of the Tamil consonant phonemes in the International Phonetic Alphabet follows:

Tamil consonants[6]
Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Alveolo-palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m ம் () ந் n ன் ɳ ண் ɲ ஞ் (ŋ) ங்
Stop p ப் த் tːr ற்ற ʈ ட் k க்
Affricate t͡ɕ ~ t͡ʃ ச்1
Fricative (f)3 s2 ஸ் (z)3 (ʂ)3 ஷ் (ɕ)2 ஶ் (x)4 (ɦ)4 ஹ்
Tap ɾ ர்
Trill r ற்
Approximant ʋ வ் ɻ ழ் j ய்
Lateral approximant l ல் ɭ ள்
  1. ⟩ is pronounced as [s] medially.
  2. [s] and [ɕ] are allophones of initial /t͡ɕ/ in some dialects.
  3. /f/, /z/ and /ʂ/ are found only in loanwords and frequently replaced by native sounds.
  4. [ɦ] and [x] are allophones of /k/ in some dialects.

The voiceless consonants are voiced depending on position.

Tamil stop allophones
Place Initial Geminate Medial Post-nasal
Velar k g~x~ɣ ɡ
Palatal tɕ~s tːɕ s
Retroflex ʈː ɖ~ɽ ɖ
Alveolar tːr r (d)r
Dental t̪ː d̪~ð
Labial p b~β b

Voiced plosives may also occur word-initially in a few of the loan words.[3]


Classical Tamil had a phoneme called the āytam, written as ‘'. Tamil grammarians of the time classified it as a dependent phoneme (or restricted phoneme[7]) (cārpeḻuttu), but it is very rare in modern Tamil. The rules of pronunciation given in the Tolkāppiyam, a text on the grammar of Classical Tamil, suggest that the āytam could have glottalised the sounds it was combined with. It has also been suggested that the āytam was used to represent the voiced implosive (or closing part or the first half) of geminated voiced plosives inside a word.[8] The āytam, in modern Tamil, is also used to convert p to f when writing English words and a few other sound using the Tamil script.


Unlike Indo-Aryan languages spoken around it, Tamil does not have distinct letters for aspirated consonants and they are found as allophones of the normal stops. The Tamil script also lacks distinct letters for voiced and unvoiced stop as their pronunciations depend on their location in a word. For example, the voiceless stop [p] occurs at the beginning of the words and the voiced stop [b] cannot. In the middle of words, voiceless stops commonly occur as a geminated pair like -pp-, while voiced stops do not. Only the voiced stops can appear medially and after a corresponding nasal. Thus both the voiced and voiceless stops can be represented by the same script in Tamil without ambiguity, the script denoting only the place and broad manner of articulation (stop, nasal, etc.). The Tolkāppiyam cites detailed rules as to when a letter is to be pronounced with voice and when it is to be pronounced unvoiced. The only exceptions to these rules are the letters and as they are pronounced medially as [s] and [r] respectively.

Some loan words are pronounced in Tamil as they were in the source language, even if this means that consonants which should be unvoiced according to the Tolkāppiyam are voiced.


Elision is the reduction in the duration of sound of a phoneme when preceded by or followed by certain other sounds. There are well-defined rules for elision in Tamil. They are categorised into different classes based on the phoneme which undergoes elision.

1. Kutr iyal ukaram (short nature U) the vowel u
2. Kutr iyal ikaram (short nature I) the vowel i
3. Aiykaara k kurukkam ( AI shortening) the diphthong ai
4. Oukaara k kurukkam ( AU shortening) the diphthong au
5. Aaytha k kurukkam ( h shortening) the special character akh (aaytham)
6. Makara k kurukkam ( M shortening) the phoneme m

1. Kutr iyal ukaram refers to the vowel /u/ turning into the close back unrounded vowel [ɯ] at the end of words (e.g.: ‘ஆறு’ (meaning ‘six’) will be pronounced [aːrɯ]).

2. Kutr iyal ikaram refers to the shortening of the vowel /i/ before the consonant /j/.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schiffman, Harold F.; Arokianathan, S. (1986), "Diglossic variation in Tamil film and fiction", in Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju; Masica, Colin P. (eds.), South Asian languages: structure, convergence, and diglossia, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, pp. 371–382, ISBN 81-208-0033-8 at p. 371
  2. ^ Keane (2004:114–115)
  3. ^ a b c d e Keane, Elinor. Tamil (Thesis). Oxford University Phonetics Laboratory.
  4. ^ a b F.Schiffman, Harold. Spoken Tamil (Thesis). Cambridge University press.
  5. ^ Krishnamurti (2003), p. ?.
  6. ^ Keane (2004:111)
  7. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, p. 154
  8. ^ Kuiper 1958, p. 191


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