Tamil – The Other Classical Language of India

In school back in India during the Raj, we were taught Latin and perhaps Greek in addition to English, mathematics and the sciences, as the knowledge of those two ‘dead’ classical languages was determined by our elders to be part of a future gentleman’s cultural upbringing in the wider world outside.

I, for one, later discovered that Sanskrit should have also been in the curriculum, and later still, another ‘classical’ language – Tamil – which had the advantage of not being ‘dead’ but alive and well in the southern swathe of my home country as well as in the northern section of neighboring Ceylon (Sri Lanka) – and beyond in Southeast Asia down to Australia. In addition, it advanced westward into southern African countries as well as into many of the states across America in the last century.


[According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Tamil have a long history of achievement; sea travel, city life, and commerce seem to have developed early among them. Tamil trade with the ancient Greeks and Romans is verified by literary, linguistic, and archaeological evidence.

The Tamil have the oldest cultivated Dravidian language, and their rich literary tradition extends back to the early Christian era. The Chera, Chola, Pandya, and Pallava dynasties ruled over the Tamil area before the Vijayanagar empire extended its hegemony in the 14th century, and these earlier dynasties produced many great kingdoms.

Under them the Tamil people built great temples, irrigation tanks, dams, and roads, and they played an important role in the transmission of Indian culture to Southeast Asia. The Chola, for example, were known for their naval power and brought the Malay kingdom of Sri Vijaya under their suzerainty in AD 1025. Though the Tamil area was integrated culturally with the rest of India for a long time, politically it was for most of the time a separate entity until the advent of British rule in India.]

Some Well-known Tamil Words in English and Other Languages Around the World
Mongoose – a slayer of snakes (Mangus)
– Curry – 1681 dish of meat, etc., cooked with bruised spices and turmeric (Kari)
Jaggerysugar (Sakkarai)
– Mulligatawny – East Indian curry-soup (Milagu-tannir: pepper-water!)
Catamaran – raft of logs; a double boat; an ill-natured woman (Kata-maram: tied wood)
– Corundum – a ruby-like mineral in appearance (Kuruntham: ruby)
– Cot  (Kattil: bedstead, portable bed)
– Godown (Kitanku: warehouse)
– Pagoda (Pagavadi: house belonging to a deity)
– Pandal (Pandhal: temporary shelter)
– Coolie – laborer/slave (Cooli)
– Pariah – a social outcast; an ownerless cur of Eastern towns; a member of a caste in
Southern India lower than the four Brahminical castes; a pye-dog (Paraiyar)
Trees, Fruits, etc.
– Ginger  (Inchi)
– Mango  (Mangay)
– Teak  (Tekku)

Tamil is one of the principal languages of the 12-member Dravidian family. Numbering about 57,000,000 in the late 20th century (including about 3,200,000 speakers in northern and eastern Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Tamil speakers make up the majority of the population of Tamil Nadu state and also inhabit parts of Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh states, all situated in the southernmost third of India. Emigrant Tamil may be found in some parts of the Malagasy Republic, the Malay Peninsula, Myanmar, Indochina, Thailand, eastern Africa, South Africa, the Fiji and Mauritius islands, and the West Indies.

On a personal note, I was a college student in London in the late 1940’s when I spent time during the summer holidays each year to hitchhike around Europe. It was when I was in the Northwest of Spain – San Sebastian – that I became aware of the Basques and their ‘country’ – known for the ‘strangeness’ of their language in the rest of the Continent and beyond. Two decades later back in India, I was on assignment from my Calcutta-based company in Madras and Colombo branches, where I met many Tamil-speaking people. I had also picked up during my travel there a book by Dr. N. Lahovary, who without qualms had written cogently and impressively about the myriad connections between Dravidian languages and Basque.

I, for one, was overwhelmed and during the intervening years have enjoyed delving into the many fascinating and, sometimes curious, events that the good Doctor proves at some considerable length to be more than a figment of a linguist’s imaginary ramblings. But that tale will have to be told another time in my blogosphere.

Indian Words in English by G. Subba Rao; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Oxford English Dictionary; Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary; Tamil Self-Taught by Don M. de Zilva Wickremasinghe; Dravidian Origins and the West by Dr. N. Lahovary;


Copyright © 2016 Azim Lewis Mayadas

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