Tamil Language/Letters

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The Tamil Letters[edit]

Level 1 - Lesson 1
Learning a language (by oneself) should begin with learning its letters - this is the sound elements (phones) of the language and the symbols used to represent them in writing. In this very first lesson you will be introduced to the Tamil letters.

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Introduction[edit]

Tamil language has a very long heritage, thanks to that... Tamil became one of the most cultivated and structured languages! Traditional grammarians have classified and named the letters of this language quite meaningfully as well as beautifully! The letters are known as 'elutu' (எழுத்து). Tamil has 12 vowels and 18 consonants which are classified as 'Mutal Elutukkal'[1]' (Primary letters) owing to the fact that these can operate without the need of any other letter (or letter combination). The vowels are termed as 'uyir elutukkal' ('uyir' meaning 'life' or 'soul') and the consonants are called 'mei elutukkal' ('mei' meaning 'body') - this terminology has very deep linguistic and philosophical implication!

Apart from these thirty Primary letters, Tamil has its very own set of secondary (dependent) letters which are known as 'sārbu elutukkal'. These are further classified into 10 groups, based on their dependence and nature, and make up to a total of 247 letters (don't panic, it is not as difficult to learn those!)

We shall learn the 30 Primary letters in this first lesson.

Vowels[edit]

As mentioned above Tamil has 12 vowels - uyir elutukkal (உயிர்  எழுத்துகள்). These twelve are further divided into two groups of 5 and 7 letters each, named as 'kuril' (short vowel) and 'nedil' (long vowel) respectively. The terminology 'short' and 'long' refers to the length of time for which these letters are pronounced. Traditional grammarians used a time scale called as māttirai[2] (meaning 'unit' or 'scale') to measure the time length of pronunciation - short vowels are of one unit length and long are of two units length.

Writing ’அ’ - Click here for other vowels

The following table shows the vowels of Tamil language:

Vowel Pronunciation Help Length ISO 15919 IPA
u as in nut short a [ʌ]
a as in father long ā [ɑː]
i as in ink short i [i]
e as in easy long ī [iː]
u as in put short u [u], [ɯ]
oo as in bloom long ū [uː]
e as in pen short e [e]
a as in ate long ē [eː]
i as in ice long ai [ʌj]
o as in one short o [o]
o as in show long ō [oː]
ou as in house long au [ʌʋ]

See this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emDN8jNEv7E

It could be noted that five out of the seven long vowels have an equivalent short vowel and they are all placed next to their respective equivalents - that is, அ-ஆ, இ-ஈ, உ-ஊ, எ-ஏ and ஒ-ஓ. The long ones are extensions of the short ones (that is, the same sound articulated for two 'māttirai' (unit) time.) The two long vowels which don't have an equivalent short vowels are 'ஐ' and 'ஔ', these two are actually 'diphthongs' - which are combinations of two primary vowel sounds ('அ+இ' is ’ஐ’ and 'அ+உ' is 'ஔ') and we can note that these two actually end with 'இ' and 'உ' sounds respectively (thus in situations where an equivalent short vowel is needed the short vowels 'இ' and 'உ' will be used for 'ஐ' and 'ஔ' respectively - this is important mainly for poetry and we shall bother less about this here!)

Words for Vowels[edit]

  • அம்மா (தாய்‌‌‌‌‌) - Mother
  • அம்மி - Grindstone
  • அரிசி - Rice
  • அன்னம் - Swan
  • ஆந்தை - Owl

Consonants[edit]

Tamil language has 18 consonants - mey eluttukkal. Traditional grammarians have classified these 18 in to three groups of 6 letters each. This classification is done based on the method of articulation and hence the nature of these letters. Vallinam (hard group,) Mellinam (soft group) and idaiyinam (medium group). All consonants are pronounced for a half unit (māttirai) time length when isolated (consonants combined with vowels will be pronounced with the time length of the vowel).

Writing ’க்’ - Click here for other consonants

The following table lists out the consonants of Tamil:

Consonant Group Pronounciation Help ISO IPA
க் vallinam k as in kite k [k], [ɡ], [x], [ɣ], [h]
ங் mellinam ng as in ring ŋ
ச் vallinam ch as in catch c [t͡ʃ], [d͡ʒ], [ʃ], [s], [ʒ]
ஞ் mellinam ng as in syringe ñ [ɲ]
ட் vallinam t as in tap [ʈ], [ɖ], [ɽ]
ண் mellinam n as in Cinderella [ɳ]
த் vallinam th as in both t , , ð
ந் mellinam n as in panther n [n]
ப் vallinam p as in pack p [p], [b], β
ம் mellinam m as in plum m [m]
ய் idaiyinam y as in yak y [j]
ர் idaiyinam r as in stir r [ɾ]
ல் idaiyinam l as in lamp l [l]
வ் idaiyinam v as in victory v [ʋ]
ழ் idaiyinam (tongue retracted)[3] ɻ
ள் idaiyinam l as in marble ɭ
ற் vallinam tr as in citric [r], [t], [d]
ன் mellinam n as in sin [n]

It is worthwhile to note that in the above list every hard consonant (vallinam) is placed next to a soft consonant (mellinam), that is க்-ங், ச்-ஞ், ட்-ண், த்-ந், ப்-ம் and ற்-ன். These pairs are called as 'inam' ('family', for they are articulated in the same manner, the only difference being the soft ones nasalized!) You will mostly find them in pairs (especially when as pure consonants) in words.

Note[edit]

The above tabulation is a simplified version of the Tamil consonants. It should be noted, however, that many of the Tamil consonants have important allophones which you should learn in order to completely speak the language correctly. We shall start with the above set first and then later on expand in to these fine nuances. For now, however, I shall leave you a few notes on the allophones of these consonants, which I hope will not threaten you!

  • Hard consonants are voiceless when in the beginning of a word or are doubled in a word (hence, in these situations, they are pronounced as mentioned above)
  • Hard consonants are voiced when in between two vowels or after their respective (family) soft consonants (thus, 'k' will be 'g', 'ch' will be 'j', 't' will be 'd', 'p' will be 'b')
  • The consonant 'ச்' will be sometimes pronounced as 's' in the beginning of words

It is also important to note the subtle difference between the pronunciations of 'ங்', 'ஞ்', 'ண்', 'ந்' and 'ன்', as well as between 'ல்', 'ள்' and 'ழ்'. (This page may be of help)

I should add, that while it is important to be aware of all these nuances, it is not strictly important for you, as a beginner, to concentrate on all these and burden yourself. I have mentioned these only to let you be conscious of the fact that there is quite a bit of learning-unlearning embedded in every language learning process and you should not place yourself much rigidly on what you learned in the very beginning... After all, many native speakers of Tamil themselves are not bothering about these subtle points and all that it does to it is to add a little color and variety to their dialect!

Footnotes[edit]

  1. 'elutukkal' is the plural form of 'elutu'
  2. one 'māttirai' is described as the length of time of one blink or one snap, by traditional grammarians
  3. This is one of the unique sounds of Tamil. It is better to learn it from a native speaker or from an audio file.