Tamil at SOAS Language Centre
Tamil belongs to the Dravidian family of languages along with Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. It is the Dravidian language with the longest recorded history by far, with epigraphic records dating back several centuries before the Common Era and an unbroken literary tradition of more than two thousand years. The Indian Parliament recognised the antiquity of Tamil in 2004, naming it a classical language of India alongside Sanskrit (recognised as such in 2005) and Telugu and Kannada (in 2008).
One of twenty-two official languages of India (excluding English), the stronghold of Tamil is the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, where it is the first language of around 90% of a population of over seventy million people. Tamil is also spoken in neighbouring Indian states, particularly in Karnataka. Outside of India, Tamil is spoken in Sri Lanka by more than three million people and in Malaysia - although the number of speakers there is difficult to estimate as a result of shift towards English or Malay. It has official status in Singapore
Tamil speakers left India in very considerable numbers in the 19th century under various migratory systems, such as ‘kangani’ and ‘maistry’, which provided labour for the tea, sugar and rubber plantations of Empire. As a result, whilst Tamil may be heard throughout South East Asia and in former British and French territories of the Indian Ocean and the West Indies, there are often substantial differences between the varieties attested and mutual intelligibility is not always guaranteed.