"While the modern Indo-Aryan languages, with the exception of Sinhalese, had not found literary expression at the time of the Muslim invasion, the Dravidian languages had been flourishing for centuries. Four of these tongues have distinctive scripts and written literatures – Tamil, Canarese, Telugu and Malayalam. Of these Tamil is spoken in the south, from Cape Comorin to Madras. Tamil is certainly the oldest of these languages, with a literature going back to the early centuries A.D."
This is how Professor A. L. Basham, eminent historian, begins his discussion on the Dravidian languages in his famous book, 'The Wonder That was India'. He continues to argue that Dravidian is virtually an independent group of languages with a distinctive character, and that its sound system is rich in retroflex consonants, which give it a crisp flavor, and its varied vowels distinguish it from the northern languages (like Sanskrit). Another interesting point he raises is that the earliest Tamil literature contains comparatively few Sanskrit loan-words, and those it does contain are generally adapted to the Tamil phonetic system. These arguments of Professor Basham seeks efficiently to establish that Tamil (or for that matter, its proto-form Dravidian) has a lineage far different from the Indo-European languages of which Sanskrit is a crucial member.
According to some experts, Tamil is now spoken by about 80 million people in India (predominantly in Tamil Nadu, South India), Sri Lanka and Singapore, and in Malaysia, Mauritius, Fiji, Burma, South Africa, England, Vietnam, Reunion and in several other countries where the Tamils have migrated. According to Professor Kamil V. Zvelebil, a noted linguist from Czechoslovakia and a scholar in Tamil Language, Literature and Culture, 30 million people spoke Tamil in 1973. But it should be a figure available on the figures in India. Dr. R.E. Asher, the famous Dravidian Scholar from England, has quoted in his book 'Descriptive Grammars' quotes the provisional figures from the Indian census of 1971 and says that 37 million people in India spoke Tamil as their first language; and continues to project 45-46 million as probable all-India figures for 1981.The figures for 1999, as given by 'the Ethnologue' (Languages of the World), including the second language speakers, Tamil is spoken by 74 million people. In India it is one of its official languages, and the first to be recognized as a classical language.
There are about 1,900 periodical publications in Tamil of which 360 are dailies now.
Tamil ranks 17th among the top twenty of the world's most spoken languages. It is written in a typical, non-Latin script, and is one of the cognate languages in the Dravidian family, sharing its features with Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and many other languages of the family, including the Thai, the language of Thailand. Tamil comprises 12 vowels, 18 consonants and 1 'aytham'.
What about the origins of the language of Tamil? In his 'History of Tamil Language and Literature', Professor Vaiyapuri Pillai writes: "It is safe to assume that the Dravidian alphabet was used for literary purposes about the first century AD."
The earliest epigraphic evidences go back to 3rd century BC. There are some 30,000 inscriptions in Tamil, the largest in South Asia.
Tamil literature has an estimated history of about 2,400 years. The earliest literary work available in Tamil is the Sangam poetry, consisting of lyrics and longer poems. These are inscribed in palm leaves and preserved. Oral tradition too was in existence. The poets and artists were actually leaders of the people. They were masters in mass communication and contact. Their aim was the progress of the society. They intervened in morality, and in the discharge of justice and that way they played their role in politics of their times. They used their poetry and songs for pointing out the mistakes and wrong doings on the part of the kings and the ministers and sought to correct the aberrations. The priest had the supervisory role only in religious matters. After the king, it was the dictum from the poets – it was the order of the day. And thus, the poets of the Sangam period were the link between the people and the king and they had the democratic role of controlling the priests and the rulers to a great extent. The collection of lyrics is known as Ettu-thokai or Eight Anthologies, and the collection of longer poems is known as Pattu Pattu or Ten Idylls. Sangam poetry is unique in that it is group poetry of unparalleled beauty and greatness. Experts have stated that taken as a whole it (Sangam Poetry) satisfies all the requirements of great poetry.
Let us see how Professor Basham views the early Tamil poetry (from his 'The Wonder That was India'): "Very early Tamils developed the passion for classification which is noticeable in many aspects of ancient Indian learning. Poetry was divided into two main groups: aham ('internal') and 'puram' (external). A unique feature of Tamil poetry is the initial rhyme or assonance. This does not appear in the earliest Tamil literature, but by the end of the sangam period it was quite regular. The first syllable or syllables of each couplet must rhyme. This initial assonance, in some poems continued through four or more lines, is never to be found in the poetry of Sanskrit languages, or as far as we know, in that of any other language. Its effect, a little strange at first, rapidly becomes pleasant to the reader, and to the Tamil it is as enjoyable as the end rhyme of Western poetry."
The Tamil enthusiasts would like to stretch it backwards to the centuries BC. Some others put it as from the first century AD or the second. But Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, the celebrated thinker, researcher, scholar, historian, journalist and the promoter of several Malayalam writers who became nationally noted later in literature, throws more light on the Sangam period in his work 'The mother roots of History': "Following the model of the Sahitya Parishad, in Ujjain under the leadership of Kalidasa, the poet and the patronage of King Budhagupta Vikramaditya Harsha (476-502 AD), associations of literary professionals were set up in the capitals of Pandya-Chola-Chera kingdoms of South India as well as in Anuradhapura in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). And the association founded in Madurai, the capital of the Pandya Kingdom, was known as Tamil Sangam. The details of this are given in a work of the Sangam period, styled Iraiyanar Akapporul…." Quoting from the Akapporul, Kesari argues that the Sangam period was 498-817 AD.
The Tamils contributed to the world culture great works such as Tirukkural, Tirumantiram and Ozhivil Odukkam, which have pre-eminent position in the wisdom literature of the world. Tiruvalluvar, the author of Tirukkural became immortal by this single work of his. He is also known in the Old Tamil literature variously – as Devar, Mutarpavalar, Matanubangi, Daivappulaivar, Chennappotakar, Perunavalar, Nankukanar, Pulavar, Poyyil Pulavar, Nayanar and the like. Tolkappiyam, the early Tamil book, is on phonology, grammar and poetics. Such a work implies that there should be a Tamil literature, existing before the book. Tolkappiyam defines Tamil literary language and non-literary language in clear terms. Tirukkural embodies a world-outlook that offers profound insights for men and women interested in leading an authentic life. Tirumantiram is a compendium of yogic technologies for liberation, and Ozhivil Odukkam a "nonesuch" for the most advanced aspirants of ultimate knowledge. The Tirukkural and the Chilapatikaram are classics of Tamil literature. So are Manimekalai of Ilam Ko Adigal, Kambar's Ramayanam, Sekkilar's Periya Puranam. Subramania Bharaty of the last century infused patriotism, a new vigor and used the language to equip people to fight for human dignity, and sense of freedom. Modern Tamil literature has its own place in the world arena.
Professor Zvelebil, has written on Tamil literature, in his book 'The Smile of Murugan' as this: "...probably the most significant contribution (of the Tamils) is that of Tamil literature, which still remains to be 'discovered' and enjoyed by the non-Tamilians and adopted as an essential and remarkable part of universal heritage. If it is true that liberal education should 'liberate' by demonstrating the cultural values and norms foreign to us, by revealing the relativity of our own values, then the 'discovery' and enjoyment of Tamil literature, and even its teaching…should find its place in the systems of Western training and instruction in the humanities.." He has also called the Tamils "the Greeks of India".
A. K. Ramanujan, the noted Indo-Anglian poet, also noted the greatness of Tamil as a language and cultural medium. He said: "Tamil, one of the classical languages of India, is the only language of contemporary India which is recognizably continuous with a classical past.