Tamil is the oldest of the living (i.e. spoken) languages of the world. According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1969 edition), “The Tamil language is one of the principal Dravidian languages spoken in South India and perhaps the only example of an ancient classical tongue which has survived as a spoken language for more than 2500 years with its basic structure almost unchanged.”
Research scholars in the Dravidian languages have not been able to identify the Tamil race with any one race so far classified by them nor have they been able to fix any area as the original home of this race. Their location ranges from Finland in the northernmost part of Europe to Australia in the southernmost part of the world where traces of Tamil contact have been discovered. Consequently they have labelled the Tamils as “a mystery people of the world.” There is no mystery if it is conceded at the outset that they do belong to Peninsular India.
The remarks of Dr. Gilbert Slater in this regard may be quoted here with advantage. “We have here a language system, structurally entirely alien to the Indo-Germanic languages, one which belongs to a more ancient type of language; for the study of inflections in the Indo-Germanic languages shows that these are the degenerate remains of separable additions to roots or stems, and in Tamil such linguistic decay has not taken place. The fact that the present day spoken and literary Tamil perpetuated a much more ancient stage in the evolution of language than that represented by even the most ancient Sanskrit seems to suggest that the Tamil language became fixed in its literary character at an extraordinarily ancient date, and points to an extraordinarily ancient Dravidic civilization” (Sir Ashutosh Mukerjee Silver Jubilee volume).
Of the two forms spoken and written, the written form is the standard form which generally does not change much, because here the language had been developed fully and standardized for more than three millennia and successive grammatical treatises have contributed to the fixity of the structure. Within limits the language has a flexibility which enables the spoken form always to refer back to the written or standard form and this element has through all the centuries imposed a restraint on the spoken form so that it does not have a very marked variance with the written form.
The earliest book on the Tamil language and literature is considered to the Tolkappiyam. Ignoring many fantastic claims for its date as some thousand years before Christ, we may be factually correct if we assume that its date was somewhere between 500BC and 300BC. That Tolkappiyar postulates many linguistic theories and discusses at length the subject matter of poetry, poetics, rhetoric and the like and says that the thoughts were expressed by earlier grammarians, signifies that the language and literature were in a highly developed state long before him. The only language which can claim to have a very ancient past, as that claimed for Sanskrit, is Tamil. All the north Indian languages of today branched off from Prakrit, the spoken form of Sanskrit, much later in point of time. The three main South Indian languages, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam branched off probably from a parent stock long after Tamil. Malayalam branched off directly from Tamil, less than a thousand years ago. Local variations and the proportion of the admixture of Sanskrit are responsible for the variations in these languages.
Sanskrit influence has pervaded the Tamil country even in the days ofTolkappiyam, in which also its influences are traceable. The Tamil language possesses more effective vowels and a lesser number of consonants. The latter may perhaps be inadequate to express some aspirated and softened sounds as in Sanskrit, but they had proved quite adequate to express Tamil sounds and thoughts. The language of the days of Tolkappiyam and days earlier had proved through the centuries adequate enough to express all thoughts which the Tamilian thinker had the need to think and express. In short, the Tamil language had enough vitality, depth and width to stand on its own, along with any ancient living language of the world, with the power of expressing the most subtle thoughts of the human mind. Technology is something new to every language and terms are invented in the stride of science. Such terms can also be absorbed and adapted here and also invented in the Tamil language as occasion demands.
A large admixture of Sanskrit words found its way into the spoken and the written language by the 11th century AD through the exponents of the Vaishnava philosophy and later by those of the Jain school. Muslim invasions and the British domination had their own share in infiltrating foreign words and forms into the language. But Tamil has absorbed them all and still today marches ahead without, in any way, losing any part of its native genius and vitality. The Tamil language is an agglutinative language, case endings for nouns and verbal inflexious for tense, place, gender and number are added on to the root, which remains almost the same. Syntax has not changed.