The vowels are divided into short and long (five of each type) and two dipthongs. The consonants are classified into three categories with 6 in each category: vallinam - hard, mellinam - soft or nasal, and idayinam - medium. Unlike Devanagari, Tamil has neither conjunct consonants nor aspirated and voiced stops. Some scholars have suggested that in Sentamil (which refers to Tamil as it existed before Sanskrit words were borrowed), stops were voiceless when at the start of a word and unvoiced otherwise. However, no such distinction is observed by modern Tamil speakers.
The script is sometimes called Vattezhuthu, literally "round writing". This characterstic has partly to do with the fact that in ancient times, writing involved carving with a sharp point on palm leaves (olaichuvadi) and it was apparently easier to produce curves than straight lines by this method. The script is syllabic, in the sense that each letter is a syllable. However, the signs for the syllables are derived from that of the inherent consonant; thus it is of the abugida type. Some syllables are written by modifying the shape of the consonant in a way that is inherent to the vowel, others are written by adding vowel-inherent suffix to the consonant, yet others a prefix, and finally some vowels require adding both a prefix and a suffix to the consonant. In every case the vowel symbol is different from the vowel standing alone. An overdot (see image) - equivalent to Devanagari sign virama - suppresses the inherent trailing a sound of the consonant sign - that is, it is a pure consonant.
There are some lexical rules for formation of words. Some examples: a word cannot end in certain consonants, and cannot begin with some consonants including 'r' 'l' and 'll'; there are two consonants for the dental 'n' - which one should be used depends on whether the 'n' occurs at the start of the word and on the letters around it.
The Tamil letters
Consonants are also called the 'body' letters.
Also called Grantha letters, these are used exclusively for writing words borrowed from Sanskrit, English, and other languages. Of course, not all such words include these letters.
Vowels are also called the 'life' or 'soul' letters. Together with the consonants (which are called 'body' letters, they form compound, syllabic (abugida) letters that are called 'living' letters (ie. letters that have both 'body' and 'soul').
|ஐ||Diphthong AI(considered as long too)|
|ஔ||Diphthong AU (considered as long too)|
Using the consonant 'k' as an example.
Special letter ஃ (pronounced 'akh') is rarely used by itself - normally serves purely grammatical function as independent vowel form of the dot on consonants that suppresses the inherent 'a' sound in plain consonants.
The long ('nedil') vowels are about twice as long as the short ('kuRil') vowels. The diphthongs are usually pronounced about 1.5 times as long as the short vowels, though some grammatical texts place them with the long ('nedil') vowels.
As can be seen in the compound form, the vowel sign can be added to the right, left or both sides of the consonants. It can also form a ligature. These rules are evolving and older use has more ligatures than modern use. What you actually see on this page depends on your font selection. 'Code 2000' will show more ligatures than 'Latha'.
There are proponents of script reform who want to eliminate all ligatures and let all vowel signs appear on the right side.
Unicode encodes the character in logical order (always the consonant first), wheras legacy 8-bit encodings (like TSCII) prefer the written order. This is a problem in transcoding these.
Tamil letters are also used to indicate the notes of Carnatic music. The notes are:
|Note||Sound||Full Name||Pronunciation||Value and Comments|
|ஸ||sa||ஷட்ஜம்||Shadjam||First note, only one possible value. Sometimes referred to as the 'mother' note - all Ragas have this note.|
|ரி||ri||ரிஷபம்||Rishabam||Second note, three possible values.|
|க||ga||காந்தாரம்||Gāndhāram||Third note, three possible values (one of which coindices with the third ri).|
|ம||ma||மத்யமம்||Madhyamam||Fourth note, two possible values.|
|ப||pa||பஞ்சமம்||Panchamam||Fifth note, only one possible value. Sometimes referred to as the 'father', though not all ragas have this note.|
|த||dha||தைவதம்||Dhaivatham||Sixth note, three possible values.|
|நி||ni||நிஷாதம்||Nishādam||Seventh note, three possible values (one of which coincides with the third dha).|
The 'values' of the note here can be taken to mean semitones. There is some overlap between the possible values - this eventually leads to the octave containing 12 semitones, as in Western music. See Carnatic music for a more complete discussion of this.
One can see from the names of the notes that they are borrowed from Sanskrit.
Tamil in Unicode
The Unicode range for Tamil is U+0B80 ... U+0BFF.
- Phonetics of spoken Tamil
- The Unicode book - South and Southeast Asian scripts (pdf file)
- Free Unicode Tamil font
Todo: list the vowels and consonants and describe them