Did you know that Tamil is one of the oldest surviving languages in the world?

Did you know that Tamil is one of the oldest surviving languages in the world?

But, like all languages, Tamil has vastly evolved from its origins. And, with native speakers spread across South and South-East Asia, it has since also branched off into several dialects and sub-dialects.

The greatest differences in Tamil dialects lie between those spoken in South India and those spoken on the island of Sri Lanka – some of these are not even mutually intelligible!

But even between just the variations of Sri Lanka there exist considerable differences. This is despite the fact that the Tamil-speaking ethnic minorities of the country comprise of less than 25% of the island’s small population of 21.9 million!

The variety with the most speakers is Jaffna Tamil, spoken in the North and North-East of Sri Lanka. It is the dialect of Tamil which has remained most true to Old Tamil, still carrying many of its antique features. Because of this, Jaffna Tamil can be difficult to understand for Tamils in India, where spoken Tamil has evolved the most. However, despite retaining much vocabulary from medieval Tamil, Jaffna Tamil also includes borrowed words from the Portuguese and Dutch, who, one after the other, sought control over parts of Sri Lanka in the 16th and 17th centuries.

For example:
குசினி kusini orignating from the Portuguese word cozinha meaning kitchen
கதிரை kathirai originating from the Portuguese word cadeira meaning chair

Next up is the Muslim Tamil dialect, spoken by the island’s Muslim minority. A great percentage of the Muslim minority is made up of the Sri Lankan Moors community, many of whom can trace their ancestry to Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka around the 9th century AD. This dialect has been heavily influenced by Arabic and is written with additions of the Arabic script.

And now we go over to the East and South-East of Sri Lanka, to the Batticaloa-Amparai region, where the main Tamil dialect in use is Batticaloa Tamil. Batticaloa Tamil can be further divided into sub-dialects such as Ampara Tamil. Batticaloa Tamil is another dialect which has some Arabic influence but it has also been influenced by Sinhalese, the language of the island’s majority Sinhala people. This dialect is the one closest to the Tamil used in literature. It is shared between Tamils, Moors, the Wanniyalateo (also known as the Vedda, an indigenous group who also have their own language, Vedda) and Portuguese Burghers (descendants of the Portuguese who intermarried with native islanders during the conquest period, who also speak their own creole language based on Portuguese).

Last but not least is Malayakam Tamil, also known as Hill Country or Up Country Tamil. This is spoken by the Up Country Tamils who are descended from workers sent from South India to Sri Lanka in the 19th and 20th centuries to work on the coffee, tea and rubber plantations. These Tamil speakers mostly live in the central highlands, also known as the Malayakam or Hill Country. This dialect is very similar to that of Madurai Tamil, which is spoken in Madurai, one of the largest urban areas in South India.

 

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