Explaining How Tamil Script and Grammar Works

In this post, I will explain how the Tamil script works, assuming you only know English.

1. Tamil is an agglutinative language

Consider the word, சாப்பிட்டேன், pronounced “saappitten”, meaning “I have eaten”. Focus first on the English transliteration. How can one word translate to a complete sentence in English? Because this one word has 3 parts to it.

  • The first part, ‘saappi-‘, means ‘eat’,
  • The second part,’-tt-‘, represents the past tense, so we can now read ‘eaten’,
  • The third part, ‘-en’, tells the reader that ‘I’ am doing it, so we can read “I (have) eaten”

Tamil works this way because it’s an agglutinative language. An agglutinative language attaches what’s called ‘morphemes’, like ‘-tt-‘ and ‘-en’, to a word to give the word its meaning. In this case, the morphemes are attached to ‘saappi-‘.

While this may sound tedious, there’s one big advantage to agglutinative languages, which is flexible word order. To make this more concrete, consider the English sentence “John kicks Adam”. This sentence is very different from “Adam kicks John”, where Adam is suddenly the one doing the kicking, or the sentence “kicks John Adam”, which makes no sense in English.

Now, let me add some made up morphemes to “John kicks Adam”. “John-bub kicks-ah Adam-dee”.

Let’s imagine that the morpheme ‘-bub’ tells you that the thing it’s attached to is the subject of the sentence, meaning the ‘doer’ of the action, while ‘-dee’ tells you the thing it’s attached to is the object of the sentence, the thing the subject acts upon. Let ‘-ah’ attach to verbs, or action words to tell you it’s the verb.

Now we can say “Adam-dee kicks-ah John-bub”, and “John-bub kicks-ah Adam-dee”, or even “kicks-ah John-bub Adam-dee” mean the same thing, because either way, Adam is still the object, and John is the subject, while ‘-ah’ tells us that kicks is the verb or action that’s being done.

Tamil is full of such morphemes, and it allows for flexible word order. Having said that…

2. Tamil usually has a “Subject Object Verb” (SOV) order

Here’s the thing about languages: conventions get created over time for easier processing of words and sentences. So while Tamil has a flexible word order, normally the subject comes first before the object, while the verb is usually (almost always) at the end of the sentence.

This is in contrast to English, which has a “Subject Verb Object” (SVO) order.

3. Tamil “letters” have an “-a” sound attached to them

Consider the following letter, ச. This is pronounced “sa”. Here are a few more letters:

  • ப, pronounced “pa”
  • ட, pronounced “ta”
  • ன, pronounced “na”

Each letter has an “a” attached to them.

What if you wanted to refer to the sound/English letter “p” by itself? Or “n”? You add a dot at the top of the letter.

  • ப், which is just “p”
  • ட், which is just “t”
  • ன், which is just “n”

Now, the word I gave you above was “saappitten” சாப்பிட்டேன். We know that ப் sounds like “p”, ட் sounds like “t”, but it seems there’s a few other letters that stand out, like சா, பி, and டேன்.

3.1 சா: Extending the “a” sound

Let’s take சா first. The second letter is an extra “sa” sound which extends the “sa” sound to become a “saa”. The difference is like the difference between “sheep” and “ship”, where they both have the “ee” sound, but “sheep” is sounded slightly longer than “ship”. In general, if you want to add an extra “a” sound, you add this second letter to it.

  • பா, pronounced “paa”
  • டா, pronounced “taa”
  • னா, pronounced “naa”

Consider again our letter, ப, pronounced “pa”. It is made up of the consonant “s” and the vowel “a”. This is one possible “consonant-vowel combination”.

3.2 பி: There are other consonant-vowel combinations

“Pa” is just one possible consonant-vowel combination. There are other vowels in Tamil, such as i, e, and u (pronounced ‘oo’). So you could have “pi”, which we see above in “saappitten”. So when you want to replace “a” with another vowel like “i”, you write it like this:

  • பி, pronounced “pi”
  • டி’, pronounced “ti”
  • னி, pronounced “ni”

Generally, a line appears on the right and is attached to the main letter.

There are other vowels you can attach consonants to. The whole list includes “a”, “i”, “e”, “o”, “u” and their longer counterparts, “aa”, “ii”, “ee”, “oo”, “uu”.

3.3 டேன்: You’ll sometimes need to consider “bundles of symbols” in Tamil

This next aspect of Tamil is very fascinating. டேன் is pronounced “ten”, with a longer “e” sound than normal. You read this by reading ட, looking backwards to see டே, which sounds like “te” with that long “e” sound, then you end with ன் and get டேன், “ten”.

Here’s another word that has a “bundle” of symbols together: கொண்டு, pronounced “kondu”, where கொ is one bundle together pronounced “ko”. Don’t be fooled by “கா”, which would normally be “kaa” as we saw in 3.1 above, but is modified by the symbol before க and transforms it into கொ, “ko”.

This only happens for the vowels “o”, “oo” and “e”, “ee”.

Putting it all together

Let’s look at சாப்பிடேன், “Saappitten”, one last time.

  • சா is pronounced “saa”
  • ப்பி is pronounced “ppi”, where you have a pause at the first p and then pronounce “pi”. In English, it’s like saying “Sup!” and then saying “pi” after that, to say “Sup! Pi.”
  • டேன் is pronounced “ten”, with a long “ee” sound.

Hurrah! Hopefully Tamil feels less alien and strange to you now!