Tamil Transliteration

What is transliteration?

To understand transliteration, think of the English alphabet. With these 26 letters, you can form a wide variety of words that sound different from one another. You can represent sounds in another language using the English alphabet. A rough definition is that representing sounds in a different language using a different language’s script is transliteration.

Ways of transliterating in Tamil

In discussing Tamil script and grammar, we saw one example of this, “saappitten”. But I could have just as easily written “saappiteen” with two ‘e’ and one ‘t’. Neither of this would have been considered wrong, because there is no official Tamil to English transliteration.

The first transliteration, “saappitten”, would have represented how you spell the word when you write it out in Tamil script. “Saappiteen” would have been less accurate in representing the written script, but it would more accurately describe how one pronounces the ending “-en”.

What this means is that if you want to learn Tamil without script, i.e. using an English transliteration, you’re going to eventually run into the trouble of understanding your conversation partner’s transliteration style.

This means that you should, ideally, stick to one way of transliteration first to have a consistent way of mapping sound to word, before making the move from reading your conversation partner’s text and mapping word to sound.

Do note that when reading someone else’s transliteration, they might end up using a mix of “word-based” and “sound-based” transliteration, so be prepared to jump between the two.

My thoughts on the implications of a lack of an official transliteration

I personally think that a lack of an official transliteration, even if it’s only within one country, discourages people from learning Tamil. The implication is that you have to learn the script directly and be hampered by reading speed even as you try to understand vocabulary. That’s like trying to do a proper push-up having not done one in a decade; it’s going to hurt, you’re not going to have fun, and you’ll be discouraged from continuing.

How I was taught transliteration

For what it’s worth, I learnt Tamil using the “Tamil word to English alphabet” transliteration, meaning that the sounds are slightly less accurately represented. However, this is compensated for by having a smoother transition when trying to read script. My teacher and I also used dashes ‘-‘ to represent the endings. For example, “Singapore-la-rundhu” to mean “From (the place) Singapore”. I use this transliteration scheme when talking to Tamil-speaking friends, which seems to be understood.


Don’t let the lack of an official transliteration discourage you. You can still use English transliteration to learn vocabulary and grammar before learning to read script. Simply be consistent in using one way of transliteration and build up a solid foundation of the sounds of Tamil before moving on to other ways of Transliteration. Enjoy your Tamil learning journey!