Who’s afraid of the Tamil script?


A colourful sign on Mannar Island

Foreign alphabets and scripts are often considered one of the main barriers to learning another language (along with other linguistic bogeymen such as gender, multiple cases and tones). In the case of Tamil, this impression is held both by people who don’t speak the language as well as by many Tamils themselves. I have often heard that the script is one of the hardest things about Tamil, particularly because it has 240-odd letters compared to the Roman alphabet’s 26.

If you are being held back by these preconceptions, get rid of them right now! The Tamil script can be learnt by absolutely anyone, not just by fantastical beings blessed with superhuman intellect or an imaginary ‘natural talent for languages’. In reality, all it takes is a little time, focus, and – most importantly – motivation. Rather than being an insurmountable challenge, the script will actually be one of the easiest tasks you’ll face when learning Tamil.

The mechanics

Let’s take a look at how the Tamil script works in practice, without worrying about pronunciation (which we can save for future posts). The basic script has 12 vowels and 18 consonants, which are known respectively as ‘life letters’ (uyireLuttu, உயிரெழுத்து) and ‘body letters’ (meyyeLuttu, மெய்யெழுத்து). There are different conventions for transcribing Tamil, but I have used the one below for the sake of clarity and because it doesn’t involve any symbols not already on a keyboard. To reiterate: this is not an exact guide to pronunciation.

Vowels / life letters

அ   a        ஆ   aa      இ   i       ஈ   ii       உ   u       ஊ   uu

எ   e         ஏ   ee       ஐ   ai     ஒ   o      ஓ   oo     ஔ   au

Consonants / body letters

க்   k         ங்   ng       ச்   c       ஞ்   nj     ட்   T       ண்   N

த்   t          ந்   n         ப்   p       ம்   m     ய்   y        ர்   r

ல்   l          வ்   v         ழ்   L        ள்   L      ற்   R       ன்   n

There’s one key difference between Tamil and the Roman alphabet. If you want to change the vowel following a consonant, you can’t simply drop a vowel into place. Instead, you need to use specific vowel markers – otherwise known as diacritics – which sit before, after, above or below the consonant. Usually the consonant retains its original shape, although in a minority of cases the diacritics change the shape of the consonant itself. The new vowel + consonant combination is a syllable rather than a letter, and in Tamil is called a ‘life-body letter’ (uyirmeyyeLuttu, உயிர்மெய்யெழுத்து). Below is an example of how the diacritics are applied to the consonant k:

க்           க           கா           கி           கீ          கு           கூ                                                                       k           ka          kaa         ki           kii         ku         kuu

கெ        கே         கை         கொ       கோ      கௌ                                                                                  ke         kee        kai          ko         koo       kau

What all this means is that the Tamil script consists of:

  • letters (the vowels and the consonants in their basic forms)
  • self-contained syllables

GSK letters0001

As a result, the Tamil script is an alphasyllabary rather than simply an alphabet. If you count all of the vowels and consonants listed above, as well as all of the syllables formed with diacritics, you will be left with 246. One other letter, ஃ (ah, considered part of the basic Tamil script but almost never used in practice) brings us to the regularly quoted total of 247. The table on the right, from An Introduction to Spoken Tamil (Gair, Suseedirarajah and Karunatilaka, 1978) shows what all 247 look like when brought together (although please see my comments on this particular table below).

However, there are actually several other consonants, known as Grantha letters, which are used for writing words from other languages: ஜ் (j), ஸ் (s), ஹ் (h), ஷ் (sh), ஶ் (sh) க்ஷ் (ksh). Although these are usually not included in charts of the Tamil script, the first three at least are used fairly often.

In the photo below you can see both ஃ and Grantha letters used to write Arabic prayer times at Mannar’s Jumma Mosque.


All of this might look daunting, but it’s actually very straightforward, for two reasons.

First, the way in which diacritics are applied to consonants is completely regular in almost every case. For example: பீ (pii), லீ (lii), மீ (mii), ரீ (rii). The only exception to this occurs when you want to use the diacritics for -u and -uu. This is because these diacritics take more than one form and occasionally change the body of the consonant itself: து (tu) ரு (ru) பு (pu). However, even here there are two or three regular patterns.

Second, although the Tamil script is not entirely phonetic, it is much more so than the Roman alphabet as used in English. This means that – once you have a firm grasp of the Tamil sound system – it’s much easier both to pronounce unknown words correctly and to spell words after hearing them.

Having had some feedback on this point, I need to insert a caveat here. While this has been my experience in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, it may be less accurate for speakers in other regions. For example, I am aware that some Tamil speakers don’t use retroflex consonants, so ழ், ள் and ல் are pronounced identically. The differences in pronunciation between spoken and written Tamil also further complicate the situation. If you have any thoughts about this, please share them below, and we can also discuss it at greater depth in future posts dedicated to pronunciation.

Despite this, I think that the Tamil script is much more straightforward and logical than English. Below I give another reason for why this is so.


Mannar shopfront

247 vs 26

I want to debunk the argument that Tamil has over two hundred more letters than the Roman alphabet. This is easy because it relies on a false analogy: most of the symbols being counted aren’t really letters at all, in the English sense of the term.

For a more accurate comparison you would have to list all of the different consonant-vowel combinations in English, of which I’m sure there are just as many as in Tamil, and the way in which they are spelt. This would actually be much more complicated than Tamil thanks to the English language’s notoriously flexible and often entirely counterintuitive relationship between spelling and pronunciation. Think of the way English represents the same sounds with different letters (piece / piste / peace / pees and – even worse – law / more / four / floor / boar / caught), or the way in which the same letters can be used for a number of sounds (crow/how).

It’s worth noting that if Tamil has 247 letters by this method of counting, Sinhala – which is also an alphasyllabary and works in exactly the same way as Tamil – has at least a hundred more. However, in my experience Sinhala speakers tend to emphasise that Sinhala is an easy language to learn, an idea shared by many Tamils too! I don’t think I have ever heard anyone saying that ‘the Sinhala script is harder than English because it has 350-plus letters’.


Madhu, Sri Lanka’s most important Catholic shrine

6 practical tips

1. Just as there’s no great mystery behind the Tamil script, there’s no magical secret to learning it. You can simply make yourself a set of flash cards and work through them until you are confident. It’s not exciting, but it works, and if you set aside twenty minutes a day there’s no reason you shouldn’t have mastered them within a week. If you do make your own flash cards, don’t forget to include

  • vowels
  • consonants
  • Grantha consonants
  • all diacritics – minus consonant – with the exception of -u and -uu
  • individual cards for life-body syllables with the diacritics for -u and -uu

Because most of diacritics are regular, there’s no need to make cards for every single life-body syllable, and by this method you should end up with around 100 cards.

2. Foregoing physical flash cards, you could use Anki, a free flash card programme I plan to discuss in greater depth in the future. Briefly, Anki lets you download or create your own decks of flash cards. Anki will give you a daily selection of new and old cards to view and, depending on how difficult you find a specific card to remember, it will automatically decide the the length of time before that card appears again. So far no one has uploaded a deck for the Tamil script, but if anyone does please let me know! If I have some free time I will try to get one up over the next few weeks.

3. Learning how to write the script properly, rather than just guessing the correct strokes, helps your memory and builds confidence. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend a decent website or book to help with this because I was taught by Tamil friends. Can anyone else?

4. One great way of quickly getting to grip with the alphabet is to start typing in Tamil as soon as possible. The best way to do this is with Anjal, a programme for Windows and Mac OS which lets you to type in Tamil using a QWERTY keyboard and a simple phonetic system. For example, Anjal will automatically turn k + a + a into கா. Anjal comes free with Macs and at least some Windows PCs, so take a look at your language input options. Otherwise you can buy it from Murasu Anjal.

5. Another tactic is to join a language class for Tamil children who are just learning the script for themselves. All of the letters and syllables have their own names, as letters do in English, and they are learnt by rote in a way that is simple to get the hang of: kaana (க), kaavana (கா), kiina (கி), kiiyana (கீ), etc. I had the opportunity to do this in London, and it turned out to be extremely useful in the long run (not least for explaining how to spell my own name). 

6. Finally, it’s worth noting two other technical issues that might cause problems.

GSK letters0001

First, over the last few decades there have been some small changes in the Tamil script. If you look closely at the table on the right, taken from An Introduction to Spoken Tamil (Gair, Suseendirarajah and Karunatilaka, 1978/2005), you can see that ண், ற், and ன் break from the general pattern when -aa, -o and -oo are applied to them. Additionally, the diacritic for -ai takes a slightly different form when applied to ண், ல், ள், and ன். Although these have been superseded by a more regular spelling, it’s worth bearing them in mind in case you encounter them.

Second, it’s easy to be confused by the diacritics used to create the sound -au, because they are indistinguishable from the diacritic for -e followed by the syllable L (ள). For example, வெள could be vau or vela. This means that you need to memorise such words individually, although the good news is that -au is far less common than -eL and you can usually assume that the latter is correct.


Some thoughts on reading

In my experience, the main hiccup to reading Tamil is the fact that the diacritics can appear before, above and below as well as after the consonant. This feels very counterintuitive for someone coming from a writing system which runs in a more linear fashion. To demonstrate what I mean I have split a few words into their constituent parts:

வேலை (work) = வே (vee) லை (lai)

பெரிய (big) = பெ (pe) ரி (ri) ய (ya)

சாப்பாடு (food) = சா (saa) ப் (p) பா (paa) டு (Du)

Although it’s easy to learn the script, this doesn’t mean that you’ll be speed reading in no time. Only time and familiarity can foster the ability to ‘see’ a syllable as a single unit rather than a collection of strange signs. It will take dozens, maybe hundreds of hours before you learn to read as quickly as you can in English, and the only way to get to that stage is to keep working on it. 

I want to finish with a rather contradictory recommendation. After you have learnt the script, don’t try to dive straight into reading texts until you are comfortable with spoken Tamil. First, because the differences between spoken Tamil and written Tamil make reading in these early stages particularly confusing and dispiriting. Second, because I think that the early stages of learning a language are much more productively spent improving your practical competency rather than wading through thousands of unknown words (I’ll be writing about this in the future).

What I am saying is that although a knowledge of the script has innumerable daily benefits, it’s a different skill to being able to understand everything you read. My advice is to gain confidence with the script, use it regularly for small tasks, but set written Tamil aside for a future date.  


Mannar bus stand

Some thoughts on the relationship between spoken Tamil and written Tamil, and why this is important for learners

I want to get things started by looking at the relationship between spoken and written forms of Tamil, which I think is the most important thing for learners to bear in mind even before they begin their studies. I hope it will also illustrate my previous point about the importance of how we think about learning languages.

When I was about to begin learning Tamil I was fortunate enough to read an enlightening chapter in a book called Linguistic Culture and Language Policy, by Harold Schiffman, emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of South Asian Studies. I’m only going to give a brief summary of the main points, but I would definitely recommend that other aspiring Tamil students read the full text.

The chapter focuses on Tamil diglossia. Diglossia refers to a situation in which one language community uses two (usually closely related) dialects or languages. In linguistics these are often referred to as the H (or ‘high’) variety and the L (or ‘low’) variety, and are used in quite different ways. The H-variety is more formal, conservative and prestigious, and is found in spheres of life such as education, literature, public speech and religion. The L-variety is used in spheres such as everyday conversation and, in the case of Tamil, TV and cinema. The L-variety is learnt at home, while the H-variety is taught later in life. (This is a very simple explanation of a complex phenomenon, and in reality the boundaries between the two varieties often blur and move.)

Several writers have discussed diglossia in Tamil, but Schiffman is particularly interested in the way Tamils think about their language. He writes that Tamils hold very strong beliefs about the uniqueness, purity, uniformity and antiquity of Tamil, but these are reserved for the H-variety. The L-variety is ignored, disparaged or considered not to be ‘proper’ or ‘real’ Tamil.

From this point onwards I’ll refer to the two varieties of Tamil as ‘spoken Tamil’ (peeccu tamiL, பேச்சு தமிழ்) and ‘written Tamil’ (eLuttu tamiL, எழுத்து தமிழ்). This is slightly misleading, because written Tamil is also spoken, but in everyday conversation people differentiate the two varieties using these terms.

The differences between spoken and written Tamil are expressed in grammar, vocabulary and even pronunciation. Of course, it could be argued that English is similarly composed of different varieties or registers. But the question of whether English and Tamil are different in kind or degree doesn’t change the main point, which is that Tamil diglossia has a huge impact on foreign learners.

According to Schiffman, Tamils experience mixed feelings of delight and discomfort upon hearing Tamil spoken by a foreigner, and will usually respond in written Tamil or another language such as English. This means that students of Tamil often get a shock when they try to speak spoken Tamil for the first time. Schiffman writes:

‘As one foreigner who has spent some 30 years trying to master the language, I would say the main barriers to learning Tamil are sociolinguistic, not structural (i.e. internal linguistic) reasons.’

I have experienced similar reactions, although not to the same degree (which could be down to differences in place and/or time). From my own experience, I want to highlight three other practical consequences which emerge from Tamil diglossia:

1. When you ask for a translation of an English word or phrase you will often receive the written rather than the spoken version 

At the beginning of my Tamil studies I asked some friends to translate a simple dialogue I had written. I remember being surprised by the amount of time they spent discussing it, but I now realise that they were working out the correct written Tamil translation.

This is a regular problem, and it’s compounded by the fact that English-Tamil dictionaries can be unhelpful for spoken Tamil vocabulary (see below), which means I have relied almost entirely on other people for translations. Without being fluent in Tamil it’s impossible to judge what I’m receiving, so I try to circumvent my lack of knowledge by constantly emphasising that I want to learn spoken rather than written Tamil. I also have to ignore comments to the effect that the difference between spoken Tamil and written Tamil isn’t really that significant and thus not worth worrying about.

Despite this, many things still slip through. I have discovered that compliments about my ‘pure Tamil’ (sutta Tamil, சுத்த தமிழ்) are often a sign that I have been using formal, literary words or phrases. Recently I learnt that a couple of my regular words are not used by many of my friends in everyday speech. While I have been using vaLamaiyaaka (வழமையாக) for ‘usually’, my friends say neDukilum (நெடுகிலும்). Similarly, when I want to say ‘really?’ or ‘are you sure?’ I have been using niccaiyamaaka (நிச்சையமாக) in place of unmaiyaana (உண்மையான) or sattiyaaka (சத்தியமாக).

2. It’s difficult to find a teacher for spoken Tamil

Although Tamil kids regularly go to Tamil class, in Sri Lanka and India as well as in other parts of the world, these classes aren’t designed for those learning Tamil as a second language. Tamil kids learn spoken Tamil at home as their first language before studying written Tamil at school. This means that written Tamil is taught through the medium of spoken Tamil, to children who already know a very similar variety: it’s more like an ‘upgrade’ than an entirely new language. Without disparaging their teaching skills, Tamil teachers will most likely have little idea of the kind of problems faced by English-speakers, never mind any materials for spoken Tamil.

Dedicated spoken Tamil teaching for English-speakers does exist, although it’s hard to find. There are a few Tamil courses at American universities and across Europe. I don’t know what kind of Tamil they teach, but if you do please let us know! The only Tamil course I know of in London is at SOAS, and seems to focus on written Tamil. Many people study spoken Tamil in Madurai, but for Sri Lanka I’m only aware of Michael Meyler’s spoken Tamil course.

Before committing to a course I suggest discussing its content and aims with the teacher. If she or he denies that there are any real differences between spoken and written, or says that you should focus on written at the expense of spoken, this may cause you trouble in the long run.

3. Dictionaries often focus on written Tamil

The complex relationship between spoken and written Tamil is also reflected in language materials available to learners. I hope to discuss this at greater depth in future posts, but for now I want to look specifically at dictionaries.

In Jaffna I am regularly asked two questions: ‘Have you eaten?’ and ‘Are you married?’ In Jaffna the regular word for food is saappaaDu (சாப்பாடு), while eat is saappiDu (சாப்பிடு) and marriage/wedding is kaliyaaNam (கலியாணம்). However, you would have some difficulty in finding these words in an English-Tamil dictionary, as demonstrated by the latest editions of two major publications available in Jaffna bookshops:

Mega Lifco Dictionary

  • food: uNavu உணவு, aakaaram ஆகாரம்
  • eat: (1) take food uNNu உண்ணு; (2) consume, masticate, bite or chew and swallow as food saappiDu சாப்பிடு
  • marriage: tirumaNam திருமணம், vivaaham விவாஹம்,
  • wedding: tirumaNam திருமணம், vivaaham விவாஹம், kalyaaNam கல்யாணம்

Universal Deluxe Dictionary

  • food: (that which is eaten to keep oneself alive) uNavu உணவு
  • eat: (1) take food to the mouth and swallow uN உண்; (2) take any solid to the mouth and swallow saappiDu சாப்பிடு
  • marriage: (lawful union of a man and woman) tirumaNam திருமணம்
  • wedding: (marriage ceremony) tirumaNac caDangku திருமணச் சடங்கு

SaappaaDu doesn’t make it into either dictionary, and saapiDu is distinguished from uNNu in a vague way that doesn’t represent actual Jaffna usage. KaliyaaNam (wedding) doesn’t make it into the Universal Deluxe, and although it appears in the Mega Lifco – under wedding, but not marriage – it’s lumped with tirumaNam (written Tamil) and vivaaham (I think this is a colloquial form in Tamil Nadu) without any indication as to how it is used. Additionally, in the Lifco it is spelt slightly differently than its Jaffna Tamil pronunciation: kalyaaNam rather than kaliyaaNam.

The hefty Oxford English-English-Tamil dictionary is similarly unhelpful, but for a slightly different reason: it’s pitched at Tamil-speakers learning English and focuses on explaining English meaning and usage. However, it clearly assumes that its Tamil readers will use written Tamil when talking about food or marriages!

I want to finish by emphasising that none of the above is intended as a criticism of native Tamil speakers. The problem is that Tamils experience the situation very differently to learners coming in from the outside. Simply put, if Tamil learners don’t struggle against the privileging of written over spoken Tamil, they will find it very difficult to master the everyday language. And isn’t that the reason why we’re learning Tamil?

What do you think? Have you experienced these difficulties, and do you have any suggestions for overcoming them?


Uraiyaadal – உரையாடல் –  is a Tamil word meaning conversation.

I’m a student from the UK and have been learning Tamil for just over a year, first in London and now in Sri Lanka. The experience of studying a language outside the classroom has made me rethink the problems I faced while completing an undergraduate language degree a few years ago. Now at an intermediate level, I want to share my thoughts and start a conversation about Tamil and language learning in general.

Recently I have also been inspired by autodidact polyglot Benny Lewis, whose blog I would recommend to everyone. I share with him the belief that we are held back not just by the way in which we learn languages, but by the way we think about learning languages. These questions are especially important for those who are trying to learn languages for which few materials and formal training are available.

The blog won’t be a dry, A-Z list of cases, tenses and conjunctions. Instead it will draw on personal experience to bring together a range of different topics – practical, motivational, etymological, grammatical – which I hope will spark people’s interest and get them thinking about the differences and similarities between Tamil and English.

The idea of conversation is doubly important because I want to foreground spoken forms of Tamil. These are often neglected in Tamil teaching, but are crucial for learners who actually want to participate in everyday life!

I’m most familiar with the Tamil spoken in Jaffna, and it’s inevitable that my posts will reflect this. But Uraiyaadal is intended as an interactive space where we can build a fuller picture of all the varieties of Tamil in use. In that spirit I encourage those who speak or are learning other kinds of Tamil – Sri Lankan, Indian or otherwise – to comment wherever they can. Please also feel free to email me feedback or suggestions for topics worth covering.

Being based in Sri Lanka, I hope that Sinhala speakers learning Tamil will gain something from the blog. Unfortunately my knowledge of Sinhala is too limited to offer anything other than basic comparisons, so if you speak Sinhala please feel free to contribute. In the future I plan to set up a guest post system to properly engage with this and other issues.

Otherwise, study well and good luck!