Old Tamil is the period of the Tamil language spanning from 300 BCE to 700 CE. Prior to Old Tamil, the period of Tamil linguistic development is termed as Pre Tamil. After the Old Tamil period, Tamil becomes Middle Tamil. The earliest records in Old Tamil are inscriptions from between the 3rd and 1st century BCE in caves and on pottery. These inscriptions are written in a variant of the Brahmi script called Tamil Brahmi. The earliest long text in Old Tamil is the Tolkāppiyam, an early work on Tamil grammar and poetics, whose oldest layers could be as old as the mid 2nd century BCE. Old Tamil preserved many features of Proto-Dravidian, the earliest reconstructed form of the Dravidian including inventory of consonants, the syllable structure, and various grammatical features.
A 2nd-century BCE Tamil Brahmi inscription from Arittapatti, Madurai India. The southern state of Tamil Nadu has emerged as a major source of Brahmi inscriptions in Old Tamil dated between 3rd to 1st centuries BCE.
According to Bhadriraju Krishnamurti, Tamil, as a Dravidian language, descends from Proto-Dravidian, a proto-language. Linguistic reconstruction suggests that Proto-Dravidian was spoken around the third millennium BCE, possibly in the region around the lower Godavari river basin in peninsular India. The material evidence suggests that the speakers of Proto-Dravidian were of the culture associated with the Neolithic complexes of South India. The earliest epigraphic attestations of Tamil are generally taken to have been written from the 2nd century BCE.
Among Indian languages, Tamil has the most ancient non-Sanskritic Indian literature. Scholars categorise the attested history of the language into three periods: Old Tamil (300 BCE–700 CE), Middle Tamil (700–1600) and Modern Tamil (1600–present). In November 2007, an excavation at Quseir-al-Qadim revealed Egyptian pottery dating back to first century BCE with ancient Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. There are a number of apparent Tamil loanwords in Biblical Hebrew dating to before 500 BCE, the oldest attestation of the language.John Guy states that Tamil was the lingua franca for early maritime traders from India.
Many literary works in Old Tamil have also survived. These include a corpus of 2,381 poems collectively known as Sangam literature. These poems are usually dated to between the 3rd century BCE and 5th century CE, which makes them the oldest extant body of secular literature in India. Other literary works in Old Tamil include Thirukural, Silappatikaram and Maṇimēkalai, and a number of ethical and didactic texts, written between the 5th and 8th centuries.[nb 1]
Old Tamil preserved many features of Proto-Dravidian, including inventory of consonants, the syllable structure, and various grammatical features. Amongst these was the absence of a distinct present tense – like Proto-Dravidian, Old Tamil only had two tenses, the past and the "non-past". Old Tamil verbs also had a distinct negative conjugation (e.g. kāṇēṉ [kaːɳeːn] காணேன்) "I do not see", kāṇōm [kaːɳoːm](காணோம் "we do not see") Nouns could take pronominal suffixes like verbs to express ideas: e.g. peṇṭirēm [peɳɖireːm] பெண்டிரேம்) "we are women" formed from peṇṭir [peɳɖir] பெண்டிர்) "women" and the first person plural marker -ēm (ஏம்). Despite the significant amount of grammatical and syntactical change between Old, Middle and Modern Tamil, Tamil demonstrates grammatical continuity across these stages: many characteristics of the later stages of the language have their roots in features of Old Tamil.
^The dating of Sangam literature and the identification of its language with Old Tamil was questioned by Herman Tieken who argued that the works are better understood as 9th century Pāṇṭiyan dynasty compositions, written in an archaising style to make them seem older than they were. Tieken's dating has, however, been criticised by multiple reviewers of his work.
^Government of Tamilnadu, Department of Archeology. "Keeladi, Excavation Report, Urban Settlement, Sangam Age, River Vaigai". Retrieved 27 December 2020.
^Vishnupriya, Kolipakam (2018). "A Bayesian phylogenetic study of the Dravidian language family". Royal Society Open Science. 5 (3): 171504. Bibcode:2018RSOS....571504K. doi:10.1098/rsos.171504. PMC5882685. PMID29657761.
^Ferro-Luzzi, G. E.; Tieken, H. (2001). "Kavya in South India: Old Tamil Cankam Poetry". Asian Folklore Studies. 60 (2): 373. doi:10.2307/1179075. JSTOR 1179075.
^Monius, A. E.; Dubianskii, A. M.; Tieken, H. (2002). "Ritual and Mythological Sources of the Early Tamil Poetry". The Journal of Asian Studies. 61 (4): 1404. doi:10.2307/3096501. JSTOR 3096501.
^Wilden, E. V. A. (2003). "Towards an Internal Chronology of Old Tamil Cankam Literature or How to Trace the Laws of a Poetic Universe". Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens. 1 (16): 105. doi:10.1553/wzksXLVIs105.
^R. Nagaswamy, Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit (2012), Section 2.18.2: Natural evolution of Sanskrit