Brahmin Tamil

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Brahmin Tamil (Tamil: பிராமண தமிழ்) is the name a dialect of Tamil traditionally spoken by Tamil Brahmins. The dialect, largely, uses Classical Tamil along with a heavy proportion of Sanskrit derivatives.[1][2] According to linguist V Balasubramaniam, Brahmin Tamil dialect is closest to the Central Tamil dialect, particularly, the variant spoken by the once dominant and highly educated community colloquial spoken Tamil of Vellalars and Mudaliyars.[3]


During the heyday of Brahmin domination in the early 1900s, Brahmin Tamil was used as the lingua-franca for inter-caste communication.[3][4] The principal characters in the Tamil films of the period (1930s and 1940s) also spoke the Brahmin dialect.[5][6] However, with the rise of the Pure Tamil Movement and the entry of Dravidian ideologues into Tamil cinema in the 1950s, Brahmin Tamil was gradually displaced from public spheres.[3][5][7] Today, Brahmin Tamil is only used in films and television soaps centred on the Brahmin society.[5] Brahmin Tamil, has however, continued to flourish among the expatriate brahmin community.

The first systematic study of Brahmin Tamil was undertaken by Jules Bloch in 1910.[3] However, the most detailed study was conducted by A K Ramanujan and William Bright in the 1960s.[3] More recent researches on Brahmin Tamil and other socio-dialects have been conducted by Kamil Zvelebil.[3]


There are many forms of Brahmin Tamil spoken. While the Tamil spoken by Brahmins vary from place to place influenced by the regional dialect of Tamil used, Brahmin Tamil, in general, is less influenced by regional dialects than the dialects used by other Tamil communities.[8] The two main regional variations are Thanjavur and Palakkad sub-dialects. Other sub-dialects include Mandyam and Hebbar Tamil.

The differences between Thanjavur and Palakkad sub-dialects are:

  1. In the words ending in m and n preceded by a vowel, the vowel is nasalised but the nasal stops themselves are not pronounced except when followed by a word beginning with a vowel in the Thanjavur style. In the Palakkad style the nasal stops in these cases are always pronounced.
  2. The accent, style and vocabulary of Tamil used by Tamil Brahmins from Palakkad is greatly influenced by Malayalam apart from Sanskrit while the sub-dialects used in Tamil Nadu borrow only from Sanskrit.

The Iyengars, particularly those outside the Tamil region, have a dialect retaining many archaic words from old religious texts like naalaayira dhivya prabandham. For a detailed mapping of words and spoken dialects and standard Tamil, see Wiki reference Iyengar Tamil.

Differences with standard Tamil[edit]


Brahmin Tamil varies slightly from the standard Tamil. It retains minor adaptations of classical Tamil (Senthamizh) words which are no longer in common usage, like ām, the Brahmin Tamil word for "house" which is derived from the old Tamil word Agam while it also incorporates Sanskrit words as the Brahmin Tamil word for water thūtham which is a distorted word of the Sanskrit theertham. While non-Brahmin Tamils generally tend to use Sanskrit derivatives in their Prakrit form, Brahmins tend to use Sanskrit words in their original. According to Bright and Ramanujan (1964),

It is the Brahmin dialect which has innovated by introducing the loan words. Brahmin Tamil frequently preserves non-native phonology, which non-Brahmin Tamil assimilates to native pattern[3]

Differences with standard Tamil
Brahmin Tamil Standard Tamil English Notes
Avāl, Avā Avargal they Probably derived from 'Avarhal' where the r & h are silent. Alternatively derived from the Telugu word Vālu meaning "person"[9]
Ivāl, Ivā Ivargal these people
Ām/"aathu" Veedu house Derived from Old Tamil Agam (with the g pronounced more like silent 'h' -- 'a(h)am') [7][10]
Thūtham, Jalam Taṇṇīr water Thūtham is largely used in the Thanjavur sub-dialect and is derived from the Sanskrit Tīrtham. Iyengars, however, use the Sanskrit original.[7][11]
Sittha Konjam some Probably derived from Tamil Sattru meaning "a little."
Manni Anni elder brother's wife[12] Derived from "Maru-annai" meaning "another mom"
Athimbēr Athai kozhunan paternal aunt's husband
Kshēmam/"sowkiyam" Nalam goodness (esp. with regard to health) Derived from Sanskrit
Ṉōkku Unakku For you Developed from Unakku[13]
Ṉēkku Enakku For me Developed from Enakku[13]
Vāṅgō Vāruṅgal (Literary), Vāṅga (Spoken) Come[7]
Pōṅgō Pōkuṅgal (Literary), Pōṅga (Spoken) Go[7]
Āgamutaiyān"/"aathukar" Vītukkāran Husband Derived from Agam-udayān (house-holder)[10]

The Ramanujan-Bright hypothesis which examined Brahmin Tamil in detail concluded -

In general, the Brahmin dialect seems to show great innovation on the more conscious levels of linguistic change – those of borrowing and semantic extension—while the non-Brahmin dialect shows greater innovation in less conscious type of change—those involving phonemic and morphological replacements[3]

Bright attributes these changes to the comparatively high literacy rate of the Brahmin community.

A possible hypothesis is that literacy, most common among Brahmins has acted as a brake on change in their dialects-that the ‘frozen’ phonology and grammar of the literary language have served to retard change in Brahmin speech[3]


There are also a few nicknames and sobriquets used in Brahmin Tamil alone.

Nickname Source Meaning Usage
Ammānji Name for mother's brother's child (a cousin)
Pillaiyāndān Pillai and Āndavan Used to denote a dear child[14]

Structure and pronunciation[edit]

As in standard spoken Tamil, the temporal verbal participles (as in -ccē/-sē from 'samayam' (time)) in Brahmin Tamil, have been borrowed from relative participle constructions on the model varaccē < varuxiṟa samayam ('while coming') and pōxasē < pōxiṟa samayam ('while going').[15] Brahmin Tamil also uses the retroflex approximant |ɻ| used in Old Tamil, but no longer in use in most non-Brahmin dialects.[11]


Though mainly used by Tamil Brahmins, the Brahmin dialect is also used occasionally, and to a lesser extent, by other forward caste Tamils such as Vellalars and Mudaliyars.[3] Until the rise of the Self Respect movement, the usage of Brahmin Tamil was favoured by the Vellalars and Mudaliyars of Thanjavur and South Arcot districts.[3] In the early decades of the 20th century, the Brahmin Tamil variant spoken in Madras city was considered to be standard spoken Tamil.[5][7] However, since the 1950s and the gradual elimination of Sanskrit loan words from the spoken tongue, Brahmin Tamil has fallen into disuse and has been replaced by the Central and Madurai Tamil dialects, by all communities, including most Brahmins, as the preferred spoken dialects for day-to-day use.[4]

In ancient times, Brahmin Tamil was used only by Smartha Brahmins, the Vaishnavite Iyengars having a unique dialect of their own, called the Sri Vaishnava Manipravalam which interested linguistics for its peculiar grammatical forms and vocabulary.[16] However, due to the development of a homogenised Brahmin identity during the medieval period, Vaishnavite Brahmins in the Tamil country have largely assimilated Brahmin Tamil with their own dialect, retaining several words of the Vaishnava Manipravalam in their vocabulary. The Hebbar and Mandyam Iyengars who reside outside the Tamil country, however, continue to use Iyengar Tamil as their mother tongue. So do Ashtagrama Iyers and Mysore Vadama Iyers whose Tamil dialects while largely uses Brahmin Tamil has some Kannada influence. In contrast to peninsular India, the Brahmin dialect was never used by the Tamil Brahmins of Sri Lanka.[17]

The difference between the Smartha and Sri Vaishnava variants are currently limited to vocabulary, particularly to words related to ritual and familial ties, alone.[18]

Words unique to the Sri Vaishnava variant
Smartha Brahmin Variant Sri Vaishnava Variant English meaning
Rasam Sattru amudu Rasam.[18] Literally means the stew that is used to mix with rice.
Chithappa Chithiya Father's younger brother (colloquial)[18]
Abhishekham Thirumanjanam Bath of temple idols in a ceremonial way." />
Payasam Thirukanan amudhu Sweet Porridge
Samayal Thaligai Cooking
Samayal Arai Thirumadapalli / Thaligai panra ull Kitchen. Under Sri Vaishnava variant, the first one is to refer kitchen in temples, while the second one is used to refer kitchen in houses.
Kari Kari amudhu Vegetable Fry
Kuththu Kuththu To pour (not to be confused with punching or killing as with Chennai Tamil slang)
Sambhar Kozhambu Lliquid gravy, with dhal or even without dhal (for Sri Vaishnava variant only).
Narukurathu Thirutharathu To cut (generally vegetables)
Thootham/Jalam Theertham Water
Thayir Saadham Dodhyonam Curd rice
Thaalikkarathu Thirupu maarapanrathu Process of frying mustard, asafoetida in oil or ghee for aroma
Vendikarathu Sevikkarathu To worship
Kumbabhishekam Samprokshanam Consecration of a temple.
Naamam pottukarathu Thiruman ittukarathu To apply one or three stroke Naama (Iyyengar symbol) on forehead
Ecchal idardhu Ecchapiratal Cleaning the left overs after having food

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pop Culture India!: Media, Arts, And Lifestyle. ABC-CLIO. 2006. p. 217. ISBN 1851096361. ISBN 9781851096367.
  2. ^ Mohit K. Ray, ed. (2007). The Atlantic Companion to Literature in English. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors. p. 436. ISBN 8126908327. ISBN 9788126908325.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Language variation in Tamil". Archived from the original on 2011-07-23. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  4. ^ a b Harold F. Schiffman. "Standardization or Restandardization: the case for `Standard' Spoken Tamil".
  5. ^ a b c d Bate, Bernard (2009). "Notes - 12". Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic: Democratic Practice in South India. Columbia University Press. pp. 188–189. ISBN 0231147562. ISBN 9780231147569.
  6. ^ Baskaran, S. Theodore (1996). The eye of the serpent: An Introduction to Tamil cinema. East West Books. p. 66.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Comrie, Bernard (1990). The Major Languages of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Taylor & Francis. p. 182. ISBN 0415057728. ISBN 9780415057721.
  8. ^ C. Shapiro, Michael; F. Schiffman, Harold (1981). Language and society in South Asia. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 155.
  9. ^ Pillai, J. M. Somasundaram; Meenakshisundaram, T. P. (1968). "Introduction". A history of Tamil literature with texts and translations from the earliest times to 600 A.D. p. xiv.
  10. ^ a b Pillai, S. Anavartavinayakam (1974). "The Sanskritic Elements in the vocabulary of Dravidian languages". In Mark Collins (ed.). Dravidic Studies. University of Madras. p. 154.
  11. ^ a b Bright, William (1976). "Social dialect and language history". Variation and change in language: Essays. Stanford University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0804709262. ISBN 9780804709262.
  12. ^ Sree Krishnan (ed.). Linguistic traits across language boundaries. Anthropological Survey of India. p. 20.
  13. ^ a b Andronov, p 162
  14. ^ Gupta, Baldev Raj (1990). Indian Linguistics. Ariana Publishing House. p. 28.
  15. ^ Andronov, p 258
  16. ^ Raman, Srilatha (2007). Self-surrender (prapatti) to God in Śrīvaiṣṇavism: Tamil Cats and Sanskrit Monkeys. Taylor & Francis. pp. 63–64. ISBN 0415391857. ISBN 9780415391856.
  17. ^ Veluppillai, A. (1980). Epigraphical evidences for Tamil studies. International Institute of Tamil Studies. p. 175.
  18. ^ a b c Beteille, Andre (1965). Caste, Class, and Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village. University of California Press. p. 54. ISBN 0520020537. ISBN 9780520020535.


  • S. Andronov, Michail (2003). A comparative grammar of Dravidian languages. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 3447044551. ISBN 9783447044554.
  • K. Karunakaran, C. Sivashanmugman (1981). Study of social dialects in Tamil. All India Tamil Linguistics Association.