The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







The Tolkāppiyam (தொல்காப்பியம் in Tamil) is a book on the grammar of the Tamil language. Published in about the 6th century BC by Tolkāppiyar , is said to be the world's oldest surviving grammar for any language.

The Tolkāppiyam classifies the Tamil language into "senthamil" and "kotunthamil". The former refers to the classical Tamil used exclusively in literary works and the latter refers to the colloquial Tamil, spoken by the people. The book is based on the analysis of both spoken and written Tamil.


Scientific treatment to Natural Language Grammar

The classification of the alphabet into consonants and vowels by splitting the conso-vowels was a scientific breakthrough. Grammatising this phenomenon was also an achievement of that time. The Tolkāppiyam starts by defining the alphabet for optimal writing, grammatises the use of words and syntaxes and moves into higher modes of language analysis. The style and structure of narration of these rules is similar to that of the Backus-Naur form, which was formalised only as recently as 1963. The Tolkāppiyam formulated thirty characters and three diacritic like symbols for Tamil. The 12 vowels combine with the 18 consonants bringing the total tally of characters to 247(12 + 18 + (2x18) + 1 = 247). The alphabet has evolved since then. For a detailed treatment of the alphabet see Tamil alphabet. Though the alphabet has evolved largely, the language as such has remained mostly in tact earning the sobriquet, kannith thamil meaning ever young Tamil.


The Tolkāppiyam is organised into the following three chapters each of which is sub divided into 9 sections.

1. Ezhuththathikaaram

2. Sollathikaaram

3. PoruLathikaaram


Ezhuththathikaaram is further subdivided into the following 9 sections.

1. Nuul Marabu

2. Mozhi Marabu

3. PiRappiyal

4. PuNaRiyal

5. Thokai Marabu

6. Urubiyal

7. Uyir Mayangial

8. PuLLi Mayangial

9. KutriyalukarappunaRiyal

Nuul Marabu

This section enumerates the characters of the language, organises them into consonants, vowels and diacritic symbols. The vowels are sub classified into short and long vowels based on duration of pronunciation. Similarly, the consonants are sub classified into three categories based on the stress.

Mozhi Marabu

This section defines rules which specify where in a word can a letter not occur and which letter can not come after a particular letter.

It also describes elision, which is the reduction in the duration of sound of a phoneme when preceded by or followed by certain other sounds. The rules are well-defined and unambiguous. They are categorised into 5 classes based on the phoneme which undergoes elision.

  1. Kutriyalukaram - the vowel sound u
  2. Kutriyalikaram - the vowel sound i
  3. Aiykaarakkurukkam - the diphthong ai
  4. Oukaarakkurukkam - the diphthong au
  5. Aaythakkurukkam - the special character akh (aayutham)


This is a section on articulatory phonetics. It talks about pronunciation methods of the phonemes at the level of diaphragm, larynx, jaws, tongue position, teeth, lips and nose.

Also, the visual representation of the letters is explained.


This section talks about the changes to words due to the following word i.e. it specifies rules that govern the transformations on the last alphabet of a word (nilaimozhi iiRu) because of the first alpabet of the following word (varumozhi muthal) when used in a sentence.

Thokai Marabu


Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04