Tamil, the Indian Language that Spread Across the World

The vernacular is one of the oldest, reaching as far and wide as Thailand and Australia. Why doesn’t it get its due?

GettyImages-90745467 tamil language
Catamaran from the Coromandel Coast, India. The true catamaran was a raft, the name being derived from the Tamil expression 'tied logs.' (SSPL/Getty Images)

Vaishnavi Naidu


March 7, 2024


11 min

In Tamil, “thiraikadal odiyum thiraviyam thedu” means to venture across the oceans and seek prosperity. The famous axiom goes back to as early as 300 B.C., when demand for pearls off the Pandyan coast in southern India was so high that even local bodies of water weren’t vast enough. Maritime trade, however, was treacherous: the monsoon winds that helped sailboats travel also came with violent storms. One cautionary tale warned sailors of the destruction of the 35-boat fleet of an Indian merchant sailing from Sri Lanka to Sumatra. 

But the pearl traders remained undeterred. Taking the axiom to heart, they reached the shores of far and near eastern Asia, as well as Australia. The Roman historians Strabo and Pliny the Elder even reference these merchants, who transported luxuries such as spices, horses, woven silk, and Kalamkari cloth. Another unexpected export? Their language, religion, and culture. Though subcontinental languages Hindi and Urdu may have over 500 million speakers worldwide, Tamil is arguably far more widespread and definitely older. Yet, it rarely gets its due as a global language worth reckoning with. Why?

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