Tamil, a language with a long and ancient literary tradition, has been spoken in southern India for several millennia. Ninety-two percent of its speakers live in India's southern Tamil Nadu State, where it is spoken by 48 million first language speakers. By some accounts, second-language speakers also number in the millions in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent.
In northern Sri Lanka, between three and four million people - about 20 percent of the population of that island state - speak Tamil. Elsewhere, there are several hundreds of thousands of speakers each in South Africa, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well as some 6,000 in Fiji. Additionally, there are significant minorities of Tamil speakers in Mauritius, Great Britain, the US, and Canada. The total number of speakers, including second-language speakers, reach about 66 million (Grimes 1992).
Tamil is a member of the Dravidian family, whose various branches are nearly all spoken in southern India.
Tamil is written in a syllabic system, like that of other South Asian languages, and it derives from the Ashokan Brahmi script. Vowels have two forms, once used at the beginning of a word, and another used after consonant symbols.
Besides loans from Sanskrit and some borrowing from Persian and Arabic, modern English has additionally supplied many of Tamil's loan words. However, because of the emphasis on linguistic purism in Tamil grammatical tradition, such loans are assimilated to the phonological system.
All Tamil speakers, including the uneducated, use two varieties of the language, which only roughly corresponds to the differences between literary and spoken Tamil. A high status variety is used in most writing, such as that of the media, which includes radio and television broadcasts; political speeches; and other similar occasions. In contrast, a low status variety is used in everyday discourse, film, and some high status circumstances to create solidarity or to enhance intimacy with audiences.
In both India and Sri Lanka, Tamil has the status of an official language. In India, it is one of fourteen official languages, and in Sri Lanka, it shares that status with Sinhalese. It is the first official language of India's Tamil Nadu state. Among the four ancient literary languages of southern India (Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu), Tamil has the longest tradition, as its earliest records date from inscriptions from 200 BC.
Source: UCLA Language Materials Project Language Profile