Thursday, 1 December 2022

Learning Tamizh Pronunciation Using English | Roman Script

 A script is simply a tool that can guide us to utter the right sounds, which then form words that expand into a language.

The image above illustrates the variations and evolution of Tamizh script throughout the timeline of history. The script used today varies a lot from the past. The ancient script used by the Tamizhs was called Grantham. The script used today on the other hand, is called Vatteluttu.

Image: Grantham script in Brihadeeshvara Temple.
Any script can be used as a guide to pronounce the right sounds of a language, as long as it can accommodate all the possible spectrum of sounds.

A very good example of this would be the Roman script. This article is written in Roman script but the language used is English. I can use the same Roman script to write in Bahasa Malaysia.

The Roman script is a very versatile script. It can be easily modified to represent a huge array of sounds used in various languages. For example, you can learn Sanskrit sounds by using a modified Roman script we refer to as the IAST ( International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration ).

Some years back, I made a tutorial on how to use the IAST script. You can possibly learn or get yourself familiarised with all possible sound combinations in Sanskrit in just less than 30 minutes by using the IAST script. I am extremely blessed to have been taught Sanskrit in both Devanagari and IAST ( my acharya, Master Mohan, Kulim, Malaysia ) so I could very well teach people the IAST script to make them proficient in Vedic recitation.

Video above: My tutorial on Using the Roman script to learn Sanskrit pronunciation

Most people find the biggest challenge in learning a new language in the form of an alien script. Most people do not realise that a language is rooted in the sound combinations you produce from your oral cavity and not by script. Most ancient scriptures were traditionally only learned and passed orally. There was no script initially.

I am here to tell you that you can use an existing script you are already familiar with to master a new language.

It saves you ample time and effort. For instance, Pinyin is a modified Roman script that can be used to learn Mandarin.

 So why not Tamizh?

Tamizh has its own version of Roman script. It is called ISO 15919. The idea to teach Tamizh sounds using a Roman script never occured to my mind as I was too used to the Vatezhutu script, taught by my mother ( Mdm Sarojini, BA Hons  Double Major; Tamizh , Geography ). I first got to know about the Romanised Tamizh script when my cousin Sharmalan Thevar wrote an article about it. He has also done a gargantuan work in the past many years to spread awareness on the ISO 15919 script.


Let's start with the tutorial. By the end of this article, you will be able to pronounce all Tamizh letters confidently.

(1) Dot Below Alphabet

When you see a dot below an alphabet, you pronounce it by having your tongue touch the hard palate ( roof of the mouth )

This is the retroflex sound. Your tongue touches the point marked with a box in image above.


கண்டாங்கி கண்டாங்கி கட்டி வந்த பொண்ணு
கண்டாலே கிறுகேத்தும் கஞ்சா வச்ச கண்ணு

kaṇṭāki kaṇṭāki kaṭṭi vanta poṇṇu
kaṇṭālē kiukēttum kañcā vacca kaṇṇu

So as you can see in the ISO transliteration, you have to position your tongue to the roof of the mouth at every instance a fullstop appears below a consonant. This includes the n in ponnu and kannu, the nt in kantanki and kantale..

This sound is specifically produced by the vibration cause by the contact between the tongue and hard palate.

Let us look at an example with the letter 'L'.

பள்ளி ( school )

So in this example, the 'l' is pronounced with the tongue very specifically touching the roof of the mouth. The meaning gets altered should you position it elsewhere.

(2) Horizontal line below the alphabet

When you see a horizontal line below the alphabet, your tongue touches the roof of the mouth, similar to a retroflex ( dot below alphabet ), but the position is closer to the upper row of teeth ( Except in the case of an 'L'. We will see this later ). The diagram below shall illustrate:

Image courtesy: Amizhthil Iniyathadi Papa - Tamil learning

In both scenarios of having a line and a dot below a consonant, the tongue touches the roof of the mouth. The only difference is the location. With a line below the alphabet, you position the tongue closer to the teeth. With a dot below the alphabet, you position it centrally ( farther from teeth ).

The image above shows the point of contact in these two different scenarios. In any instance, make sure that your tongue does not touch the teeth.

பனி ( Snow ) Pai

மாற்றம் ( change )


(3) Horizontal Line Above Alphabet

A flat line above a syllable indicates elongation of the syllable's duration. It is very simple. For example, 


Here, the first Ka is pronounced 'kaa' while the second, as a short 'ka'. So it is kaakam.

(4) Nasal Sounds

You need not worry too much about them because they are naturally imitable. 

(i) ñ 

This 'n' with a curvature above is 'ngyaa' / 'injjj'. You do not have to worry about positioning your tongue manually because this is a palatal sound ( tongue in contact with soft palate ). You tongue by default touches the soft palate to produce the ' ngyaa / injj' sound.

ஞானம் ( wisdom )


இஞ்சி ( ginger)


( ii) ṅ 

This 'n' with a dot above is 'nggaaa' / ingg. Again, don't worry about positioning your tongue manually because this is a velar ( throat ) sound. It is produced from the vibration in the throat.

கங்கை ( ganga)


பொங்கல் ( Ponggal )


(5) Unique Zha

This is referred to as 'சிறப்பு ழகரம்' ( Ciappu zhakaram ) In the ISO, this sound is represented as ( L with horizontal line below ). Do not confuse this with the line below consonant we saw in the example of 'N' and 'T'. This is a special rule for 'ḻ'. Whenever you see an 'L' with a horizontal line below it, you take it as this 'zha'.

 It is represented as ழ in the Vattezhuttu script.

( ழ is not unique to Tamizh alone, it is used by other ethnicities as well. For example, Malayalees use ழ as well )

Anyways, how to pronounce it?

Image courtesy: Amizhthil Iniyathadi Papa - Tamil learning

You roll the tip of the tongue in a curved manner as deep as possible into your oral cavity and pronounce the nectar by releasing it ( tongue).


You are NOT supposed to touch the tongue at the roof of the mouth in 'ḻ'. Your tongue even when rolled, floats and does not rest on any surface within the oral cavity. The tip of the tongue must be contactless.

The video below presents a good audio on ''pronunciation:

(4) Letter without special marking

 What about having letters that neither have a dot or line below it? Then, you take it as a dental sound. Your tongue must touch the teeth whenever you pronounce these letters. Dental sounds are those which are produced from the vibrations arising from contact between the tongue and teeth.

(i) இலை ( leaf )


The 'la' here is done with tongue in contact with your teeth

(ii)  நேரம் ( time )

The 'na' here is done with tongue in contact with your teeth 

(iii)  இரத்தம் ( blood )


The 'ra' here is done with tongue in contact with your teeth


Promoting ISO standard

Promoting the ISO script will help people from other ethnicities to venture into the language. A language is rooted in its sound usage. The script is a guide. If we provide a feasible script, it will attract myriads to learn Tamizh. Sharmalan has very well hit the bullseye with his explanation.

Now try using the ISO script to read the verse below:

அகர முதல எழுத்தெல்லாம் ஆதி 
பகவன் முதற்றே உலகு

akara mutala eḻuttellām āti
pakava mutaṟṟē ulaku

You can also very well learn the pronunciation of Tami words with google translate - which accommodates the ISO standard.


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