One of 22 scheduled languages in the Constitution of India, Tamil was the first to be classified as a and is one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world. A. K. Ramanujan described it as "the only language of contemporary India which is recognizably continuous with a classical past." The variety and quality of classical Tamil literature has led to it being described as "one of the great classical traditions and literatures of the world".
A recorded Tamil literature has been documented for over 2000 years. The earliest period of Tamil literature, Sangam literature, is dated from ca. 300 BC – AD 300. It has the oldest extant literature among Dravidian languages.[ The earliest epigraphic records found on rock edicts and 'hero stones' date from around the 3rd century BC.More than 55% of the epigraphical inscriptions (about 55,000) found by the Archaeological Survey of India are in the Tamil language.Tamil language inscriptions written in Brahmi script have been discovered in Sri Lanka and on trade goods in Thailand and Egypt. The two earliest manuscripts from India, acknowledged and registered by the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 1997 and 2005, were written in Tamil.
In 1578, Portuguese Christian missionaries published a Tamil prayer book in old Tamil script named Thambiran Vanakkam, thus making Tamil the first Indian language to be printed and published. The Tamil Lexicon, published by the University of Madras, was one of the earliest dictionaries published in Indian languages.According to a 2001 survey, there were 1,863 newspapers published in Tamil, of which 353 were dailies.
Tamil belongs to the southern branch of the Dravidian languages, a family of around 26 languages native to the Indian subcontinent.It is also classified as being part of a Tamil language family that, alongside Tamil proper, includes the languages of about 35 ethno-linguistic groups.such as the Irula and Yerukula languages
The closest major relative of Tamil is Malayalam; the two began diverging around the 9th century AD. Although many of the differences between Tamil and Malayalam demonstrate a pre-historic split of the western dialect,the process of separation into a distinct language, Malayalam, was not completed until sometime in the 13th or 14th century
According to linguists like Bhadriraju Krishnamurti, Tamil, as a Dravidian language, descends from Proto-Dravidian, a proto-language. Linguistic reconstruction suggests that Proto-Dravidian was spoken around the third millennium BC, possibly in the region around the lower Godavari river basin in peninsular India. The material evidence suggests that the speakers of Proto-Dravidian were of the culture associated with the Neolithic complexes of South India.The earliest epigraphic attestations of Tamil are generally taken to have been written from the 2nd century BC.
Among Indian languages, Tamil has the most ancient non-Sanskritic Indian literature.Scholars categorise the attested history of the language into three periods: Old Tamil (300 BC–AD 700), Middle Tamil (700–1600) and Modern Tamil (1600–present).In November 2007, an excavation at Quseir-al-Qadim revealed Egyptian pottery dating back to first century BC with ancient Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. There are a number of apparent Tamil loanwords in Biblical Hebrew dating to before 500 BC, the oldest attestation of the language.John Guy states that Tamil was the lingua franca for early maritime traders from India.