Without a doubt – yes. Let me elaborate on the statements being made in the question- how old is Tamil, is it classical and does it survive in a form related to the original:
- How old is it: There is strong evidence to suggest Sanskrit was the oldest written language in India – estimates vary between 1100BC to 1700BC, based on the data from the Vedas. However Tamil works have oral tradition, which means we cannot conclusively zero in on a hard date for the origin of Tamil. Earliest estimates however, vary from 5300 BC onwards. The earliest written works are from “hero stones” – a tribute to the bravery of warriors, inscribed in stone:
This particular example above is estimated to be 2100-2400 years old – 400BC.
At any given time, Archeological Survey of India has at least one major new find to work on related to this area. The most recent one is a temple believed to be dating back to 300BC, a temple near Kanchipuram, Chennai:
So as per written records(with conclusive evidence), the age of Tamil literature started around 2600 years ago or 600 BC – significantly younger (1100 years) than sanskrit, if we go by written evidence. This date will change as more evidence is dug up(literally).
- Is it a classical language: The accepted definition of a classical languages is:
it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature
To back up this statement, there are thousands of works, I will cite the most important ones:
1. Independent tradition:
Tamil evolved independent of the rest of the languages of modern India derived from sanskrit. There are however, influences. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Both Tirukkural and Tolkāppiyam have influences from sanskrit(more on this latter). But the language tamil can be considered independent – I am basing this on the fact that its phonetics and grammatical structure are vastly different from Yaska’s Nirukta, Rigveda Pratishakya and Panini Ashtayayi(these are sanskrit grammatical works), hence the the argument that tamil borrows from sanskrit are not entirely true (most sanskrit words were adopted in middle ages, nearly 800 years later). There are hundreds of sources used for tamil grammar, sanskrit might be one of them. This might sound like an argument on patent law, but tamil grammar displays significant creativity and knowledge to be called an independent work. Another factor in its favor is that tamil has its own numerals.
2. Large and extremely rich body of ancient literature:
Tirukkural – A work on ethics and dharma (righteous living) approximately 1600-2200 years old. The dates are debatable, but the implications of the work in daily life are not. It is a collection of 1330 couplets. I do not want to elaborate on this, it is a vast topic, there are hundreds of scholars who have made interpreting and translating tirukkural their life’s work. Call it an old mans wisdom on righteousness(part 1), wealth (part 2) and pleasure (part 3). A couplet from tirukkural (No 786, which comes under Wealth):
Friendship is not indicated by a smile on the face; It is what is felt deep within a smiling heart
My translation does not do justice to the original in terms of phonetics and placement of words. Study the picture carefully, you will realise the symmetry to it. There are 1329 other quotes like the one above which are phonetically and grammatically – beautiful. These are works of art as much as literature, as they are music to the ears too.
As I stated before, tirukkural has influences from sanskrit – the very first couplet has the words like adi, loka and bhagvan- sanskrit words.
Tolkāppiyam- A work on grammar, which is at least 1800 years old according to most estimates. It is essential high school study, even today. Even though it is quite old, it is a study in phonolgy, morphology and subject matter in tamil. Based on syllables, it even classifies alphabets into vowels and consonants.
Sanskrit influence – kāppiyam sounds like kavya from sanskrit.
Technically, tamil was “recognised” as a classical language in 2004 by Govenment of India.
- Has it survived: This is the easy part. There are 80 million speakers of tamil. The tamil movie industry has churned out 71 movies in 2012 as of today(11th of August). Any student from the fourth grade studying tamil can decipher 40% of the writing on the stone inscription above, will know atleat 5 tirukkural couplets and what tolkāppiyam is. The form has changed vastly unlike sanskrit (which remains essentially the same 3000 years later) but the core tamil language has evolved and gained wide spread adoption with different dialects. So yeah, it has more than survived.
Consider this stone inscription from the “hero stone” age described above:
Here is the modern alphabets to the inscription above:
Consider a palm leaf inscription which was made before paper became popular:
The modern alphabets to the script above:
That’s a 2200 year old stone inscription with crude tools, a palm leaf written on with a metal stylus and a ASCII coded script sharing space. Tamil Wikipedia has approximately 50K articles and 40K active users, making it 49th in usage.
In terms of native speakers today, sanskrit has about 15K native speakers compared to 80 million of tamil.has made a convincing argument for classical chinese, I have no expertise on the subject, but according to Wikipedia:
Among Chinese speakers, Classical Chinese has been largely replaced by written vernacular Chinese (“plain speech”), a style of writing that is similar to modern spoken Mandarin Chinese, while speakers of non-Chinese languages have largely abandoned Classical Chinese in favor of local vernaculars.
Classical chinese was last used widely in written form nearly a century ago.
To summarize, the year of origin of tamil and its relationship with sanskrit are inconclusive and debatable, but the statement that it is the oldest surviving classical language is a fact due to its wide spread use.
Origin estimate- 5320 BC:
Essential reading related to estimating a date:
These articles in Wikipedia are well moderated and accurate:
For earliest estimates:
Robert Caldwell :
Most false arguments that Tamil is the mother of all languages can be traced back to works of this one man.
Tolkappiyam , the guide for tamil grammar:
Rigveda, an important work in sanskrit:
For timelines related to Tamil and its derived languages:
Tamil and sanskrit grammar debate:
Dr.S.Rajavelu, Archeological Survey of India
They are involved in cataloging the “hero stones”
Due to the nature of passionate debate on these topics related to Tamil/Sanskrit, I have to clarify that I am an engineer, not a linguist or an academician/expert on tamil. However I, know 3 South Indian languages – Tamil(mother tongue), Kannada and Malayalam to various degrees and 3 languages related to Sanskrit family- Sanskrit, Hindi and Oriya. I have also studied a little German – which has relationship/similarities with sanskrit. I am not involved in the Pure Tamil movement and believe both sanskrit and tamil are to be learned,appreciated and preserved. Suggestions and criticism are welcome, please refer to reliable, neutral sources – “any information is only as reliable as its source”.
Source : Thanks to Quora, Wikipedia and all Tamil Friends.