The first letter of Tamil lexicon — ‘அ’

Allwin Williams
5 min readOct 12, 2020
‘அ’ written with ink using a brush on paper

‘அ’ is the first alphabet in Tamil lexicon.

I wanted to start using a brush which I haven’t used much before for anything. Instead of using colors initially, I thought I’ll just use the ink used for fountain pens to explore the medium of brush, in paper. When I took it I held it in my hands to do something, it just clicked in my head. I knew what I had to draw. It was just a sound to me as a child at that time; ‘Ah’ when read short and open is the sound of that letter. But it’s something that started my entire journey of education, learning, written/read communication. Something accelerated my thinking and expression. It’s the first thing I ever wrote. More like drawn. I didn’t know much about language or alphabets or meaning or context at that time. The first time I drew that symbol, it was over rice spread. Some traditions of starting the learning process with drawing that letter over rice spread on the floor with the index finger. Then, on the sand for some time before I could hold something in my hand to write. As I grew up and went to school, I wrote the same letter on a black slate with white chalk. Later, on a paper with a pen. It always has been my starting point in new mediums. I knew this should be my first proper exploration in this new medium of brush, ink, and paper. It would be the first symbol that I drew, the first letter I wrote. It would be the thing that started off something that took me to where I am now. It would be the first letter of the language that I think in. It would be a part of my identity. It would be the first letter of Tamil and it is ‘அ’.

This triggered me to think a lot about language and how it shapes us. How it helps in molding us into who we are now as a person and as a human species as a whole.

Every human society has a language and all languages share one thing that is expressive power. Language is something that helps in conveying our thoughts. They can influence our thoughts. It lets us express ourselves more than other species. Other species have a rich and complex system of communication of their own which we fully don’t understand. A language is not just a way of communication. It is an important part of the development and evolution of the human species as a whole. Societies and cultures all over the world have grown with at least one language. A language represents culture, history, traditions, society, and ultimately people. We can’t discuss the development of civilizations without language. It has and will continue to be a part of any of our social structures.

We naturally started with sounds for communication. A child starts to blabber sounds by itself without anyone telling them to do it. Scripts on the other hand are something that evolved over time, for humans and by humans. We grow into a language but learn to write. There are languages without scripts. But when we speak about literature, the scripts helped a lot. And writing would be one of the first things that most people have learned in their life.

A bit about தமிழ்

Tamil; /ˈtæmɪl/.

Tamil is the language spoken by the Tamil people of India and Sri Lanka, as well as Singapore. It is one of the 22 scheduled official languages in the constitution of India. It was the language first to be classified as a classical language of India and is one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world. It has the oldest extant literature among Dravidian languages. 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. The current Tamil script consists of 12 uyir eluththu(s) — letters of life (vowel), 18 mei eluththu(s) — letters of body (consonants), and one special character, the āytam (weapon letter). Vowels when added to consonants give birth to new letters.

More trivia on ‘அ’

An answer for a quora question “What is the significance of the first letter in Tamil?” by Vijayanarasimhan Karthikeyan:

The first letter of Tamil (and almost all Indian languages) is ‘அ’, the vowel sound ‘a’ (close to ‘u’ in ‘up’). It is its longer counterpart (‘ஆ’/ ‘a’ as in ‘all’) which has more significance (there is a highly possible hypothesis that the longer vowels came into existence before their shorter counterparts, but by some convention, our ancestors have placed the short ones before the long ones!)

It is perhaps the most naturally created sound (just opening your mouth and letting the air out of your lungs to articulate will produce this sound). Somehow a lot of languages around the world have their first letter with the same or a similar sound.

Other vowels are seen as variations of this one (because they require the tongue and the lips to be in other positions to articulate!)

The first and foremost couplet in the most celebrated and famous work among Tamil literature, Thirukkural, mentions the significance and it starts with ‘அ’:

அகர முதல எழுத்தெல்லாம் ஆதி
பகவன் முதற்றே உலகு

Agara mudala eluttellaam aadi
Bagavan mutattre ulagu

One of translation:

Like all the letters which have ‘a’ as their foremost,
All of the world has the first God as their foremost.

The word ‘eluttellaam’ (all the letters) can be interpreted to mean the letters of Tamil as well as other languages (which is also true to most extent!)

The letter ‘அ’ also serves as the symbol for the number ‘8’ (eight) in Tamil number system.

The number eight signifies Lord Vishnu, the protector (his Eighth Avatar is Rama, ninth and most celebrated Avatar is Krishna, who was born as the 8th son of his biological parents on the eighth day on a full moon day — ‘Ashtami’).

The number eight signifies Lord Vishnu, the protector (also, his Eighth Avatar is Rama and the ninth and most celebrated and worshipped Avatar is Krishna, who was born as the 8th son of his biological parents on the eighth day on a full moon day — ‘Ashtami’)

I will continue to explore letters of Tamil with different mediums.

#தமிழ் #tamil