Tamil and Telugu: Language Similarities and Differences

Tamil and Telugu are South Indian languages. Tamil is the official language of the state of Tamil Nadu—the name means “Tamil Country”—whereas Telugu is the official language of the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

Map of Tamil and Telugu-speaking regions

During the British colonial rule of India, local languages were not a big factor in shaping administrative boundaries. For instance, Madras Province encompassed both Telugu-speaking districts in the north and Tamil-speaking districts in the south.

After India's independence, a movement emerged to realign state boundaries with the languages spoken in each region.

The northern region of Madras, predominantly inhabited by Telugu-speaking communities, became part of the state of Andhra Pradesh. The southern part of Madras with a Tamil-speaking population, became the state of Tamil Nadu.

They belong to the same language family

Telugu and Tamil belong to the same language family: they are both Dravidian languages. They are also the most spoken languages from that family.

Language Language Family Native speakers
in India (Millions)
Hindi Indo-Aryan 528
Bengali Indo-Aryan 97
Marathi Indo-Aryan 83
Telugu Dravidian 81
Tamil Dravidian 69
Gujarati Indo-Aryan 55
Urdu Indo-Aryan 51
Kannada Dravidian 44
Odia Indo-Aryan 38
Malayalam Dravidian 35
Punjabi Indo-Aryan 33
Assamese Indo-Aryan 15

In India, the two main language families are the Indo-Aryan languages and the Dravidian languages. While Indo-Aryan languages are part of the broader Indo-European language family, Dravidian languages are not.

As a result, Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi are (very) distantly related to English, but this is not the case for Dravidian languages such as Telugu and Tamil.

Vocabulary comparison

The table below provides a side-by-side comparison of some basic vocabulary words in both Tamil and Telugu.

English Tamil Telugu
peace சமாதானம் (camātāṉam) శాంతి (śānti)
happiness மகிழ்ச்சி (makiḻcci) ఆనందం (ānandam)
love அன்பு (aṉpu) ప్రేమ (prēma)
path பாதை (pātai) మార్గం (mārgaṁ)
fruit பழம் (paḻam) పండు (paṇḍu)
heart இதயம் (itayam) గుండె (guṇḍe)
river நதி (nati) నది (nadi)
fire தீ (tī) అగ్ని (agni)
forest காடு (kāṭu) అడవి (aḍavi)
sleep தூங்கு (tūṅku) నిద్ర (nidra)
song பாடல் (pāṭal) పాట (pāṭa)
king அரசன் (aracaṉ) రాజు (rāju)

Telugu has been heavily influenced by Sanskrit—Tamil much less so

The vocabulary differences between Tamil and Telugu are due, in part, to the different degree to which these languages have been influenced by Sanskrit, an ancient language from the Indo-Aryan language family that was used to write many important Hindu texts including the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

Telugu has been very heavily influenced by Sanskrit: it is estimated that 80% of Telugu vocabulary words come from Sanskrit.

This makes Telugu a language with a majority of vocabulary words coming from outside of its language family. This is also the case for English. It is a Germanic language, but two-thirds of the vocabulary words in an English dictionary come from Latin or Greek, which are not Germanic languages. [1]

In contrast, Tamil has experienced a linguistic protectionism movement that has not only resisted foreign influences on the language but has also actively sought to eliminate Sanskrit loanwords from its vocabulary.

As a result of this linguistic protectionism, Tamil has a much larger proportion of vocabulary words derived from its native Dravidian roots—compared to Telugu.

Tamil and Telugu use different writing systems

Although Tamil and Telugu use different writing systems, both of them descend from the Brahmi script of ancient India. Archaeological evidence of the Brahmi script includes written proclamations dating back to the 3rd century BCE, which were commissioned by Emperor Ashoka.

These inscriptions document how after witnessing the devastation of war from his military conquests, he embraced Buddhism and adopted a philosophy of non-violence, compassion, and morality.

Tamil and Telugu are not the only languages with writing systems derived from the Brahmi script. The Devanagari script, used for Hindi, also has this same origin. Even beyond the borders of India, many languages including Thai, Tibetan, Burmese, and Lao use writing systems that descend from the Brahmi script.

Tamil has 18 consonants and Telugu has roughly twice as many. The exact count of Telugu consonants varies, as a few of them have fallen out of use and have been removed from textbooks.

Tamil is also an official language in countries beyond India

Tamil is closely associated with the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but the language also has official status in a few other countries as well.

In the island country of Sri Lanka—formerly known as Ceylon—Tamil is one of the two official languages, the other one being Sinhala.

Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu are geographically very close, as they are separated by a shallow bay called the Gulf of Mannar, and the shortest distance between the two is only about 30 km.

Singapore, another island nation located significantly farther from Tamil Nadu (approximately 3000 km away), has Tamil as one of its four official languages, alongside English, Malay, and Mandarin.