Tamil is one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world. Mr. A. K. Ramanujan quoted 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 c. 300 BC until AD 300. Tamil language has the oldest extant literature among Dravidian languages. Among Other Indian languages, Tamil has the most ancient non-Sanskrit Indian literature.
Scholars categorise the attested history of the language into three periods: Old Tamil (600 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.
The earliest epigraphic records found on rock edicts and 'hero stones' date from around the 3rd century BC. About 60,000 of the 100,000 odd inscriptions found by the Archaeological Survey of India in India are in Tamil Nadu. Of them, most are in Tamil, with only about 5 per cent in languages other than Tamil. 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.
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