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Loan words in Sri Lankan Tamil

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Loan words in Sri Lankan Tamil came about mostly due contact between colonial powers and the native population. Linguists study a language's lexicon for a number of reasons. Languages such as Tamil with centuries of literature and multi-cultural contact offer the chance to compare the various processes of lexical change. The words of foreign origin or loanwords illustrate those processes: calques, loanwords, the distinction between function words and content words.

Note: For information on the transcription used, see National Library at Calcutta romanization and Tamil script.


European contribution

Sri Lankan Tamil dialects are distinct from the Tamil dialects used in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and other states of India. They are used in Sri Lanka and in the Tamil diaspora. Linguistic borrowings from European colonizers such as the Portuguese, English and the Dutch have also contributed to a unique vocabulary that is distinct from the colloquial usage of Tamil in the Indian mainland. Furthermore, a form of Tamil spoken by Sri Lankan Moors has been strongly influenced by Arabic. Words that are peculiar to Sri Lankan Tamil dialects are marked with an asterisk (*).


Most Portuguese loan words are for item the native population lacked when the encounter happened circa 1505. Some are administrative terms, others are personal usage terms as well as items directly introduced from South America via the Portuguese traders. Most of these words are also shared with Sinhalese language users.

Word Meaning Original form
alumāri cupboard armário
annāsi pineapple ananás
alavangu crow bar alavanca
alupunethi safety pin alfinete
alugosu executioner algoz
baila dance baile or bailar
chuppu suck chupar or chupo
rothai wheel roda
savei key chave
jaṉṉal window janela
kathirai chair cadeira
kaju cashew caju
kalusan* trousers calção
kamicai* shirt camisa
kaṭatāsi* paper carta
koiappalam guava goiaba
kōppai drinking glass copo
kusini* kitchen cozinha
mēcai table mesa
pān* bread pão
pappāḷi/papā paḻam papaya papaia
pēnā pen pena (old type)
piṅkāṉ* plate palangana
pīppa wooden cask, barrel pipa
sapāttu shoe sapato
thavaranai tavern taverna
tācci* metal pan tacho
tompu* title tombo
tuvāy* towel toalha
vaṅki bank banco
veethuru glass vidro
veranta verandah varanda
viskottu biscuit biscoito


Word Meaning Original form
kakkūs Toilet kakhuis
kāmara* (rarely used) Room kamer
kantōr* Office kantoor
Thapal Post Tapal
kokkis Cookies koekjes
piaskōpu (rarely used) Cinema bioscoop
tē(ttaṇṇīr)* Tea thee


Sri Lankan Tamil dialects use countless number of English words; following are some of the unique ones.

Word Meaning Original form
kōppi* Coffee coffee
pattīs* A kind of fried potato snack patties
pilavus Worn with Sari blouse
rōls* A kind of fried meat snack rolls
tākkutar* Doctor doctor

Civil conflict terminology

Black July induced civil conflict has introduced number of English and international words to the native population.

Word Meaning Original form
Claymore* Land or aerial mine Claymore
Heli* Helicopter Helicopter
Kafir* Bomber Kfir Bomber
Shell* Mortar or artillery shells Shell


Loanwords from the neighbouring Indo-European Sinhala are quite sparse in Sri Lankan Tamil (as opposed to the large number of Tamil loan words in Sinhala), which is most likely due to the relative isolation of the exclusively Tamil-speaking settlements in the North and East of the island.

Word Meaning Original form
kirāma cēvakaṉ* Village Leader grāma sēvakayā
(mālu) panis* (fish) buns (mālu) banis
mahattayā* Sir, mister mahattayā
piratēciya sapā* Council pradeśiya sabhāva
sarvōtayam * Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement sarvōdaya
Tuvaku Gun Tuvakuva
vitānayar* Village headman vidāna (muhandirama)


There are also a few words from the Malay language. Malay words for edible fruits were introduced during the colonial period by traders. The same terminology is shared with Sinhalese.

Word Meaning Original form
maṅkostīn* Type of Fruit Mangosteen
ramputan* A type of fruit Rambutan
rempa* (rarely used) Curry mix Rempa
totol * A type of sweetmeat dodol
tūriyan* Type of Fruit Durian


The Arabic language contributes a large number of words into a dialect form of Tamil that is spoken exclusively by ethnic Sri Lankan Moors.

See also



Published - February 2009

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