License plate curiosity in Tamil Nadu

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2010/07/14 07:01 -04:00, original URI:

The first time it came to me was last week. I was looking at license plates. Tamil license plates.

Kinda like the ones I saw in Bangalore that I talked about in Canada isn't Kannada, ay (ಎ)? and More on license plates in Bengalūru, and in India, the license plates on buses and taxis had one plate in English and one with the native language (thus for Tamil Nadu, this second license plate was in Tamil).

Anyway, I promptly forgot about the issue I saw.

Then a few days later at breakfast during the World Classical Tamil Conferenc, I got into a wonderful conversation with a Tamil academic from Germany, who let me know that her university had plenty of funding so really it was just that I had to ask the right people if I had wanted to be in Cologne last year.

Duly noted. :-)

We talked about the issue I saw with the license plates and she gave me some additional insights into some of the political controversies that came up with the two letter state codes and making sure they were not only unique but looked unique across all the scripts to avoid the kind of confusion that could hinder law enforcement.

And then I forgot about my original issue. Again. Though in this case because the issues she raised were more interesting to me!

But they say the third time is a charm, and after I wrote My name is கப்லன், மைக்கேல் எஸ். கப்லன் (or maybe கப்லான், depending on your accent). and was doing some spell-checking (yes I do that though not enough, some would say!) and I was reminded of that license plate issue again.

You know what did it?

My name.


மைக்கேல் எஸ். கப்லன்


மைக்கேல் எஸ். கப்லான்

Take your pick, it is in both. It was about the “S.” in “Michael S. Kaplan” which both versions of my name did as “எஸ்.”, which is to say “TAMIL LETTER E + TAMIL LETTER SA +TAMIL SIGN VIRAMA” which is to say “E SA pULLi” which is to say “ehs”. Just the same way that I would pronounce “S.” in English, in fact!

Once again, a very literal transliteration of an English pronunciation of what is arguably an English term.

But now, look at the Tamil license plates.

Go outside and look at one, on the back of any bus or taxi (I found out you can optionally buy them if you are a regular car or motorcycle driver but no one really apparently does; but there are incentives for the taxis and buses!).

If you are not in Tamil Nadu just now, I’ll tell you what have seen.

The "two letter code" is


Now this is to say “TAMIL LETTER TA + TAMIL LETTER NA + TAMIL VOWEL SIGN AA”, which is to say “TA NAA” which is to say. Which is decidedly not a very literal transliteration of an English pronunciation of what is arguably an English term!

So how did we go from “Tee – Ehn” or தே as it would generally be pronounced in English to “Tah Naa”, exactly?

I mentioned it to several people at the conference, but none of them knew why (though they pointed out that each state was different in how they did it). Everyone I talked to agreed it was a little odd, though they had never really though about it before....

Not too long after I was talking to Saranya up in Hyderabad at the IDC (India Development Center). Now we have a very strange connection, Saranya and I.

She likes my blog, and I really like the work she is doing. It left us with a whole bunch of stuff to talk about.

We were on our way to lunch and I was telling her about the whole conversation about this issue.

As a Tamil who spent nearly half her life in Coimbatore, she was interested. But she was sure I was mistaken.

Though now that I think about, I might have been confusing in my contrasts between the Kannada plates and the Tamil ones. So perhaps I was mistaken based on what she thought I was saying. I can be very confusing sometimes!

Luckily for me I got some art, both the previous examples from Bangalore in Kannada and a bunch a few hours ago in Chennai, some in a car and some out in traffic in the iBot (and believe me you haven't lived till you've been in the middle of traffic in a wheelchair on two wheels taking pictures of buses as they go by! :-)


Now this is very unlike what was done in Bangalore like I mentioned in Canada isn't Kannada, ay (ಎ)? and More on license plates in Bengalūru, and in India.

These are not English transliterations here in Tamil Nadu!

Thinking about the name of the state in Tamil (தமிழ் நாடு), it is obvious that they decided to go for a straight abbreviated form for each word, which is why தந (TA NA) would have been insufficient, and perhaps even a little strange.

Now if they had been trying for an actual English pronunciation transliteration, it might have been more of a தேஎந் or some such, which perhaps suggests one reason they might have done it -- less real estate required!

Now although anyone who has a vehicle can get the native language plates along with the English ones, it is generally only most buses and a few of the "rickshaw" cabs that do.

Can you guess why by looking at the pictures above? :-)

If one of those taxis was right on the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border, they can even choose to have three license plates (one English, one Tamil, and one Malayalam). As long as the numbers are the same you are free to do it in as many  languages as you like (if I were driving you know I'd get plates for 15 languages just because!).

I even looked into getting a plate kind of like the one I have on the back of the iBot, in Tamil and Kannada, but the companies that make the plates are humorless souls who saw nothing interesting or fascinating about my idea. I'll have to look into faking something after I am back....

By the way, I was unable to really find any information about this stuff on the web; where is it all hiding?

Siddharta on 14 Jul 2010 9:57 PM:

Michael, this is a standard way of abbreviating to initials out here. Simply take the word and take out the first letter. தந is strange because the first letter is நா not ந. நா is not two letters just a single one that is written with two glyphs. The same thing is sometimes done when abbreviating people's names too. See for example the Tamil version of which interestingly when converted back to English sometimes becomes like this -

Another interesting thing you'll sometimes see names like this which is  SMS (probably the owners initials) -> எஸ் எம் எஸ் (English phonetic translation) -> yesemes (the Tamil version converted back to English)

Michael S. Kaplan on 15 Jul 2010 12:10 AM:

Yet sometimes they do things like "எஸ்." for "S" too, when transliterating English. Which would have made தே.எந். more reasonable. :-)

Some of the license plates take this approach (and some like in Hyderabad don't do seem to do the native language plates at all!).

Ferose Khan J on 16 Jul 2010 5:40 AM:

Here is some more information. If one has to write தமிழ் நாடு in english then it should be thamil nadu. But in the olden day somebody decided to write it as (டமில் நாடு)Tamil Nadu . The TN abbreviation came from TamilNadu(This will be used by police in other states to identify the vehicles from TamilNadu). தநா comes from தமிழ் நாடு and is independent of the english information. Nomally in tamilnadu if one writes in tamil some other language information then it will attract lot of criticism. Also there is no 1-1 correlation between the english info and the tamil info. for eg in lot of pictures N is represented as நா which looks to be okay. But in one of the picture H is represented as எ which is not that related. if at all TN has to be written in tamil as it is pronounced in english it will be டியென்  T-டி N-யென்.

A. Ravishankar on 17 Jul 2010 11:02 PM:

Hi Mike, I am really surprised to hear this from you. TN is the short form of Tamil Nadu. த நா is the short form of தமிழ் நாடு. As simple as that. Why should one transliterate the English sound unnecessarily when the Tamil script itself is intended for Tamil pubic and authorities?

We have a tradition of writing of initials of peoples names, village names (if two villages have same names we give them initials to distinguish) and abbreviations.  

If I know what the S stands for in S. Kaplan I will try to write that in Tamil itself instead of எஸ். example, ச for சன்னி (Sunny ), சா for சாமுவேல் (Samuel) etc.,

Michael S. Kaplan on 18 Jul 2010 12:19 AM:

My point is that some of the license plates in India that use native scripts are transliterations of English initials of these English letters using the native script, and some are not....

DialSandhya on 19 Mar 2012 12:49 PM:

TN is the short form of Tamil Nadu.We have a tradition of writing of initials of peoples names, village names.

Vinod on 13 Apr 2012 6:46 AM:

Now a days Tamilnadu government is frequently changing the rules for numbr plate appearance. At first they told that it should be in white color then they changed to yellow color finally they came back to white color & most recently they have announced some rule for font type. People are really confused that what should they follow. Over to to get city business listings.

Lyla Burns on 6 Jun 2012 8:59 AM:

That is very interesting that they have a license plate in English and their native language. It sounds like you've gone to some cool places. I also get very interested in license plates because they always look so different. As soon as my car is done at the automobile repairing shop I plan to take a trip to Canada, so I'll check out their plates. Thanks for sharing!

Karthik on 6 Jul 2012 1:32 AM:

sometimes they do things like "எஸ்." for "S" too, when transliterating English. Which would have made தே.எந். more reasonable.

kretya on 8 Aug 2012 7:59 AM:


Megan on 24 Nov 2012 12:16 AM:

These are some interesting license plates indeed. We saw the same interesting work with direct mail printing in Charlotte with this company I think this is a clever way to do things. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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