Dravidian languages

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A family of 23 languages spoken by more than 165,000,000 people in South Asia. In terms of population figures the major languages of the family may be listed in the following order: Telugu, 52,986,000; Tamil, 44,400,000; Kannada (Kannada), also called Kanarese, 27,900,000; Malayalam (Malayalam), 27,500,000; Gondi, 2,460,100; Tulu (Tulu), 1,427,000; and Kurukh (Kurukh), 1,358,000. The Dravidian languages are spoken in the Republic of India (mainly in its southern, eastern, and central parts), in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and by settlers in areas of Southeastern Asia, southern and eastern Africa, and elsewhere. Brahui (Brahui), with 750,000 speakers in Pakistan, is isolated from all of the other members of the family. The four major languages—Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam—possess independent scripts and literary histories dating from the pre-Christian Era. Now recognized by the constitution of India, they form the basis of the linguistic states of Andhra Pradesh (established as the first Indian linguistic state in 1953), Tamil Nadu, Karnataka (formerly Mysore), and Kerala.

Of the Dravidian languages, Tamil has the greatest geographical extension and the richest and most ancient literature, which is paralleled in India only by that of Sanskrit. Its phonological and grammatical systems correspond in many points to the ancestral parent language, called Proto-Dravidian.

Nothing definite is known about the origin of the Dravidian family. There are vague indigenous traditions about an ancient migration from the south, from a submerged continent in what is now the Indian Ocean. According to some scholars, Dravidian languages are indigenous to India. In recent years, a hypothesis has been gaining ground that posits a movement of Dravidian speakers from the northwest to the south and east of the Indian Peninsula, a movement originating possibly from as far away as Central Asia. Another theory connects the Dravidian speakers with the peoples of the Indus Valley civilization. The Dravidian languages have remained an isolated family to the present day and have defied all of the attempts to show a connection with the Indo-European tongues, Mitanni, Basque, Sumerian, or Korean. The most promising and plausible hypothesis is that of a linguistic relationship with the Uralic (Hungarian, Finnish) and Altaic (Turkish, Mongol) language groups.

As an independent family, the Dravidian languages were first recognized in 1816 by Francis W. Ellis, a British civil servant. The actual term Dravidian was first employed by Robert A. Caldwell, who introduced the Sanskrit word dravida (which, in a 7th-century text, obviously meant Tamil) into his epoch-making A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages (1856).

Tamil is spoken by 39,400,000 people (1981 est.) in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, by another 2,697,000 in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), by smaller numbers of people in Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam (about 1,400,000), in East and South Africa (almost 250,000), and by still smaller numbers in Guyana and on the islands of Fiji, Mauritius, Réunion, Madagascar, Trinidad, and Martinique. The earliest literary monuments of the language belong roughly to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. There exist a number of local dialects, the major dialect regions being the northern and eastern areas combined, the western area, the southern area (split into at least four major dialects of Madurai, Tirunelveli, Nanjiland, and Ramnad), and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Correlated with the social position of the speaker are a number of speech forms; a major division occurs between the Brahmin and the non-Brahmin varieties. In addition, there is a sharp dichotomy between the formal language and informal speech.

Malayalam, which is closely related to Tamil, is spoken in the Indian state of Kerala by some 21,700,000 people. Possessing an independent written script, it also has a rich modern literature. There are at least three main regional dialects (North, Central, South) of Malayalam and a number of communal dialects.

In the Nilgiris and adjacent regions, several minor tribes speak the following languages: Kota (1,400), Toda (1,145), Badaga (128,500), Irula (Irula) (6,176). The less well-known languages of a number of other tribes may yet be established as independent members of the Dravidian family (e.g., Kurumba, Paniya).

Kodagu (Kodagu), a non-literary language of a mountainous region called Coorg, has 119,000 speakers.

Kannada (Kanarese), which is spoken by 25,700,000 people in the Indian state of Karnataka, exhibits a dichotomy between educated speech and colloquial Kannada; in the latter at least three social dialects are recognizable that may be characterized as Brahmin, non-Brahmin, and Harijan (“untouchable”). A number of regional dialects (among them are Dharwar, Bangalore, and Mangalore) also exist. Kannada has an orthography of its own and an important ancient and modern literature.

To the south of the Kannada territory, more than 1,400,000 people speak Tulu (Tulu), a South Dravidian language having no developed written literature.

Telugu (spoken by 52,986,000 people), the official language of the state of Andhra Pradesh, exhibits a dichotomy between the written and the spoken styles, in addition to a number of sharply distinct local and regional dialects (including Telangana, coastal area, Rayalaseema, and a “transitional” zone) and divisions between Brahmin, nonBrahmin, and Harijan speech. The language has its own script, closely akin to that of Kannada, and an important literary tradition.

In extreme northern Andhra Pradesh and in Maharashtra, the Kolami language is spoken by approximately 84,000 individuals. Parji is spoken by about 36,000 individuals in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. The Konda Dora, a scheduled tribe of some 23,000, live mostly in Andhra Pradesh and speak Konda. The Gadba, who live mainly in Andhra Pradesh, number approximately 28,000. Pengo is spoken by fewer than 2,000 individuals living in Orissa, and Kui and Kuvi are spoken by a number of tribes in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.

In Madhya Pradesh and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Orissa, many groups of Gonds (including about 2,620,000 persons) speak a number of Gondi dialects. To the north, in Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, and West Bengal, the Oraon tribe speaks Kurukh (1,700,000), and, near the borders of Bihar and West Bengal, 100,000 tribals speak Malto.

The only Dravidian language that is spoken entirely outside India is Brahui, with about 1,580,000 speakers who live in Sindh and Balochistan provinces of southern Pakistan.

Historical survey of the Dravidian languages

Although in modern times speakers of the various Dravidian languages have mainly occupied the southern portion of India, while those of the Indo-Aryan (Indic) tongues have predominated in northern India, nothing definite is known about the ancient domain of the Dravidian parent speech. It is, however, a well-established and well-supported hypothesis that Dravidian speakers must have been widespread throughout India, including the northwest region. This is clear because a number of features of the Dravidian languages appear in the Rigveda, the earliest known Indo-Aryan literary work, thus showing that the Dravidian languages must have been present in the area of the Indo-Aryan ones. The Indo-Aryan languages were not, however, originally native to India; they were introduced by Aryan invaders from the north. Several scholars have demonstrated that pre-Indo-Aryan and pre-Dravidian bilingualism in India provided conditions for the far-reaching influence of Dravidian on the Indo-Aryan tongues in the spheres of phonology (e.g., the retroflex consonants, made with the tongue curled upward toward the palate), syntax (e.g., the frequent use of gerunds, which are nonfinite verb forms of nominal character, as in “by the falling of the rain”), and vocabulary (a number of Dravidian loanwords apparently appearing in the Rigveda itself).

Thus a form of Proto-Dravidian, or perhaps Proto-North Dravidian, must have been extensive in northern India before the advent of the Aryans. Apart from the survival of some islands of Dravidian speech, however, the process of replacement of the Dravidian languages by the Aryan tongues was entirely completed before the beginning of the Christian Era, after a period of bilingualism that must have lasted many centuries. Finally, the almost universal adoption of Indo-Aryan in the north and of Dravidian in the south has covered up the original linguistic diversity of India.

Figure 1: South Dravidian subfamily.



Figure 2: Central Dravidian subfamily.



Figure 3: North Dravidian subfamily.


The circumstances of the advent of Dravidian speakers in India are shrouded in mystery. There are vague linguistic and cultural ties with the Urals, with the Mediterranean area, and with Iran. It is possible that a Dravidian-speaking people that can be described as dolichocephalic (longheaded from front to back) Mediterraneans mixed with brachycephalic (short-headed from front to back) Armenoids and established themselves in northwestern India during the 4th millennium BC. Along their route, these immigrants may have possibly come into an intimate, prolonged contact with the Ural-Altaic speakers, thus explaining the striking affinities between the Dravidian and Ural-Altaic language groups. Between 2000 and 1500 BC, there was a fairly constant movement of Dravidian speakers from the northwest to the southeast of India, and about 1500 BC three distinct dialect groups probably existed: Proto-North Dravidian, Proto-Central Dravidian, and Proto-South Dravidian. The beginnings of the splits in the parent speech, however, are obviously earlier. It is possible that Proto-Brahui was the first language to split off from Proto-Dravidian, probably during the immigration movement into India sometime in the 4th millennium BC, and that the next subgroup to split off was Proto-Kurukh-Malto, sometime in the 3rd millennium BC (see the family tree diagrams,Figure 1, Figure 2, and Figure 3).

Compared to the work done on other language families, the progress in comparative Dravidian studies has been slow and firm results are still meagre. Considerable knowledge has been acquired in comparative phonology (sound systems), but correspondences have been worked out only for the sounds in the roots of words. Very little comparative work has been done on grammatical processes, and complete historical grammars of the literary languages are still lacking. Hence the reconstruction of any feature of the Dravidian protolanguage, with the possible exception of some parts of the phonology, must necessarily be considered very tentative.

The vowel system of Proto-Dravidian consisted of five vowels—*i, *u, *e, *o, *a (an asterisk denotes an unattested, reconstructed, hypothetical form)—each having two quantities, short and long. Relative stability of root vowels seems to have been the rule. The Proto-Dravidian consonant system consisted of obstruants (stops) *p, *t, *t, *t, *c, *k; nasals *m, *n, *n, *ñ; laterals *l, *l; the flap *r; the voiced retroflex continuant *r; and the semivowels *y and *v. The most characteristic feature of the consonantal system was the six positions of articulation for obstruants: labial (with the lips), dental (tongue touching the back of the upper teeth), alveolar (tongue touching the upper gum ridge), retroflex (tip of tongue curled upward toward the palate and back), palatal (body of tongue touching the palate, or roof of the mouth), and velar (back of tongue touching the velum, or soft palate). The retroflex series was very distinctive and important and comprised an obstruant *t, a nasal *n, a lateral *l, and a continuant *r. No consonant of the alveolar or retroflex series began a word. In the final position all of the consonants occurred, but all of the obstruants were followed by an automatic release sound, the vowel *-u. Initial consonant clusters did not occur. There was only one series of obstruant phonemes (distinctive sounds); these sounds were voiceless (produced without vibration of the vocal cords) initially and voiced (with vocal cord vibration) between vowels. All Proto-Dravidian roots were monosyllables.

Proto-Dravidian used only suffixes, never prefixes or infixes, in the construction of inflected forms. Hence, the roots of words always occurred at the beginning. Nouns, verbs, and indeclinable words constituted the original word classes.

During the 1st millennium BC, while Aryanization steadily progressed in north India, the Dravidian-speaking newcomers began to mix with the Negritos and Proto-Australoids in the south; this process of acculturation continued during the period from approximately 1200 to 600 BC. A movement of the Aryans into the south of India began sometime about 1000 BC. Before the 5th century BC, Proto-South Dravidian was probably still one language, but with two strongly marked dialects. Within Proto-Central Dravidian, a similarly deep two-way division also occurred, and as discussed above, North Dravidian must by that time have already been split into the Kurukh-Malto and Brahui subgroups (see the family tree diagrams, Figure 1, Figure 2, and Figure 3).

Apart from a possible Dravidian word in the Hebrew text of the Bible (tukkhiyim “peacocks”; cf. Tamil tokai “tail of a peacock”), the Dravidian languages enter history in Sanskrit and Greco-Roman texts. The Ceras, a south Indian dynasty, are possibly mentioned in the early Sanskrit text AitareyaA ranyaka. Katyayana, a grammarian of the 4th century BC, mentions the countries of Pandya (Tamil pantiya), Cola (Tamil cola), and Kerala, or Cera (Tamil cera); these lands were well known to Kautilya (4th century BC), the author of the earliest treatise on statecraft, and mentions of them also appear in the edicts of the great Buddhist leader Asoka (3rd century BC). The term dravida itself is almost certainly a Sanskritization (with an inserted “hypercorrect” r) of the earlier Pali and Prakrit terms damilo, damila, davida, which must have been derived from the Tamil name of the language, tamil. A number of South Dravidian words, almost all of them geographic and dynastic names, occur in such Greco-Roman sources as the Periplus maris Erythraei (“Circumnavigation of the Erythraean Sea”) of about AD 89 and in the writing of Ptolemaeus of Naukratis of the 2nd century AD; it is also very probable that Western-language terms for rice (compare Italian riso, Latin oryza, Greek oryza) and ginger (compare Italian zenzero, German Ingwer, Greek zingiberis) are cultural loans from Old Tamil, in which they are arici and iñciver, respectively.

Sometime during the reign of Asoka (3rd century BC), the two South Dravidian languages, Tamil and Kannada, developed into distinct idioms and the two cultures emerged as separate entities; a third major Dravidian linguistic and cultural unit, Telugu, appeared in the Andhra country. In the period from 300 to 100 BC, one of the pre-Tamil dialects (probably that of Madurai) gained prestige and became the standard literary language (centamil), the written form of early Old Tamil, which became established in poetic texts and in its earliest grammar, Tolkappiyam. During the same period, about 250 BC, the Asokan Southern Brahmi script was adapted for Tamil and was used in short cave inscriptions by Jain monks over a period of several centuries, dating approximately from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD.

The earliest inscriptions in Kannada may be dated at AD 450; Kannada literature begins with Nrpatunga's Kavirajamarga, about AD 850. The oldest Telugu inscription is from AD 633, and the literature begins with the grammarian Nannaya's 11th-century translation of the Sanskrit classic the Mahabharata. In Malayalam, the earliest writings are from the close of the 9th century, and the first literary text is probably the Bhasakautaliyam, AD 1125–1250.

Since these attested beginnings, the four languages—Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu—have been used continuously in administration and literature up to the present day. In addition to possessing an immense wealth of epigraphic and literary texts, they all developed pronounced features of diglossia, a dichotomy between the standardized, formal language and the informal, colloquial speech, which is divided into regional as well as social dialects. In modern times, all of the four cultivated languages have adapted quickly to new conditions resulting from economic, social, and political changes. All of these languages are used in teaching basic courses in science and the arts; and new technological terminology is coined, sometimes based either on English or Sanskrit models, but often on exclusively indigenous linguistic material (in Tamil).

To date, nothing is known about the history of the nonliterary Dravidian languages before their “discovery,” which began at the end of the 18th century. The Gonds, however, are mentioned (as Gondaloi) by Ptolemy of Naukratis, writing in the 2nd century AD.

A tendency toward structural and systemic balance and stability is characteristic of the Dravidian group. Nevertheless, there is no doubt about the influence of the other languages of India. Dravidian languages show extensive lexical (vocabulary) borrowing, but only a few traits of structural (either phonological or grammatical) borrowing, from the Indo-Aryan tongues. On the other hand, Indo-Aryan shows rather large-scale structural borrowing from Dravidian, but relatively few loanwords. There is indeed a possibility of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan drawing even closer together in the future; but it is highly doubtful that a new family of languages will develop in such a way that the bases of the contributing groups (i.e., Dravidian and Indo-Aryan) will be completely eliminated through the phenomena of borrowing.

Characteristics of the Dravidian languages

Dravidian languages would probably be called agglutinative in the categorization of the 19th-century philologists. An agglutinative language incorporates separate formal units of distinct meaning into a single word. There are some elements of “internal flexion” (e.g., the alternation of short–long root vowels in derived words), however, as well as regular alternations in vowel and consonant quantities within the root. Relatively low receptivity to change results in a slower rate of change than is found in the Indo-European language family.

The degree of phonetic divergence among the Dravidian languages is not very great; hence, etymologies are not too difficult to discover. The territory occupied by Dravidian speakers in India may be characterized as a large dialect area resembling the area of the Romance languages, with numerous boundaries marked by bundles of isoglosses (an isogloss is a boundary line that separates the areas of two differing features of language usage), but also with many isoglosses enclosing more than one language. In any study of Dravidian, therefore, both evolution and diffusion must be taken into account.

Sounds of Dravidian

Compared to the reconstructed system of Proto-Dravidian phonemes (distinctive sounds), the most striking developments in vowels are the gradual elimination of the contrast between e and e (long e) and o and o (long o) in Brahui, as a result of the influence of Indo- Aryan languages or Iranian or both; the raising of Proto-Dravidian *e and *o to i and u and the lowering of these protolanguage sounds in Brahui; and the merger of Proto-Dravidian *i and *u with *e and *o in the South Dravidian languages before a consonant plus the vowel a. Also noteworthy are the emergence of retroflex vowels (i.e., centralized vowels “coloured” by neighbouring retroflex consonants) in Kodagu and Irula; the nasalization of vowels, as in colloquial Tamil; the loss of vowels in unaccented noninitial syllables in Toda, Kota, some dialects of Kannada, and Tamil, and the resulting consonant clusters (e.g., Kota anjrcgcgvdk, “because of the fact that [someone] will cause [someone] to terrify [someone]”). Metathesis (the transposition of sounds, as in “aks” from “ask”) and vowel contraction resulted in initial consonant clusters in Telugu and other Central Dravidian languages—e.g., Tamil kolu, but Kui kroga, both meaning “fat.”

Among the most important consonantal developments are the loss of *c-, a typical South Dravidian phenomenon that seems to be still in progress (e.g., Proto-Dravidian *car-, but Tamil alal “to burn,” and talal “to glow”); the velarization of *c- to k- in North Dravidian when the sound is followed by u (e.g., Tamil cutu “be hot,” but Malto kut- “burn”); the palatalization of Proto-Dravidian *k- to c- before front vowels in Tamil, Malayalam, and Telugu (e.g., *ke- “red,” but Tamil ce-); and the replacement of *k- in North Dravidian by x before a, o, and u (e.g., Tamil kal, but Brahui xal, “stone”). The retroflex voiced continuant *r has been preserved only in the old stages of the cultivated languages and partly in modern Tamil and Malayalam; elsewhere, it merged with l, d, and other sounds. Some languages, notably Kannada, developed a secondary h-, not inherited from the parent speech (e.g., Tamil peyar, Old Kannada pesar, but Modern Kannada hersru, “name”). According to the Dravidian scholar Bhadriraju Krishnamurti, a laryngeal (or h- type of sound) should be reconstructed for some items in Proto-Dravidian.

Problems of accent and intonation still remain to be worked out. Word stress is predictable, always occurring on the radical (initial) syllable and therefore being nondistinctive. The rules of sandhi (change of a sound or sounds as a result of adjacent sounds) are as complicated and delicate as in Sanskrit.

Grammatical features of Dravidian

In grammar, the absolutely prevailing process is suffixation, the addition of suffixes. Grammatical functions are, however, also expressed by composition (the compounding of word elements) and by word order. There are no prefixes or infixes. Suffixes agglutinate (are attached to one another); e.g., Tamil connatileyiruntu “from what was said” is composed of col “say” + n “past” + atu “3rd person singular neuter” + il “locative” + e “emphatic” + y (an automatic insertion resulting from a sound rule) + iruntu “ablative” (iruntu comes from iru “be” + nt/u “past”).

The major word classes are nouns (substantives, numerals, pronouns), adjectives, verbs, and indeclinables (particles, enclitics, adverbs, interjections, onomatopoetic words, echo words). There are two numbers and four different gender systems, the “original” probably having “male: non-male” in the singular and “person:non-person” in the plural. The pronoun has a category “inclusive:exclusive” in the 1st person plural. A characteristic derivation is that of “pronominalized” or “personal” nouns and adjectives; e.g., Old Tamil ilai “youth,” ilai-y-am “young-we,” ilai-y-ar “young-they.”

Finite forms of the verb (forms showing person and number) are, ultimately, “pronominalized” verb stems; e.g., Tamil ati-( y)-en (“slave”—1st person singular) “I am a slave”; nal-(l)-en (“good”—1st person singular) “I am good”; po-v-en (“go”—future—1st person singular) “I shall go.” The most characteristic feature of the Dravidian verb is a full-fledged negative system: all of the positive verb forms have their corresponding negative counterparts. Verbs are intransitive, transitive, and causative; there are also active and passive forms. The main (and probably original) dichotomy in tense is past:non-past. Present tense developed later and independently in each language or subgroup.

In a sentence, however complex, only one finite verb occurs, normally at the end, preceded if necessary by a number of gerunds. Gerunds and participles, as well as verb-nouns, play an important role. The determining member always precedes the determined; e.g., Tamil pon “gold” + nakaram “city” becomes ponnakaram “city of gold, golden city.” Word order follows certain basic rules but is relatively free.


In vocabulary, different Dravidian languages were receptive to loanwords in differing degrees. Among the cultivated languages, Tamil has the relatively lowest number of Indo-Aryan loanwords (18–25 percent, according to the style), whereas in Malayalam and Telugu the percentage of loanwords is substantially higher. The most important sources of loanwords have been Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit (with varying degrees of importance in different periods); in modern times Urdu, Portuguese, and English have made significant contributions as well. There was only very limited lexical borrowing from one Dravidian language into another in historical times. Among all of the Dravidian languages, Brahui, in Pakistan, is inevitably the one most influenced by Indo-Aryan and Iranian; in contrast, Toda is probably the one language least influenced by any other idiom. In Tamil, there is currently a very notable and active purifying movement; it aims at removing as many borrowed “Sanskritic” (but not English) vocabulary items as possible. Such purism has not yet occurred in any other of the cultivated Dravidian languages.


Writing was first developed in Tamil Nadu, sometime about 250 BC, when the Asokan Southern Brahmi script was adapted for Tamil. The earliest inscriptions in Tamil script proper are the Pallava copperplates of about AD 550. The Kannada–Telugu script is based on Calukya (6th century) inscriptions; the Grantha script, used in Tamil Nadu for Sanskrit since the 6th century, was accommodated for Malayalam and Tulu. Apart from these, Tamil has an old cursive script called Vatteluttu, “round script,” and Malayalam possesses its own modern cursive form, Koleluttu, “rod-script.”

Kamil V. Zvelebil

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