Dravidian languages explained

Region:South Asia
Family:One of the world's major language families

The Dravidian family of languages includes approximately 73 languages [1] (including the four literary languages of Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu) and are mainly spoken in southern India and northeastern Sri Lanka, as well as certain areas in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and eastern and central India, as well as in parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and overseas in other countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. It has been epigraphically attested since the 6th century BC.

Origins of the word Dravidian

The English word Dravidian was first employed by Robert Caldwell in his book of comparative Dravidian grammar based on the usage of the Sanskrit word in the work Tantravārttika by (Zvelebil 1990:xx). As for the origin of the Sanskrit word itself there have been various theories proposed. Basically the theories are about the direction of derivation between and .

There is no definite philological and linguistic basis for asserting unilaterally that the name Dravida also forms the origin of the word Tamil (Dravida -> Dramila -> Tamizha or Tamil). Zvelebil cites the forms such as dramila (in 's Sanskrit work Avanisundarīkathā) (found in Ceylonese chronicle Mahavamsa) and then goes on to say (ibid. page xxi): "The forms damiḷa/damila almost certainly provide a connection of " and "... < ...whereby the further development might have been * > * > - / damila- and further, with the intrusive, 'hypercorrect' (or perhaps analogical) -r-, into . The -m-/-v- alternation is a common enough phenomenon in Dravidian phonology" (Zvelebil 1990:xxi)Zvelebil in his earlier treatise (Zvelebil 1975: p53) states: "It is obvious that the Sanskrit , Pali damila, and Prakrit are all etymologically connected with " and further remarks "The r in > is a hypercorrect insertion, cf. an analogical case of DED 1033 Ta. kamuku, Tu.kangu "areca nut": Skt. kramu(ka).".

Further, another eminent Dravidian linguist Bhadriraju Krishnamurti in his book Dravidian Languages (Krishnamurti 2003: p. 2, footnote 2) states:"Joseph (1989: IJDL 18.2:134-42) gives extensive references to the use of the term , dramila first as the name of a people, then of a country. Sinhala inscriptions of BCE [Before Common Era] cite -, damela- denoting Tamil merchants. Early Buddhist and Jaina sources used - to refer to a people of south India (presumably Tamil); - was a southern non-Aryan country; -, , and - were used as variants to designate a country in the south (, Kādambarī, Daśakumāracarita-, fourth to seventh centuries CE) (1989: 134-8). It appears that - was older than - which could be its Sanskritization."

Based on what Krishnamurti states referring to a scholarly paper published in the International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics, the Sanskrit word itself is later than since the dates for the forms with -r- are centuries later than the dates for the forms without -r- (, -, damela- etc.). So it is clear that it is difficult to maintain Dravida -> Dramila -> Tamizha or Tamil.

The Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary[2] lists for the Sanskrit word dravia a meaning of "collective Name for 5 peoples, viz. the Āndhras, Karāakas, Gurjaras, Tailagas, and Mahārāras".

Position among other language families

Dravidian languages are spoken by more than 200 million people. They appear to be unrelated to languages of other known families like Indo-European, which is the other common language family on the Indian subcontinent, while the Indo-Aryan subgroup shares many features with Dravidian languages. Some linguistic scholars incorporate the Dravidian languages into a larger Elamo-Dravidian language family, which includes the ancient Elamite language (Haltami) of what is now south-western Iran. Dravidian is one of the primary linguistic groups in the proposed (but not commonly accepted) Nostratic language system, linking almost all languages in North Africa, Europe and Western Asia into a common family with its origins in the Fertile Crescent sometime between the last Ice Age and the emergence of proto-Indo-European 4-6 thousand years BC.

A tendency toward structural and systemic balance and stability is characteristic of the Dravidian language 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-European tongues,[3] whereas the Indo-Aryan subgroup shows more structural features than lexical borrowings from the Dravidian languages.Dravidian grammatical impact on the structure and syntax of Indo-Aryan languages is considered far greater than the Indo-Aryan grammatical impact on Dravidian. Some linguists explain this anomaly[Who?] by arguing that Middle Indo-Aryan and New Indo-Aryan were built on a Dravidian substratum.[4]


See main article: Proto-Dravidian. The origins of the Dravidian languages, as well as their subsequent development and the period of their differentiation are unclear, partially due to the lack of comparative linguistic research into the Dravidian languages. 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. Rasmus K. Rask (1787-1832) considered Dravidian as belonging to the "Scythian" languages referring to Scythians as non-Semitic and non-Indo-European peoples and languages of Eastern Europe and Western Asia sometimes also termed "Hyperborean"[5] . The most promising and plausible hypothesis is that of a linguistic relationship with the Uralic (Hungarian, Finnish) and Altaic (Turkish, Mongol) language groups[6] . The theory that the Dravidian languages display similarities with the Uralic language group, suggesting a prolonged period of contact in the past,[7] is popular amongst Dravidian linguists and has been supported by a number of scholars, including Robert Caldwell,[8] Thomas Burrow,[9] Kamil Zvelebil,[10] and Mikhail Andronov[11] This theory has, however, been rejected by some specialists in Uralic languages,[12] and has in recent times also been criticised by other Dravidian linguists like Bhadriraju Krishnamurti.[13] .

Although in modern times speakers of the various Dravidian languages have mainly occupied the southern portion of 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.[14] before the arrival of Indo-European speakers.

Proto-Dravidian is thought to have differentiated into Proto-North Dravidian, Proto-Central Dravidian, Proto South-Central Dravidian and Proto-South Dravidian around 500 BC, although some linguists have argued that the degree of differentiation between the sub-families points to an earlier split.

The existence of the Dravidian language family was first suggested in 1816 by Alexander D. Campbell in his Grammar of the Teloogoo Language, in which he and Francis W. Ellis argued that Tamil and Telugu were descended from a common, non-Indo-European ancestor. However, it was not until 1856 that Robert Caldwell published his Comparative grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages, which considerably expanded the Dravidian umbrella and established it as one of the major language groups of the world. Caldwell coined the term "Dravidian" from the Sanskrit drāvida, which was used in a 7th century text to refer to the Tamil language of the south of India. The publication of the Dravidian etymological dictionary by T. Burrow and M. B. Emeneau was a landmark event in Dravidian linguistics.

Recent studies of the distribution of alleles on the Y chromosome,[15] microsatellite DNA,[16] and mitochondrial DNA [17] in India have cast overwhelmingly strong doubt for a biological Dravidian "race" distinct from non-Dravidians in the Indian subcontinent. The only distinct ethnic groups present in South Asia, according to genetic analysis, are the Naga, Bodo, Tripura, Balochi, Brahui, Burusho, Hazara, Kalash and Pathan peoples, all of which are found in the northwest and northeastern extremes of south Asia respectively .[18]

Some of the Famous Dravidian dynasties are

1. Cholas2. Cheras3. Pandyas4. Pallavas

List of Dravidian languages

Those recognized as Official languages of India are in boldface:[19]

Scholar Franklin C. Southworth writes that the relationship between Brahui and the Dravidian languages is "perhaps"[20] close enough to prove a relationship.

However, according to scholar Edwin Bryant, Brahui, Kurukh and Malto have their own myths about external origins (coming from outside).[21] The Oraons (Kurukh) have traditionally claimed to be from the Deccan Peninsula[22], more specifically, Karnataka. The same tradition has existed of the Brahui.[23] [24] They call themselves immigrants.[25] Many scholars hold this same view of the Brahui[26] such as L. H. Horace Perera and M. Ratnasabapathy.[27] Mr. Bloch who wrote about the Brahui in 1911, 1925 and 1929 wrote that they were immigrants from far south.[24]


The most characteristic features of Dravidian languages are:[10]


Historical Phonology

Vowels: Proto-Dravidian had ten vowels: a, ā, e, ē, u, ū, i, ī, o, ō. There was contrast between short and long vowels. There were no diphthongs. ai and au are treated as *ay and *av (or *aw) (Subrahmanyam 1983, Zvelebil 1990, Krishnamurti 2003).

Consonants: Proto-Dravidian is reconstructible with the following consonantal phonemes (Subrahmanyam 1983:p40, Zvelebil 1990, Krishnamurti 2003) :

Nasalmn (??)ñ

Alveolar stop in many daughter languages developed into an alveolar trill . It still retains the stop sound in Kota and Toda (Subrahmanyam 1983). Malayalam still retains the original (alveolar) stop sound in gemination. (ibid). In Old Tamil it takes the enunciative vowel like the other stops. In other words, (or ) does not occur word-finally without the enunciative vowel (ibid).

Velar nasal occurs only before k in Proto-Dravidian as in many of its daughter languages. Therefore it is not considered a separate phoneme in Proto-Dravidian. However, it attained phonemic status in languages like Malayalam, Gondi, Konda and Pengo due to the simplification of the original sequence * to . (Subrahmanyam 1983)

The glottal fricative H has been proposed by Bhadriraju Krishnamurti to account for the Old Tamil Aytam (Āytam) and other Dravidian comparative phonological phenomena (Krishnamurti 2003).

Dravidian languages are noted for the lack of distinction between aspirated and unaspirated stops. While some Dravidian languages (especially Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu) have accepted large numbers of loan words from Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages in addition to their already vast vocabulary, in which the orthography shows distinctions in voice and aspiration, the words are pronounced in Dravidian according to different rules of phonology and phonotactics: aspiration of plosives is generally absent, regardless of the spelling of the word. This is not a universal phenomenon and is generally avoided in formal or careful speech, especially when reciting.

For instance, Tamil, like Finnish, Korean, Ainu, and most indigenous Australian languages, does not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced stops. In fact, the Tamil alphabet lacks symbols for voiced and aspirated stops.

Dravidian languages are also characterized by a three-way distinction between dental, alveolar, and retroflex places of articulation as well as large numbers of liquids.

Words starting with vowels

A substantial number of words also begin and end with vowels, which helps the languages' agglutinative property.

karanu (cry), elumbu (bone), adu (that), awade (there), idu (this), illai (no, absent)

adu-idil-illai (adu = that, idu = this, il= suffix form of "in", so => that-this-in-absent => that-in this-absent => that is absent in this)


The numerals from 1 to 10 in various Dravidian languages.

  • oru(1)
  • iru(2)
  • muC
4nālu, nālku, nānkunālugunālkunālunālukhnāličār (II)
  • nāl
5aintuayiduaiduainuañcupancē (II)ayd 3panč (II)
  • cayN
6āruāruāruājiārusoyyē (II)ār 3šaš (II)
  • caru
7ēuēuēluēluēusattē (II)ē 3haft (II)
  • eu
8euenimidieuēmaeuahē (II)enumadī 3hašt (II)
  • eu
9onpatutommidiombattuormbaonpatunaiyē (II)tomdī 3nōh (II)
  • to
10pattupadihattupattupattudassē (II)padī 3dah (II)
  • pat(tu)
  1. This is the same as the word for another form of the number one in Tamil and Malayalam. This is used as an indefinite article meaning "a" and also when the number is an adjective followed by a noun (as in "one person") as opposed to when it is a noun (as in "How many are there?" "One").
  2. This is still found in compound words, and has taken on a meaning of "double" in Tamil and Malayalam. For example, irupatu (20, literally meaning "double-ten") or "irai" ("double") or Iruvar (meaning two people).
  3. Kolami numbers 5-10 are borrowed from Telugu

Stability and Continuity of Dravidian

The Dravidian language family has been considered remarkably stable. Some aspects of its stability are:

Dravidian substratum influence on Sanskrit

See main article: Substratum in Vedic Sanskrit. Dravidian and Sanskrit have influenced each other in various ways from very early times, hence it is an interesting field for linguistic research.

Well-known Indologist and linguist (Zvelebil 1975: pp50-51): "... the period of the high water mark of Tamil classical literature was one in which the two great Sanskrit epics were already completed, but the Sanskrit classical poetry was barely emerging with ." More importantly he continues: "No stylistic feature or convention could have been borrowed by the Tamils (though of course there are borrowings of stories" (emphasis added). Zvelebil remarks:"Though the dominance of Sanskrit was exaggerated in some Brahmanic circles of Tamilnadu, and Tamil was given unduly underestimated by a few Sanskrit-oriented scholars, the Tamil and Sanskrit cultures were not generally in rivalry".

However more recent research has shown that Sanskrit has been influenced in certain more fundamental ways than Dravidian languages have been by it: It is by way of phonology[29] and even more significantly here via grammatical constructs. This has been the case from the earliest language available (ca. 1200 B.C.) of Sanskrit: the Vedic speech.

Basically, 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.[3]

The Vedic language has retroflex consonants even though it is well known that the Indo European family and the Indo-Iranian subfamily to which Sanskrit belongs lack retroflex consonants (/,) with about 88 words in the Veda having unconditioned retroflexes (Kuiper 1991, Witzel 1999). Some sample words are: (, ,, , , ) This is cited as a serious evidence of substrate influence from close contact of the Vedic speakers with speakers of a foreign language family rich in retroflex phonemes (Kuiper 1991, Witzel 1999). Obviously the Dravidian family would be a serious candidate here (ibid as well as Krishnamurti 2003: p36) since it is rich in retroflex phonemes reconstructible back to the Proto-Dravidian stage[See Subrahmanyam 1983:p40, Zvelebil 1990, Krishnamurti 2003].

A more serious influence on Vedic Sanskrit is the extensive grammatical influence attested by the usage of the quotative marker iti and the occurrence of gerunds of verbs, a grammatical feature not found even in the Avestan language, a sister language of the Vedic Sanskrit. As Krishnamurti states: "Besides, the Veda has used the gerund, not found in Avestan, with the same grammatical function as in Dravidian, as a non-finite verb for 'incomplete' action. Vedic language also attests the use of iti as a quotative clause complementizer. All these features are not a consequence of simple borrowing but they indicate substratum influence (Kuiper 1991: ch 2)".

The Brahui population of Balochistan has been taken by some as the linguistic equivalent of a relict population, perhaps indicating that Dravidian languages were formerly much more widespread and were supplanted by the incoming Indo-Aryan languages.

state that there is strong evidence that Dravidian influenced Indic through "shift", that is, native Dravidian speakers learning and adopting Indic languages. claims that the presence of the Brahui language, similarities between Elamite and Harappan script as well as similarities between Indo-Aryan and Dravidian indicate that these languages may have interacted prior to the spread of Indo-Aryans southwards and the resultant intermixing of languages. states that the most plausible explanation for the presence of Dravidian structural features in Old Indo-Aryan is that the majority of early Old Indo-Aryan speakers had a Dravidian mother tongue which they gradually abandoned. Even though the innovative traits in Indic could be explained by multiple internal explanations, early Dravidian influence is the only explanation that can account for all of the innovations at once – it becomes a question of explanatory parsimony; moreover, early Dravidian influence accounts for the several of the innovative traits in Indic better than any internal explanation that has been proposed.

The noted Indologist Zvelebil remarks[28] : "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)"


External links

See also

Notes and References

  1. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=90422 Ethnologue
  2. http://webapps.uni-koeln.de/tamil/ Sanskrit, Tamil and Pahlavi Dictionaries
  3. Dravidian languages." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 30 Jun. 2008
  4. Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju (2003) The Dravidian Languages Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-77111-0 at p. 40-41.
  5. Book: Dravidian Linguistics. Kamil Zvelebil. Pondicherry Institute od Linguistics and Culture. 1990. 99.
  6. "Dravidian languages." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 30 Jun. 2008
  7. Tyler, Stephen (1968), "Dravidian and Uralian: the lexical evidence". Language 44:4. 798-812
  8. Webb, Edward (1860), "Evidences of the Scythian Affinities of the Dravidian Languages, Condensed and Arranged from Rev. R. Caldwell's Comparative Dravidian Grammar", Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 7. 271-298.
  9. Burrow, T. (1944) "Dravidian Studies IV: The Body in Dravidian and Uralian". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 11:2. 328-356.
  10. Zvelebil, Kamal (2006). Dravidian Languages. In Encyclopædia Britannica (DVD edition).
  11. Andronov, Mikhail S. (1971), "Comparative Studies on the Nature of Dravidian-Uralian Parallels: A Peep into the Prehistory of Language Families". Proceedings of the Second International Conference of Tamil Studies Madras. 267-277.
  12. Zvelebil, Kamal (1970), Comparative Dravidian Phonology Mouton, The Hauge. at p. 22 contains a bibliography of articles supporting and opposing the theory
  13. Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju (2003) The Dravidian Languages Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-77111-0 at p. 43.
  14. "Dravidian languages." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 5 June 2008
  15. Sahoo. Sanghamitra. Anamika Singh, G. Himabindu, Jheelam Banerjee, T. Sitalaximi, Sonali Gaikwad, R. Trivedi, Phillip Endicott, Toomas Kivisild, Mait Metspalu, Richard Villems and V. K. Kashyap. A prehistory of Indian Y chromosomes: Evaluating demic diffusion scenarios. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of United States of America. 103. 4. 843–848. 2006-01-24. 10.1073/pnas.0507714103.
  16. Sengupta. S.. et al.. Polarity and temporality of high-resolution y-chromosome distributions in India identify both indigenous and exogenous expansions and reveal minor genetic influence of Central Asian pastoralists.. Am J Hum Genet.. 78. 2. 201–221. The American Society of Human Genetics. 2006-02-01. 2007-12-03.
  17. Sharma. S.. Saha A, Rai E, Bhat A, Bamezai R.. Human mtDNA hypervariable regions, HVR I and II, hint at deep common maternal founder and subsequent maternal gene flow in Indian population groups.. J Hum Genet.. 50. 10. 497–506. 2005. 10.1007/s10038-005-0284-2. 2007-12-03.
  18. Human Genome Diversity Project
  19. Web site: Dravidian languages.. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2007. 2008-08-16.
  20. P. 12 Linguistic Archaeology of South Asia By Franklin C. Southworth
  21. P. 83 The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate By Edwin Bryant
  22. P. 18 The Orāons of Chōtā Nāgpur: their history, economic life, and social organization. by Sarat Chandra Roy, Rai Bahadur; Alfred C Haddon
  23. P. 12 Origin and Spread of the Tamils By V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar
  24. P. 32 Ideology and status of Sanskrit : contributions to the history of the Sanskrit language by Jan E M Houben
  25. P. 45 The Brahui language, an old Dravidian language spoken in parts of Baluchistan and Sind by Denys Bray
  26. Ancient India; Culture and Thought By M. L. Bhagi
  27. P. 23 Ceylon & Indian History from Early Times to 1505 A. D. By L. H. Horace Perera, M. Ratnasabapathy
  28. http://www.britannica.com/ebc/article-74968 Dravidian languages - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  29. Book: Trask, Robert Lawrence. The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Routledge. 2000. 97. It is widely suspected that the extinct and undeciphered Indus Valley language was a Dravidian language, but no confirmation is available. The existence of the isolated northern outlier Brahui is consistent with the hypothesis that Dravidian formerly occupied much of North India but was displaced by the invading Indo-Aryan languages, and the presence in the Indo-Aryan languages of certain linguistic features, such as retroflex consonants, is often attributed to Dravidian substrate influence.. 1579582184.