All In The Language Family: The Dravidian Languages

The mysterious Dravidian languages… will we ever know where they came from?
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All In The Language Family: The Dravidian Languages

The Dravidian languages, spoken mostly in southern India, are somewhat of a mystery to linguists. Experts have long asked the question, “Where do these languages come from?” Regardless of their origins, one thing is clear: The Dravidian languages are important to the culture of South Asia, where they have a significant number of speakers. Let’s take a closer look at this mysterious but influential language family.

What Are The Dravidian Languages?

In the world today, there are currently around 70 languages belonging to the Dravidian family. The most widely used are Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. (Fun fact — Malayalam is the only language in the world whose name is a palindrome!)

Although spoken mostly in southern India, these languages are also present in Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent Nepal and Pakistan. Mysteriously, the Dravidian languages are unrelated to any other language families in India, or indeed, South Asia. Linguists have long puzzled over this fact. Where did the Dravidian languages originate? And are they related to any other language family still used on Earth today?

Some linguists used to believe the ancestor of today’s Dravidian languages was related to one or more languages in the Uralic language family. However, this theory has been widely rejected. Others now believe it is part of a wider “macro-family” of languages, connecting Dravidian to Indo-European, Uralic, Afro-Asiatic, Kartvelian and some Altaic languages. While that’d be a big family tree, there’s not currently enough evidence to support this idea. For now, the exact origin of the Dravidian languages seems set to remain a mystery!

How Many People Speak Dravidian Languages?

There are currently around 215 million native speakers of Dravidian languages, mostly living in Southern India and Sri Lanka. There are also a few in Pakistan and Nepal. The most widely-spoken language in the family is Telugu. With around 82 million speakers, it’s the third most spoken language in India after Hindi and Bengali. The next most spoken is Tamil, with approximately 75 million speakers. Meanwhile, Kannada and Malayalam (say it backward!) have about 45 million speakers each. All the other Dravidian languages account for less than 7% of native speakers in this language family.

The four most spoken Dravidian languages also have minor but significant diasporic speakers. There are groups in Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the UK, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, South Africa, Canada and the US.

Why Are They Called Dravidian Languages?

Interestingly, the name “Dravidian” is not a Dravidian word. It actually comes from Sanskrit, the Indo-European language from which the majority of other modern Indian languages are descended. The Sanskrit word is drāviḍa, which is most likely a corruption of the Tamil word damiḷa. The Tamil word referred to the Tamil people of South India between the 4th and 7th centuries. It was then Sanskritized to drāviḍa.

How Similar Are The Dravidian Languages?

It might seem obvious that if a person can speak one Dravidian language, then they can understand them all. Unfortunately not so! While there are certainly similarities between them, there are also many differences. 

First, let’s consider the writing systems that these languages use. All Dravidian languages use forms of Brahmic scripts, which have a single point of origin dating back to around the 3rd century BCE. They have since evolved to become quite distinct. Of the four most widely spoken Dravidian languages, Telugu and Kannada share the most similarities in their writing systems, which are almost mutually intelligible.

When it comes to Dravidian grammar, some generalizations can be made about the family. For example, most Dravidian languages are agglutinative (like Uralic and Tibetic languages). This means that multiple suffixes can be used to show grammatical relationships, rather than using prepositions like English does. Another common grammatical feature of Dravidian languages is that they tend to use the word order subject-object-verb. In contrast, in English (and most other Indo-European languages) we use subject-verb-object

Finally, Dravidian languages are relatively unique in their use of so-called negative verbs. This is the ability to convert any verb into a negative, usually by adding a suffix or changing the conjugation. This is another feature shared by many Dravidian and Uralic languages, hence the (now rejected) theory that the 2 families once heavily influenced each other.

Next, let’s look at some actual words in the Dravidian languages to see how similar they are. As with any other language family, looking at the numerical system is a good place to start when seeking similarities. Here’s a comparison of the numbers 1 to 5 in the four most commonly spoken Dravidian languages:

TeluguTamilKannadaMalayalam
1okationruonduonnu
2renduirantueradurandu
3mūdumūnrumūrumūnnu
4nālugunānkunālkunālu
5ayiduaintuaiduañcu

As we can see, the numbers in Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam are very similar. Meanwhile, those in Telugu are somewhat recognizable but clearly distinct. This is because the former three languages are all part of the Southern branch of Dravidian languages, while Telugu stands apart, belonging to the South-Central branch.

While the origin of Dravidian languages is a mystery, and perhaps always will be, their influence on the other languages of South India is quite clear. They form an integral part of the region’s linguistic landscape and beyond.

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Sam Wood
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
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