An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. The Dravidian family of languages is nowadays circumscribed to South Asia and most of its speakers live in South India. It is likely that in the past it was spread over the entire subcontinent as suggested by the incorporation of Dravidian loanwords into the Rig Veda, composed in the northwest of ancient India more than three thousand years ago. However, it has not been possible to establish a genetic relation between Dravidian languages and any others outside South Asia.

    Dravidian comprises a little more than twenty languages characterized by striking contrasts. While many are not written, four of them (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam) developed their own scripts and outstanding literatures; while some are spoken by tens of millions, others have a few hundred speakers; while some have been known for one millennium or more, others were discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries; while the structure of some has been established to the last detail, that of others is tentative.

    Dravidian languages have coexisted for a long time with members of the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European and have been influenced by them as shown by numerous loanwords and alterations in their sound systems. The influence has not been one-way only and Dravidian has affected Sanskrit and its descendants in many ways, some evident, some subtle. In fact, Indian civilization is in great measure the product of the continuous interrelation between Aryans and Dravidians.

Distribution. Dravidian languages are spoken in many parts of India but the largest concentration of speakers is found in the four states of southern India (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala). Many Tamil speakers live also in the north of Sri Lanka. Brahui is spoken in Pakistan (Baluchistan province). Small minorities of Dravidian speakers are also found in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, and expatriates in Southeast Asia, Fiji, South Africa and the Caribbean.

Map of Dravidian languages distribution (click to enlarge it)

Classification and Speakers. Dravidian languages are spoken by close to 259 million people. The largest ones are Telugu (86 million), Tamil (78 million), Kannada (44 million) and Malayalam (39 million).

    They are divided into four groups (Northern, Central, South-Central, Southern) which started to separate from the hypothetic precursor Proto-Dravidian around 4000 BCE. Linguistic proximity coincides to some extent with geographical proximity:

    Numerically, the Southern group is undoubtedly the most important, including three of the four largest languages which together are spoken by more than 160 million. As the internal political division of India is based in great measure on language distribution, it is not surprising that in the state of Tamil Nadu Tamil reigns supreme. The same is true for Kannada in Karnataka and Malayalam in Kerala. Tamil, attested from 253 BCE, is not only the oldest Dravidian language but the only one who has gone beyond the limits of South Asia thanks to a relatively recent diaspora that carried it to such far away places as the Caribbean, Fiji and South Africa as well as to neighboring Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore). Two millennia earlier it had already been implanted in the north of Sri Lanka.

    The last segments of the Western Ghats contributed to the isolation of Kerala, promoting linguistic divergence and the birth of Malayalam. The Nilgiri mountains, in the extreme northwest of Tamil Nadu and belonging to the same orographic system, harbor tribal populations, the Kotas and Todas, which until recently, protected of external contacts by the relief, managed to preserve their languages though now they are menaced of extinction. Other Nilgiri tribes are the Irula whose language is very similar to Tamil and the Badaga whose language is akin to Kannada.

    Two other Southern Dravidian languages are Kodagu and Tulu. The first one is confined to a district of southwest Karnataka while the second occupies a larger area to the north of it. With two million speakers and documented from the 14th-15th centuries, Tulu is the fourth most important language of the group having diverged early from Southern Proto-Dravidian.

    The largest language of the South-Central group is Telugu, the state language of Andhra Pradesh, whose first inscriptional evidence dates back to 620 CE. The other six members of the group are not literary languages and are spoken by tribal populations. First among them is Gondi, with more than 3 million speakers and numerous dialects, spread in two different areas: the northwest dialects in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the southeast ones in Chhattisgarh and adjacent areas. Konda (also called Kubi) is similar to Gondi being found in northeastern Andhra Pradesh. The remaining four languages are located in the hills and jungles of Orissa and are closely related: Kui and Kuvi are spoken by the large Khond tribe while Pengo and Manda by smaller tribes.

    The existence of a Central group of Dravidian languages distinct from the South-Central has been posited recently and accepted by many researchers though others consider the Central and South-Central groups as one. The four languages of the Central group are spoken by tribes. They can be grouped in two pairs: the very similar Kolami and Naiki in Maharashtra and northern Andhra Pradesh, Parji (or Duruwa) in the south of Chhattisgarh and Orissa and to its east Gadaba (or Gadba) in Orissa and northeastern Andhra Pradesh.

    The presence of Dravidian languages in the north of the subcontinent suggests their broader extension in antiquity though there is not enough evidence to reach any conclusion yet. It could also be the result of more or less recent migrations. Of the three languages of the Northern group, two (Kurux and Brahui) have more than two million speakers each. Kurux (or Kurukh) appears as islands scattered in an ocean of Indo-Aryan languages in Jarkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and West Bengal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. In contrast, Malto (called also Sauria Paharia) is much smaller and is restricted mainly to Jharkhand (with small pockets in Bihar and Bangladesh). On the other hand, Brahui has intrigued scholars due to its geographical isolation from other Dravidian languages occupying an area in the northwestern fringes of the subcontinent. Its speakers inhabit today the province of Baluchistan in Pakistan but their origin is controversial. Some consider Brahui, without real proof, as the remnant of an extinct Dravidian group connected, perhaps, with the Indus Valley Civilization but it seems more likely that its location in this outlying region is the product of western migrations from the Brahui ancestral homeland in Orissa or Bihar.


  1. Phonology

  2. -Vowels. Proto-Dravidian had five short vowels (i, e, a, o, u) and corresponding long vowels (i:, e:, a:, o:, u:) plus two diphthongs (ai, au) which are considered more a sequence of vowel + semivowel (ay, aw, respectively) than true diphthongs. The Dravidian vowel system is very stable and has been preserved intact in most languages.

  1. -Consonants. Proto-Dravidian had, probably, sixteen consonants articulated at six different places, exhibiting an unusual contrast between dental, alveolar and retroflex stops. In fact, retroflex consonants constituted a complete set comprising stop, nasal, aproximant and lateral.  It lacked voiced or aspirated stops; all of them were, thus, voiceless and unaspirated. However, stops became voiced when they occurred singly between vowels or after nasals.


  1. -Several modern Dravidian languages have acquired voiced and aspirated stops as a consequence of contact with Indo-Aryan languages.

  1. Morphology

  2. -Dravidian languages are agglutinative adding inflective suffixes to a root to indicate case, person, number and tense. Other suffixes are derivative being employed to create new words or to change the syntactic category of a word (for adjective to adverb for example). Another way to create new words is by means of nominal compounds joining nouns and/or adjectives.

  1. -Proto-Dravidian had eight cases (nominative, accusative, dative, sociative, genitive, instrumental, locative, ablative) most of which are preserved in its descendants. Besides, postpositions help to convey syntactical information.

  1. -In Tamil the primary gender distinction is between 'rational' (gods and humans) and 'irrational' (all the other nouns). Rational nouns distinguish number and gender in the singular (masculine singular, feminine singular, plural) while the irrational ones only number (singular and plural).

  1. -Dravidian verbal inflection consists in the addition of suffix markers to a verbal stem. The latter may include, besides lexical information, indications about transitiveness, reflexiveness and causativity. Different markers indicate mood (optional), tense, and gender-number-person. Verbs may be conjugated in the active or passive voice. Originally, there were only two tenses, past and non-past. The present tense evolved later, independently, in each language.

  1. -As the inventory of simple verbs is rather limited, they frequently associate with other verbs to form lexical compounds increasing the range of possible meanings.

  1. Syntax

  2. -Word order is a quite flexible Subject-Object-Verb, but the finite verb must be at the end of the sentence. Subordinate clauses usually precede the main one. An innovation of the Central languages is the requirement of agreement between object and verb besides the traditional subject-verb concordance.

  1. -Only one finite verb (i.e. conjugated) is allowed in a sentence which, however, may be combined with one or more dependent non-finite verbs.


The influence of Indo-Aryan languages over Dravidian has been minimal at the structural level but deeper in its lexicon where we find terms of Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Hindi/Urdu origin. In recent times, Portuguese and English loanwords have also contributed to enrich it. Tamil has comparatively less lexical borrowings than other Dravidian languages and, since the 20th century, the use of native words has been promoted to the detriment of foreign ones.

    As an illustration of Dravidian basic vocabulary we include the numerals 1 to 10 in a dozen languages:

The table begins with the Southern languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Kodagu, Kota, Toda and Tulu), continues with the Southcentral (Telugu and Gondi) and Central (Kolami) to end with the Northern ones (Kurux and Brahui). The words highlighted in color have been borrowed from Indo-Aryan.

Some English words of Dravidian origin

  1. betel: from Malayalam veṟṟila "simple leaf"

  2. catamaran: from Tamil kaṭṭamaran "tied wood"

  3. cheroot: from Tamil curuṭṭu "roll of tobacco"

  4. coolie: from Tamil kūli "day-labourer"

  5. curry: from Tamil kaṟi "sauce"

  6. mango: from Tamil māṅkāy

  7. pariah: from Tamil paṛaiyar “drummer”

  8. patchouli: from Tamil paccai ilai "green leaf"

  9. teak: from Malayalam and Tamil tēkku

  10. vetiver: from Tamil veṭṭivēr “root”

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati

Further Reading

-The Dravidian Languages. S. B. Steever. Routledge (1998).

-The Dravidian Languages. B. Krishnamurti. Cambridge University Press (2003).

-A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages. M. S. Andronov. Harrassowitz (2003).

-A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary. T. Burrow. Clarendon Press (1984).

  1. Top   Home   Alphabetic Index   Classificatory Index   Largest Languages & Families   Glossary


    Dravidian Languages

Address comments and questions to: