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Dravidian Languages: Origins & Family

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Dravidian languages are spoken throughout southern India, and in some areas of other Asian countries like Pakistan and Nepal. In this lesson, learn about the different Dravidian languages and the history of how they developed in India.

Where are the Dravidian Languages Spoken?

As you travel farther and farther south in India, you will begin to hear people speak a totally different type of language from that spoken in the northern and central areas. The people of southern India primarily speak one of several languages that form a family of very ancient languages whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Collectively, these languages make up the Dravidian language family.

The Dravidian language family is not closely related to other languages spoken in other parts of the Indian subcontinent (which are called Indo-Aryan languages). In fact, Dravidian languages are quite unique, and no one knows for sure if they are related to any other language families on Earth! They show some similarities with Eastern European languages like Hungarian and with East Asian languages such as Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese, but it's not clear whether these languages families have a common origin or not.

It is believed that Dravidian languages were once spoken much more widely throughout India, but today, they are confined to the southern part of India, along with certain regions in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal. Still, over 200 million people speak one of the more than 70 Dravidian languages that are still in existence. Four of these languages are official state languages of India, and have a long literary history, as well.

Primary Languages in the Dravidian Family

Although there are more than 70 individual languages that make up the Dravidian language family, the most commonly spoken are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam. These are all official state languages of India, and have a long, well documented history.

The oldest existing document written in Tamil dates to sometime between the 1st and 4th centuries CE, but this document references a long and rich literary history in the language that has since been lost, so we know that a written Dravidian language existed much earlier. Literary works in the other major Dravidian languages that were written within the next few hundred years are also still in existence.

Although it is likely not as old as Tamil, Telugu is spoken by more people than any other Dravidian language. It is the third most commonly spoken language in all of India (after Hindi and Bengali), and is very similar to one of the other major Dravidian languages, Kannada.

Origin and History of the Dravidian Languages

Where did the Dravidian languages come from? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. Dravidian languages have existed in the Indian subcontinent for a long, long time, and they don't seem to be closely related to any other major language family. They are certainly not derived from the same source as the other major languages spoken in India, whose origins are more clearly understood.

Are they indigenous to India or were they brought there in ancient times by people who moved into the area? Scholars still aren't really sure. However, it is thought that an ancestor of the modern Dravidian language family was spoken by people who lived in the Indus Valley civilization, which was a thriving society in northwestern India and Pakistan that reached its peak in 2500-2000 BCE.

The people of the Indus Valley civilization most likely spoke a Dravidian language.
Map of the Indus valley civilizations

The Indus Valley civilization was very advanced for the time period and even had a form of writing. However, the written language has never been fully translated, so we still can't be sure if it was related to modern day Dravidian languages or not.

Many linguistic scholars believe, however, that these people did speak a form of the Dravidian language. Over time, as more people moved into the Indian subcontinent from the north, the Dravidian speakers were pushed farther and farther south, so that today, most Dravidian speakers live in the southern part of India. However, there are some areas of Pakistan and Nepal near the Indus valley where Dravidian languages are still spoken today. This makes it seem likely that these ancient people did speak a form of Dravidian language, although we still don't know for sure.

The Pashupati Seal contains examples of the writing of the Indus Valley civilization
The Pashupati Seal, from the Indus Valley Civilization

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