Facts about Dravidian languages

Print edition : November 07, 2003

The Dravidian Languages by Bhadriraju Krishnamurti; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (South Asian edition), 2003; pages 545+xxvii, 70.

THIS survey of comparative historical research on Dravidian languages is published in the Cambridge Language Surveys Series, a dozen years after the survey of Indo-Aryan languages by Colin Masica in the same Series. The academic field of Dravidian linguistics, opened by Robert Caldwell in 1856, reached a watershed in 1961 with the publication of A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary by Thomas Burrow and Murray B. Emeneau. This resource book was the culmination of previous research on Dravidian languages, literary and oral, and was the initiator of new research. The new reference book by the leading Indian linguist, Bh. Krishnamurti, synthesises all previous research and presents the broad consensus in a comprehensive and competent manner. His academic leadership in the field of Dravidian linguistics for more than 40 years makes this work authoritative.

The adjective Dravidian defines a family of languages differentiating it from other families of languages in India, which are Indo-Aryan, Munda and Tibeto-Burman, though it is commonly opposed with the first. It also denotes a group of people who share cultural practices and values. Its designation for a people with common political interests is of colonial origin. The political meaning of the term does not extend to the entire language family; it does not cover, for example, the tribal Dravidian languages, particularly those in central and northern India. The antecedents of the term Dravidian like dramila, dramida and dravida found in Sanskrit sources had varying designates historically referring to people, region or language of the whole of the South or a part of it, that is, Tamil. This ambivalence continues up to the modern times in cultural and political domains. The term is used unambiguously in the present to include the entire family when it refers to language, as is the case in this book.

The goal of research in Dravidian linguistics is to reconstruct the parent of the contemporary Dravidian languages from their shared native words and grammatical features, which show regular patterns of correspondence across languages. The scientifically reconstructed parent is the proto-language called Proto-Dravidian. Krishnamurti gives a picture of the Proto-Dravidian language, which, given our current knowledge, is complete in its sound (phonological) structure, detailed in its word (morphological) structure and suggestive in its sentence (syntactic) structure. One would get a feel of the language if a sample running text had been reconstructed and presented in the book. The book describes the structures in individual languages also, from which the reconstruction is done. There are 26 languages by the current count, of which 25 are spoken in India and one (Brahui) is spoken in Baluchistan on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The reconstruction of the proto-language is preceded by a classification of the individual languages into sub-groups based on closer regularity and transparency of patterns. There are three sub-groups - south, central and north Dravidian - indicating the correlation between geography and shared linguistic features, which are independent developments, called innovations, in each sub-group. It is the author's contribution that the south Dravidian further sub-divides into two with Telugu standing apart from the other three literary languages.

The question when did the sub-groups separate from the parent language and when did the members of each sub-group become distinctive individual languages is an interesting and important one, but the answer is imprecise, and often unreliable. This is a question about the languages as spoken, not about when they came to be written in inscriptions or in literature. Writing is a later development in the distinction of a language, which emerges as spoken in the beginning. Many Dravidian languages remain spoken to date. The time depth calculated from the ratio of words retained from the parent language out of 100 `basic' words (for example, ca 3000 BCE determined by some scholars for Brahui to have become a separate language) is unreliable because of the pitfalls in the methodology. Krishnamurti, based on mention in Sanskrit works from 700 BCE on to some currently identifiable south Dravidian tribes and speeches, conjectures that the south Dravidian languages as a group might have become distinctive around 1100 BCE. The emergence of individual languages of this group, including Tamil and Telugu, must then be later.

The south Dravidian languages, notably the literary ones, retain some features of the parent language that are lost in all others. This could be because the historically older language data in them are available in their preserved written texts, which are, in addition, conservative with regard to change in the spoken language. Of these languages, Tamil, particularly old Tamil, and to a great extent modern high Tamil, is most conservative; it retains a high percentage of cognates (native words shared with the parent language and between sister languages), retains the phonological inventory of the parent language (presence of aaytam and zh and absence of voiced stop sounds (g, b, etc.), for example), its structure of syllables, a good number of phonological pairs of verbs to express transitivity (tanvinai and piRavinai) and so on. This conservative nature of high Tamil aids the political construction of the popular belief that Tamil is the mother of all Dravidian languages, making Tamil and Proto-Dravidian coalesce. Tamil in fact, as the book demonstrates, has lost some features of the parent language (for example, word initial c- as in cii- > ii- `to give', cup- > up-pu `salt' (related to cuv-ai `taste') and added some (for example, avaL `she' as a pronoun separate from atu `it').

The origin of the parent Dravidian language and its speakers is a question that defies consensus among scholars. To know about the origin, one would like to know the languages that are not Dravidian, but are related to Dravidian in a distant past. Among the living languages, genetic relationship has been suggested with far-flung languages like Basque in Europe, Japanese in Asia and Wolof in Africa. Their comparison with Tamil, not with Proto-Dravidian (indicating the mistaken coalescence mentioned above in the scholarly world also), is methodologically faulty given the time scale of any possible relationship. There are typological and probabilistic similarities between languages, which do not argue for a genetic relationship. Dravidian languages have such similarities with many languages of the world. The origin question is tied to the question whether the Proto-Dravidian language speakers were indigenous inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent or migrants to it in pre-historic times. In the absence of contrary evidence to nativity, Krishnamurti is inclined to believe that they were native to India; if they came from another region in Asia or Europe, their migration was earlier to that of the speakers of the parent Aryan language. Given the widely held theory of human origin in Africa and human migration 70,000 years ago from there to Europe and Asia in stages, both Dravidians and Aryans came from outside India. We shall perhaps know whether they came by the same route or different routes from Africa when the ongoing research on correlation between specific gene spread and language spread advances.

Reconstructing culture from the language may run into speculation when there is no corroborating archaeological evidence. Krishnamurti tries to give a glimpse of the way of life and the ecology of the Proto-Dravidians from the reconstructed meanings of words in the parent language. The Dravidians were engaged in settled agriculture in wet and dry lands and used domesticated animals and birds (ox, cow, sheep, pig, donkey, dog, cat, chicken) and metal implements (plough, pick-axe, crowbar). They grew and ate grains (rice, millet), lentils (red gram, black gram, green gram), greens, fruits (banana, mango, wood apple), root and other vegetables (onion, ginger, yam, radish, brinjal), and other foods and spices (sugarcane, mushroom, sesame, black pepper, cardamom, areca nut). Some of these must have grown wild and gathered for food, as there were wild animals (elephant, tiger, cheetah, bear, wolf, jackal, porcupine, buffalo, deer, hare, baboon, monkey, mongoose and iguana) and birds (peacock, pigeon, parrot, crane, crow, sparrow, owl, eagle and vulture) in the jungles. There were reptiles (snakes, cobra, scorpion, chameleon, lizard) and insects (mosquito) on the ground, and amphibian and aquatic species (frog, crab, tortoise, crocodile, shark, prawn and fishes) in water the people frequented for hunting and fishing. There was trade, and commodities were transported by head load and shoulder slings. The wheeled cart was used in transport as well as in battle. People knew navigation and used boats and floats. The metals iron, copper, silver and gold were used for building implements and making ornaments.

Families lived in individual houses, thatched or tiled. The implements used for making food included mortar, pestle, grinding stone and winnowing basket. Food was cooked in utensils by boiling in water, roasting in fire and frying in oil. Milk was cultured into buttermilk and butter. Clothes were made from cotton. The kin formed an elaborate and close-knit structure as the foundation of the society. The common word for the female sibling of the father, spouse of the male sibling of the mother and mother-in-law and another common word for their spouses indicate cross-cousin marriage and, by extension, other matriarchal features. The occupations practised besides farming were weaving, pot making, smithy and toddy tapping. Herbal medicines (mar-am (tree) and mar-untu (medicine) are etymologically related) were used to treat diseases (that included small pox, measles and insanity). There was deafness and blindness (including cataract). The internal organs of the body (brain, heart, lungs, liver, intestine, bone, bone marrow, nerves), known from hunted animals, were perhaps part of the knowledge of human anatomy.

The settlement of people was protected by a chieftain, who was paid tribute and whose strong men fought adversaries using swords, clubs and bows. God was the king (koo) and the spirit (pee-y) and was worshipped by sacrificing animals to get wishes granted. Seeing and counting were knowing (teri - `to be visible, to know') and thinking (eN - `to count, to think'). Knowledge was considered pure (teL - `to become clear, to understand') and white (veL - `to be white, to know'). The counting system was well developed, perhaps to aid trade. The celestial bodies (sun, moon and stars) were crucial to the life cycle of the people and the time was divided into year, month and day based on their movement.

The above description of the life of Proto-Dravidians is necessarily in broad strokes (not very different from the contemporary rural Dravidian life) and it is incomplete. Absence of words for some concepts in the language may not suggest absence of those concepts in the culture, but may be suggestive of coding those concepts by expressions larger than words and of loss of the native words by replacement with words from another language in contact. Any description of Dravidian languages and culture will be inadequate without considering the influences of other languages and cultures they came into contact with along the path of migration or in the settled area. The reconstruction of the Proto-Dravidian language and Proto-Dravidian culture will be an abstraction of reality in this sense, since the language and culture might be interacting with others of their times and be influenced by them. That languages rarely function in isolation presents the truism that the past is not necessarily pristine. Krishnamurti briefly describes the influence between the Dravidian and other languages, primarily classical Sanskrit. Such mutual influences make India one linguistic area with many languages.

This book tells everything we know linguistically to date about the history and nature of Dravidian languages as a family. It is meant for scholars in the field, but provides authentic information for interested lay persons also. Anyone who is interested in the Dravidian languages for whatever purpose must read this book to know the scientific linguistic facts about them.

E. Annamalai is former Director, Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor