Dravidian languages

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Dravidian languages

(drəvĭd`ēən), family of about 23 languages that appears to be unrelated to any other known language family. The Dravidian languages are spoken by more than 200 million people, living chiefly in S and central India and N Sri Lanka. The four major Dravidian languages are Kannada, having over 40 million speakers; Malayalam, having about 35 million speakers; Tamil, with almost 70 million speakers; and Telugu, with over 70 million speakers. Each of these languages has a noteworthy literature of considerable age. Brahui, another of the Dravidian group, has close to 1 million speakers, in Baluchistan. It is thought that the Dravidian tongues are derived from a language spoken in India prior to the invasion of the Aryans c.1500 B.C. Dravidian languages are noted for retroflex and liquid sound types. A distinctive feature is the formation of a comparatively large number of sounds in the front of the mouth. Verbs have a negative as well as an affirmative voice. Gender classification is made on the basis of rank instead of sex, with one class including beings of a higher status and the other beings of an inferior status (to which inanimate objects and sometimes women are assigned). Nouns are declined, showing case and number. In the Dravidian languages great use is made of suffixes (but not of prefixes) with nouns and verbs. There are many words of Indic origin in the Dravidian languages, which in turn have contributed a number of words to the Indic tongues. The Dravidian languages have their own alphabets, which go back to a common source that is related to the Devanagari alphabet used for Sanskrit. Brahui, however, is recorded in the Arabic script.


See T. Burrow and M. B. Emeneau, ed., A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary (1984).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Dravidian Languages


a family of languages spoken mainly in India, especially in its southern part. The Dravidian languages are subdivided into the following groups: southern (Tamil, Malayalam, Kota, Toda, Kodagu, Kannarese, or Kannada), southwestern (Tulu), southeastern (Telugu), central (Kolami, Naiki, Parji, Gadba), Gondwana (Gondi, Konda, Kui, Kuwi, Pengo, Manda), northeastern (Kurukh, Malto), and northwestern (Brahui). Little is known about some of the Dravidian languages (Yerukala, Kaikadi, Kurumba, Bellari, Koraga), and their affiliation with other groups has not yet been established. Altogether, the Dravidian languages are spoken by more than 130 million people (1967, estimate). Four Dravidian languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu) have an old literary tradition and are recognized as the official languages of the Indian states of Tamil Nadu (Madras), Kerala, Mysore, and Andhra Pradesh. The Tulu language acquired a writing system only in the latter half of the 19th century; the other Dravidian languages do not have writing systems.

The phonology of the Dravidian languages is characterized by the distinction between long and short vowels, an abundance of retroflex consonants, and the absence of phonemic stress. Vowels and only certain consonants occur at the beginnings and ends of words; in the middles of words inadmissible sound combinations are eliminated by means of elision, assimilation, or substitution, as well as by means of euphonic sounds and syllables. The Dravidian languages have a predominantly uffixal agglutinative morphology. Native word roots are monosyllabic. Nouns and other declined parts of speech have two numbers and cases (11 in Brahui). Gender, which exists in all the languages except Malayalam, Toda, and Brahui, is of a lexical-grammatical nature. Adjectives are not inflected; degrees of attribution are expressed syntactically. Pronouns may be exclusive or inclusive in the first person plural and may be two, three, or four degrees away from the speaker in the third person. The verb has separate positive and negative forms. In addition to the indicative and imperative moods, optative, suppositional subjunctive, and conditional moods are also encountered. The number of tense forms in the indicative mood varies from two to six. Voices are not distinguished. Nonfinite verb forms include—besides the adverbial participle, participle, and infinitive—the supine, the conditional adverbial participle, and participial and verbal nouns. Other categories typical of the Dravidian languages are personal nouns (a special part of speech having number, gender, case, and person), imitative words, and echo words.

The syntax of the Dravidian languages shares many features with the syntax of such other similarly structured languages as Turkic and Mongolian.


Andronov, M. S. Dravidiiskie iazyki. Moscow, 1965.
Bloch, J. Structure grammaticale des langues dravidiennes. Paris, 1946.
Burrow, T., and M. B. Emeneau. A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary. Oxford, 1961-68.
Andronov, M. Materials for a Bibliography of Dravidian Linguistics. Kuala Lumpur, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.