The Dravidian language family, consisting of 80 varieties spoken by nearly 220 million people across southern and central India, originated about 4,500 years ago, a study has found. This estimate is based on new linguistic analyses by an international team, including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, and the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun. The Dravidian language family’s four largest languages — Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu — have literary traditions spanning centuries, of which Tamil reaches back the furthest.
The researchers used data collected first-hand from native speakers representing all previously reported Dravidian subgroups. The findings, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, match with earlier linguistic and archaeological studies.
South Asia, reaching from Afghanistan in the west and Bangladesh in the east, is home to at least six hundred languages belonging to six large language families, including Dravidian, Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan. The Dravidian language family, consisting of about 80 language varieties (both languages and dialects) is today spoken by about 220 million people, mostly in southern and central India, and surrounding countries.
Along with Sanskrit, Tamil is one of the world’s classical languages, but unlike Sanskrit, there is continuity between its classical and modern forms documented in inscriptions, poems, and secular and religious texts and songs, they said.
“The study of the Dravidian languages is crucial for understanding prehistory in Eurasia, as they played a significant role in influencing other language groups,” said Annemarie Verkerk of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
The consensus of the research community is that the Dravidians are natives of the Indian subcontinent and were present prior to the arrival of the Indo-Aryans (Indo-European speakers) in India around 3,500 years ago.
Researchers said that it is likely that the Dravidian languages were much more widespread to the west in the past than they are today.In order to examine questions about when and where the Dravidian languages developed, they made a detailed investigation of the historical relationships of 20 Dravidian varieties. The researchers used advanced statistical methods to infer the age and sub-grouping of the Dravidian language family at about 4,000-4,500 years old.