choose a language or topic »|Wednesday, October 26, 2016
You are here: Home » Dravidian » Dravidian Language Family
  • Follow Us!

Dravidian Language Family 


The Dravidian language family is one of the largest language families in the world. The vast majority of linguists believe that the Dravidian language family is completely unrelated to any other language family. The family includes 73 languages spoken by over 222 million people in southern India, Sri Lanka, certain areas of Pakistan, and in Nepal. Commerce and emigration have also spread Dravidian languages, particularly Tamil, to Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Fiji, Madagascar, Mauritius, Guyana, Martinique and Trinidad. The only Dravidian language spoken entirely outside of India is Brahui with over two million speakers mainly in Pakistan and 200,000 speakers in Afghanistan (Ethnologue).

mapThe Dravidian language family was first recognized as an independent family in 1816. The term Dravidian was introduced by Robert A. Caldwell in his Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages (1856).

Dravidian languages are mostly spoken in the south of the Indian subcontinent, while Indo-Aryan languages are concentrated in the north. It is thought that Dravidian languages were native to the Indian subcontinent and were originally spread across all of India. The Indo-Aryan languages were introduced by Aryan invaders from the north. They pushed speakers of the original Dravidian languages out of the northern portion into the southern part of India.

Dravidian languages are usually broken up into the following groups, largely based on their geographical distribution. The table below lists only languages with 60,000 or more speakers.

Kolami (Northwestern & Southeastern) 60,000 India
Duruwa 75,000 India
Brahui 2.2 million Pakistan, Afghanistan
Kurux (Kurukh) 2 million India
Sauria Paharia (Malto) 122,000 India
South Central
Maria Dandami 200,000 India
Gondi Southern 250,000 India
Gondi Northern 1.9 million India
Maria 134,000 India
Pardhan 117,000 India
Koya 330,000 to 10 million India
Kui 717,000 India
Kuvi 300,000 India
Telugu 70 million India
Badaga 245,000 India
Kannada 35 million India
Kodagu 122,000 India
Kurumba 180,000 India
Malayalam 35 million India
Tamil 66 million India
Yerukula 300,000 India
Tulu 1.9 million India

TamilMalayalamTelugu, and Kannada are four of the 22 official languages and 14 regional languages of India. They are used in administration, education, business, and the media. All four possess a great wealth of written texts. All four have accommodated social, political, technical, and economic changes that occurred in 20th-century India.


The dialects of Dravidian languages have evolved along several dimensions:

  • geographic.e.g., Malayalam has 10 distinct regional varieties
  • religious, e.g., there may be differencesn the speech of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims within a single geographic area
  • caste-based, e.g., among the Hindus, the speech of members of the highest caste differs from that of members of a medium-high caste, and these, in turn, differ from the speech of members of the low caste
  • diglossic, e.g., the speech of the educated elite may be characterized by a greater degree of code-switching between the indigenous language and English
  • formal vs. informal, e..g, the formal style is used in most writing as well as in radio and TV programs, and in public speaking, whereas the informal style is used for daily spoken communication


Sound system
Despite some differences, the sound systems of Dravidian languages share some common features.

Most Dravidian languages have five or more vowels that can be either long or short. Vowel length makes a difference in the meaning of otherwise identical words.

The consonant systems of Dravidian languages generally share these features:

  • contrast between aspirated vs. unaspirated stops and affricates, e.g.,/ p—pʰ, t—tʰ, k—kʰ, b—bʰ, d—dʰ, g—gʰ/. Aspirated consonants are produced with a strong puff of air that accompanies their release. .
  • contrast between and apical vs. retroflex consonants, e.g.,/ t—ʈ, d—ɖ, n—ɳ, l—ɭ/. Apical consonants are produced with the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth, whereas retroflex consonants are produced with the tongue curled, so that its underside comes in contact with the roof of the mouth.
  • variety of nasal consonants.
  • restricted number of consonant clusters which occur mostly in initial and medial position

Stress in Dravidian languages usually falls on the first syllable.

All Dravidian languages are agglutinative, i.e., i.e., grammatical relations are indicated by the addition of suffixes to stems. These are strung together one after another, resulting on occasion in very long words. Like all agglutinative languages, Dravidian languages use postpositions rather than prepositions to mark grammatical relations.


  • There are two numbers: singular and plural. Plural is marked by a suffixes.
  • The number of cases varies from language to language.
  • There are no articles.
  • Some Dravidian languages have three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. In other languages, nouns belong to two classes: rational and irrational; rational nouns include humans and deities (women may be rational or irrational, depending on the language/dialect); irrational nouns include animals, objects, and everthing else. These classifications are not absolute.
  • Personal pronouns are marked for person, case and number. Gender is marked only in the third person singular.
  • 1st person plural can be inclusive, i.e., include both speaker and addressee, or exclusive, i.e., exclude the addressee.
  • 3rd person plural pronoun is used as a respectful form of address
  • Demonstrative pronouns are differentiated by considerations of proximity/remoteness as well as by levels of respect towards the referent.
  • Adjectives are not inflected for number, gender, or case.

Dravidian verbs are inflected for tense, mood, voice, causativity, and attitude. The basic word order is Subject-Object-Verb.

Telugu verbs consist of a root followed by suffixes expressing tense, mood, negation, causativity, person, number, and gender which follow each other in a prescribed sequence. In most Dravidian languages, verbs agree with their subjects in gender, number and person. Subject pronouns are normally dropped since the information about the subject is carried by the verb itself. Dravidian verbs have the following distinguishing features of verbs in most Dravidian languages. Not all languages have all of these features:

  • two numbers: singular and plural
  • three genders: masculine, feminine, neuter
  • three persons: 1st, 2nd, 3rd
  • two voices which are not equivalent to the active-passive or reflexive-nonreflexive division of voices in Indo-European languages
  • three simple tenses (present, past, and future) marked by simple suffixes, and a series of compound tenses marked by auxiliary verbs
  • a special verb paradigm in which a negative-tense marker is suffixed to the verb stem forming a negative tense
  • four moods which indicate whether the action of the verb is unreal, possible, potential, or real
  • transitivity and intransitivity
  • attitude expressed by auxiliary verbs to show the speaker’s feelings towards an event expressed by the verb, e.g., pejorative opinion, antipathy, relief, etc.

Word order
The standard word order in Dravidian languages is Subject-Object-Verb. However, other orders are possible because Inflectional endings take care of keeping clear grammatical relations and roles in the sentence. There are special markers for topic (what the sentence is about, or old information) and focus (new information). Constituents with old information precede constituents with new information, or those that carry most emphasis. Modifiers usually precede the words they modify.

The most important sources of early loanwords in Dravidian languages have been SanskritPali, and Prakrit. Different Dravidian languages borrowed words from neighboring Indo-Aryan languages spoken in India to differing degrees. For instance, Tamil has the lowest number of Indo-Aryan loanwords, while inMalayalam and Telugu the percentage of loanwords is substantially higher. In modern times, Dravidian language borrowed from UrduPortuguese, andEnglish. In Tamil, there is currently a movement to remove as many borrowings from Sanskrit as possible. All four major Dravidian languages (TamilTelugu,KannadaMalayalam) have succeeded in developing new technical terms, using EnglishSanskrit, and indigenous models. Modern Dravidian languages usecompounding and reduplication to form new words. In addition, there are numerous onomatopoeic words.

Below are numerals 1-10 in four major Dravidian languages in romanization.



Dravidian languages are written with syllabic alphabets in which all consonants have an inherent vowel. Diacritics, above, below, before or after consonants indicate change to a different vowel or suppression of the inherent vowel. When they appear the the beginning of a syllable, vowels are written as independent letters. When certain consonants occur together, special conjunct symbols are used which combine the parts of each letter.

Below are the names of four languages written in their native scripts.



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Dravidian languages?
Since these languages are not taught at the Foreign Service Institute, they are not categorized for difficulty..

48 Responses to Dravidian Language Family

  1. Simon Kaspar

    Please note the Word “empathu” given for the numeral 9 in Malayalam. Empathu means 80 and not 9. The word for nine starts with “O” thus:Ompathu.

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for the correction. We appreciate your help.

      • aron qwap

        I saw that there is no prefixes in and dravdian languages in your lecture ,but there are prefixes in tamil and kanada in most complex and sensitive cases .

        • Irene Thompson

          Could you be more specific? We would appreciate your input.

          • Jayanth

            There are prefixes in Dravidian languages, at least in Malayalam. They are associated with numbers. For example, if you want to say double, triple, quadruple etc. it becomes a prefix. But not to say two, three or four.
            Also, the main image does not represent anything Dravidian. The image in the section of Indo-Aryan branch is very South Indian.

            However, great website and fantastic effort!!
            Kudos and thanks!!

            • Irene Thompson

              Can you suggest a source for the kind of image that you would like to see? We pay royalties to Stock Photo for the use of the images since they are all copyrighted. Sometimes it is very hard to find the one that is exactly right.

  2. vanan

    It is wrongly sited the words in tamil for example it should have been ondru irandu moondru naangu aindhu aaru ezhu ettu (enn) onbadhu and paththu(padhin) so there should not be any doubt that Tamil language is great or not. It was spoiled by foreign linguists ( of course unknowingly ) that it is derivation of Dravida in fact Tamil word never starts with hard letter like B,D,G etc so the assumption of dravida is totally wrong may be the sanskrit pronounced it, as drava-veda means very ugly script ‘draave’ now also used as ‘draabe’ which means most untolerable.

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for your correction. We removed the reference regarding the origin of the word dravida since there are several theories pertaining to it.

  3. rajeshwar reddy

    Valuable info

  4. Kaviyitri22

    Can anyone tell me the differences and the similarities of the 4 main south-Indian

    I heard Telugu and Tamil are more similar
    and Malayalam and Kannada are similiar,
    is it right?

    Would a Telugu speaker understand a Tamil and so on…?

    Which is the easiest of them to learn for an

    Thank you so much for your help!

    • Irene Thompson

      We don’t know the answer to the first question about mutual intelligibility. There is a discussion thread you could follow to see if it can shed some light on the matter As for the second question regarding which Dravidian language is easiest to learn for a speaker of a Western European language, the answer is probably that they are equally difficult.

    • Suhas

      Actually Kannada and Telugu share a lot of similar. So a telugu speaker would easily understand Kannada and vice versa.

      Same is true for Tamil and Malayalam

  5. Telugu Linguist

    I know 3 of the 4 major Dravidian languages along with their scripts, while one of them, Telugu is my mother tongue. Of these languages, spoken Tamil and spoken Malayalam are mutually most intellegible. Similarly, spoken Tamil and spoken Kannada are somewhat (some times)intelligible while their written literatures are completely unintelligible even if read out aloud. But Telugu, both its written and spoken forms are Greek and Latin to all the rest of Dravidian people. Likewise, even the Telugus don’t and can’t understand the rest of the Dravidian speeches without proper training.

    No Dravidian language is easier for Europeans to learn.

    • Isa Ibn Atman

      Malayalam & Tamil being “mutually most intelligible” as mentioned here is that of the difference between French & Spanish (and not like Portuguese & Spanish)… There is some intelligibility, and many a times unintelligible (as Malayalam separated from Tamil more than a 1000 years ago)… And Malayalam has a very distinct (rhythmic) accent which is very difficult for non-malayalis to imitate…

      • Irene Thompson

        Thank you for this comment. We will edit our text on the Malayalam/Tamil mutual intelligibility.

    • Suhas

      Broadly speaking, Telugu script has been borrowed from Ancient Kannada script. I being a Kannada speaker, can easily read Telugu words, though i would not comprehend them and a lot of my Telugu friends have told me that they can read Kannada , though they don’t understand it.

  6. Telugu Linguist

    Historical linguists surmise that this total isolation of Telugu among Dravidian languages came about because it was the first to separate from the Proto-Dravidian language some 2,000 years ago. True to this guess, Telugu still constitutes a very big branch speakers of which occupy nearly 50% of the total landmass of the Dravidian heartland. Tribal languages like Gondi come under this sub-group which was previously called Andhra group of languages after the name of the Indian State where they are spoken.

  7. Isa Ibn Atman

    Is the south central language “Koya” spoken by 330,000 to 10 million peoplE? Its either astonishing or there is an error (i guess it should have been 1 million)…

    • Irene Thompson

      362,000 (2001 census) according to Ethnologue

      • Isa Ibn Atman

        I wasn’t concerned about the minor difference in the minimum limit of speakers. But the range 330,000 to 10 million is what was shocking… Why 10 million koya speakers? impossible…

  8. Isa Ibn Atman

    Apart from being “official languages” of the INDIAN UNION, the 4 major dravidian languages have acquired the “classical language” status with the Indian Government (out of the 5 classical languages of India – the other being Sanskrit)

  9. Isa Ibn Atman

    Though Dravidian Languages (apart from Tamil) use different alphabets for aspirated & unaspirated consonants, the aspiration occurs only in careful speech, while they are not (well) aspirated colloquially. This is because aspiration is not a Dravidian feature and the alphabets were created only to represent the sanskrit loanwords correctly. That is why for Tamil, Pallava Dynasty of Tamil Nadu invented the “grantha script” to write the sanskrit words while retaining the original “vattezhuttu” alphabets to write dravidian words, and thus a sentence may contain both scripts (like kanji and hiragana of japanese).

    I also believe that different alphabets for voiceless consonants and its voiced-counterparts came about (in languages apart from Tamil) due to the same reasons as that for aspirated consonants. Voicing is only allophonic in Tamil. In Malayalam (as far as i know), voiced alphabets are used to write only voiced consonants in sanskrit-origin words, while the same voiceless consonant is used to represent voiced consonants in dravidian words, as the difference in “voicing” is allophonic in complementary distribution.

    Eg: പടം “paʈam” (picture) is actually pronounced as “paɖam” as plosives are voiced between vowels. While in a sanskrit origin word, the “ɖ” would have been represented by “ഡ”.

  10. Dennis McCarthy

    Are there Dravidian equivalents to the English letters A, C, T, and G?

  11. NagaPradeep

    Under the serction ‘Vocabulary’, in the numbers table there are a lot of difference shown between telugu and kannada numbers, which is incorrect/incomplete understanding of the author.
    Wrong: Under telugu, The numbers 7 and 8 are shown to start with a consonent.
    Correct: Remove the first char ‘y’ from ‘yédhu’ and ‘yenimidi’ for 7 and 8.

    Wrong : For number 2, author mentions ‘rendhu’ under telugu and ‘eraɖu’ for under kannada.

    Correct : there is no difference in the sound of the last syllabe. The last syllabe sounds same in both telugu and kannada.

  12. NagaPradeep

    Like most English Interrogative words start with ‘wh’ shound, Most dravidian Interrogative words start with the sound ‘e’ or ‘ye’

    Telugu : emiti=What, enduku=why, evaru=who, eppudu=when, ekkada=where etc.

    Kannada: enu=What, yeke=why, yaaru=who, yevaaga=when, elli=where etc.

    Tamil: enna=What, edhukku=why, yaar=who, eppo=when, enge=where etc.

    (I have limited knowledge on tamil. Please correct me if i am wrong.)

    • Native Tamil Speaker


  13. NagaPradeep

    Thanks a lot for gathering the information of a lot of languages around the world and posting it here.

  14. C. Arun

    Tamil language is also spoken by people living in the Northern part of the Srilanka

  15. Rithesh

    Still discussion is going on, whether Tamil originated from Sanskrit or Sanskrit originated from Tamil. So it is not good to mention that tamil borrowed words from sanskrit or any Indo aryan Language. There are sources stating Tamil is first language in the world.

    • Irene Thompson

      Could you give us the sources on which you base your statements?

  16. Jaydeep Varma


    I found this article very informative and helpful.

    To add to this, I feel that the languages in their respective family trees (like Dravidian, Indo-Aryan) and their corresponding written scripts have evolved independent of their mother language.

    To put it in simple words with an example:-
    The Sinhala language is from Indo-Aryan tree, but it’s script is much like the current Dravidian predecessors.

    Checkout the below link:-

    • Dr. Bijoy Das

      Even if you look at the script of Oriya it resembles Dakshin Brahmi. So does it mean that Oriya is Dravidian language?

      • Irene Thompson

        Oriya is an Indo-European language, not a Dravidian one. Most scripts of the Indian subcontinent developed from the ancient Brahmi script. One early variant of the script was the so-called Tamil script that was adopted by the Dravidian languages.

  17. Irene Thompson

    You can follow us on Twitter. Go to our home page.

  18. சிவாஜி மணி பாரதி

    Which is the first language in India?
    தமிழ் is oldest language because the literature work has its proof
    Were no other languages in India have it.
    Tamil kings invaded many places in south India to east of the earth.

    • Irene Thompson

      This is a meaningless question that has no answer because the key terms are undefined and because there is a profound difference between spoken and written language.

  19. சிவாஜி மணி பாரதி

    Which is the first language in India?
    தமிழ் is oldest language because the literature work has its proof
    Were no other languages in India have it.

    • Irene Thompson

      This is a meaningless question that has no answer because the key terms are undefined and because there is a profound difference between spoken and written language.

  20. Bobby Johny

    I don’t agree with this language division of Indo-Aryan VS. Dravidian. I think it is stated this way to segregate against Dravidians. I know Hindi and Malayalam. Hindi is Indo-Aryan, and Malayalam is Dravidian. Their alphabets are the same. Ah, aah, oh,ooh, e, ee or ka, ikka. Ga, igga nga, same alphabets for all these languages that sound exactly the same, but some Indo-Aryan. We can say, English, Spanish, French are different, their alphabets are different, they sound different. These Indo-Aryan languages are identical to Indo-Dravidian, same alphabets, which the sounds the same. Same # of alphabets.

    • Irene Thompson

      Assigning languages to languages families has nothing to do with their writing systems. There are many more languages than there are writing systems. The latter are man-made products subjects to historical, cultural, religious, and geopolitical considerations.

    • Dr. Bijoy Das

      Malayalam is nothing but Sanskritised Tamil and the Namboodiri Brahmins considered Sanskrit as superior. See the basic vocabulary and not lexical borrowings.

      • Irene Thompson

        Linguists do not make judgments about language superiority. Superiority in what? All languages serve their users equally well in different areas of use. Even basic vocabulary (see work of Swadesh and others) can change over time with its percentage yieldings to borrowings. Finally, deciding that a particular variety is a language and not a “version of another language” is often a product of what speakers think of their language.

  21. Husay

    Dravidians were in Mediterranean , in crete and umbria , they were with the indo aryan lydians who are the minoans and etruscans lol they are original Mediterranean people and sumerians

    • Irene Thompson

      What are you trying to say? Edit your comment.


Add a Comment