A recent study has discovered that the Dravidian language family, consisting of 80 languages and dialects and spoken by nearly 220 million people across South, Central India, and some South Asian countries, is 4,500 years old.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Science and Human History in Germany and Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, gathered data drawn from native speakers representing all previously reported Dravidian subgroups, said the former’s press release. The Royal Society Open Science journal published these findings.
There are six significant language families in South Asia (extending from Afghanistan to Bangladesh), including Dravidian, Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan, which contain 600 recognised languages.
“Dating Dravidian languages is relevant for a wider understanding of the peopling of South Asia, especially population movements of particular language groups. This study confirms, for instance, that Dravidian speakers were present in the subcontinent before the Indo-Aryan speakers arrived (around 3,500 years ago). We know about this from Dravidian (word) loans into Sanskrit, but this is a confirmation,” said lead author Annemarie Verkerk of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, to the Hindustan Times.
Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, and Telugu are the four most-spoken Dravidian languages, and go back thousands of years, with Tamil being the oldest. Even though Tamil is older than Sanskrit, “there is continuity between its classical and modern forms documented in inscriptions, poems, and secular and religious texts and songs,” researchers said.
“In the absence of carbon dating and neuroscience to study structures of language perception to date language, advanced statistical models provide crucial bits of evidence that piece together the evolution of languages,” said Ganesh N Devy, linguist and founder-director of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Vadodara, to the Hindustan Times
In an interesting aside, Vishnupriya Kolipakam, a researcher from the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun was also part of the team. She collected first-hand data from the native speakers of Dravidian languages.
Researchers believe that the conclusion is in line with previous studies. Further research, however, will be done to establish relationships between different language families and their geographical history.
“Here we have a really exciting opportunity to investigate the interactions between these people and other cultural groups in the area such as Indo-European and Austro-Asiatic on one of the great crossroads of human prehistory,” said author Simon Greenhill, also of the Max Planck Institute, to the Indian Express.