A new linguistic analysis has used advanced statistical methods to infer that the origin of the Dravidian language family can be dated to about 4,500 years ago. This estimate is in line with suggestions from previous linguistic studies, and inferences from archaeology.
The Dravidian languages consist of about 80 varieties spoken by 220 million people in southern and central India, and neighbouring countries. The study used data collected first-hand from native speakers representing all previously reported Dravidian subgroups, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History said in a news release.
Researchers from the institute and the Wildlife Institute of India were among those involved in the study, published in Royal Society Open Science.
The four largest Dravidian languages —Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu — have literary traditions spanning centuries, of which Tamil reaches back the furthest. The study notes that there is continuity between Tamil’s classical and modern forms documented in inscriptions, poems, and secular and religious texts and songs.
“The study of the Dravidian languages is crucial for understanding prehistory in Eurasia, as they played a significant role in influencing other language groups,” corresponding author Annemarie Verkerk of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History said in the statement.
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 in India around 3,500 years ago, the release said, adding 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, the researchers made a detailed investigation of the historical relationships of 20 Dravidian varieties. Study author Vishnupriya Kolipakam of the Wildlife Institute of India collected contemporary first-hand data from native speakers of a diverse sample of Dravidian languages, representing all the previously reported subgroups of Dravidian.
The researchers used the advanced statistical methods to infer the age and subgrouping of the Dravidian language family at about 4,000-4,500 years old. Noting that the estimate is in line with suggestions from previous linguistic studies, the institute described it as a more robust result because it was found consistently in the majority of the different statistical models of evolution tested in this study. This age also matches well with inferences from archaeology, which have previously placed the diversification of Dravidian into North, Central, and South branches at exactly this age, it said.
The institute added future research would be needed to clarify the relationships between these branches and to examine the geographical history of the language family. “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.