The word that has come down to us as ‘Dravidian’ has had a very long history as a referential term for the southern portion of India. Greek geographers knew the area as Damirica or Limyrike: ‘Then come Naura and Tyndis, the first marts of Damirica.
The latter reference reminds one of course of the legendary Atlantis of the Indian Ocean, Lemuria, supposedly inhabited by lemurs. It will be noticed that both Greek forms, Damirica and Limyrike, have an r at the beginning of the third syllable. They too had difficulty with a Dravidian sound in the source- word, as will be seen shortly.
Sanskrit sources have Dravidi and Damili, and later Dramida and Dravida, the immediate sources of our’ Dravidian’. It seems likely that all these words are to be connected ultimately with a non-Indo-Aryan word, possibly in the form in which we have it today, namely, Tamil.
The last sound of this word, a retroflex affricate, is one peculiar to one or two languages in the south of India, and has been dispensed with in two of the main ones, Telugu and Kannada. Clearly, Greek and Sanskrit had difficulties with it, and did their best, as shown above. There is, however, no justification for assuming that, at the period of the classical geographers; the word meant the Tamil language as at present differentiated from other south Indian tongues.
It seems more likely that there was at that time a relatively undifferentiated non-Indo-Aryan speech in the south to which the term Proto-Dravidian is usually applied. Such a situation must have obtained long before the earliest surviving literary or other records in what is now the Tamil-speaking area of south-east India.
Such records can be with some assurance assigned to a period around the third century B.C. for inscriptions, and to one about the commencement of the Christian era for literature. Both are recognizable as Tamil, and we have no evidence of any sort for any other distinct Dravidian speech from so early a j date.
Indeed there is some evidence that points the other way; at the level of court-poetry at least, Tamil was still used in the area where Malayalam is now spoken at the time of the earliest extant Tamil literature. This region was known in Tamil as Seranadu, and in Sanskrit as Kerala.
Proto-Dravidian, then, was a non-Indo-Aryan speech, and it follows from this that the languages we know as Dravidian languages are distinct too. It lies beyond the scope of this essay to enter into a detailed linguistic discussion as to the differences.
One of the characteristics of the Dravidian, as of the Turkic languages, is what is known as agglutination, whereby suffixes, themselves often recognizable as connected with meaningful roots, are added to nouns and verbs to inflect their meaning, providing case-endings, for example.
For instance, the locative case-suffix in Tamil would seem to be connected with the word for ‘house’ in various Dravidian languages; Tamil has il, Telugu illu, etc. Number and case are indicated by two distinct suffixes, in that order, e.g. Tam. min ‘fish’, minai ‘fish’ (accusative), mingal ‘fishes’, mingalai ‘fishes’ (acc.).
Notice that the case-suffix in the plural is the same as in the singular. It will be recalled that quite a different situation obtains in Indo-European or Indo-Aryan languages, where one set of single suffixes is used in the singular and a different set in the plural, wherein such suffixes denote both case and number.
Following from the readily analysable nature of agglutinative languages, at least in a primitive or theoretical stage, it can be seen that to write such languages in a pictographic or ideographic script is an attractive possibility.
Of recent years, Dravidian has been the strongest contender for the language of the as yet undeciphered Mohenjo-daro seal characters. These appear on about 2,000 seals as short inscriptions accompanying rather conventionalized pictures of animals, the bull figuring prominently among them.
It will at once be clear that we are speaking of an area very distinct geographically from that of present-day Dravidian languages which is that of peninsular India south of a line from, say, Goa on the west coast to Ganjam on the east. The area of the Mohenjo-daro and Harappa city-cultures is that of the Indus valley, in Sind and the Panjab.
But, just as in Britain and western Europe the Celtic languages, once widely prevalent, were pushed westwards to the Atlantic coast, extending from north-west Spain to the Hebrides, by intrusive languages from the east, it has been argued that Dravidian languages were once prevalent throughout India, being pushed southwards by the invasions of Indo-Aryan speakers from the north-west, a movement that, it is pretty clear, took place between about 2500 and 1500 B.C.
That there were Dravidian languages in the north would be mere speculation were it not for the fact that, to this day, there remains a pocket of Dravidian speech, the language Brahul, spoken by about 250,000 people in the highlands of Baluchistan, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Notwithstanding the meagre nature of the historical evidence, it seems more reasonable to assume a relict status for Brahul, rather than an improbable migration from the plains of Dravidian speakers some 800 miles away, and the exchange of a settled agricultural regime for a harsh, nomadic, and pastoral one.
On the assumption then that Dravidian languages were once widely prevalent in the subcontinent and that they were displaced by Indo-Aryan in the north, the attractiveness of them, as the language of the city-cultures of Pakistan becomes clear.
The most important and recent statement of this position is that of Asko Parpola and others, in three special publications of the Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies.7 While the authors have indeed amassed much evidence in support of their view, it is the case that the second and third publications contain some corrections of their original position, together with speculative matter connected with Indus valley culture, religion, and iconography, all of which detracts from the acceptability of the purely linguistic argument out of which their theories originated.
The authors do not, for instance, advance really convincing reasons for reading the ideographs from right to left. Moreover, we are of course still none the wiser about the sound of the words or syllables ‘ depicted’ and the best the authors can do is to read them as reconstructed Proto-Dravidian. It should be added that similar conclusions have been reached by Russian scholars, led by Yu. Knorozov, also using computers
If we accept the view of Parpola, Knorozov, and others that speakers of Dravidian languages were productive of cultures as far back as the third millennium B.C., a central date for the Indus valley culture, we are still faced with a gap of 1,500 years during which no certain records of Dravidian were produced, a period when, we may assume, the Dravidians were overthrown from their culture-centres in north India and pushed into the centre and south of the peninsula by the Indo-Aryans. Such a gap takes us up to the earliest known Tamil inscriptions, which are in the Brahmi script and belong to the third century B.C. These will be discussed shortly.
Whether Dravidian languages or the speakers thereof existed in India from the beginning of man in the subcontinent, or were themselves in cursors like the Indo-Aryans and their languages later, is likely to remain unresolved in the present state of knowledge.
Because of their agglutinative structure, these languages have been associated with Caucasian languages, and even with Basque. Better established is the longest-held view as to the external affiliations of Dravidian. It is that of Caldwell and Rask, that Dravidian is affiliated to what they termed Scythian languages, now usually called Turkic and Finno-Ugrian.
Similarly there remains ignorance of what languages were spoken by the various Stone Age cultures in India, there being the added difficulty of the coexistence of a number of these with cultures of an altogether higher order synchronically. We know nothing, for instance, of the languages of the Soan Industry in the Himalaya foot-hills or of the Madras Industry in south-east India.
The most promising archaeological link with the admittedly tenuous theory of the Mediterranean affinities of the Dravidians is provided by the south Indian megalithic culture. This, however, may not itself be older than about 200 B.C. Gordon Childe has seen possible links with Mediterranean and Caucasian megaliths of sites such as Brahmagiri via the Sialk B graves in Iran; the connection may have been by sea.
It may be speculative to assign Dravidian speech to any one particular racial type but it has been suggested that brachycephalic Armenoids types in India, having affinities in Armenia, Anatolia, and Iran, brought Dravidian into India. While there are, then, reasonable hypotheses on linguistic, cultural, and anthropological grounds for suggesting that Dravidian languages originated outside India, specifically in western Asia, there is as yet no direct evidence for the existence of Dravidian outside the subcontinent, nor for its currency in the north other than that afforded by Brahul The Mohenjo-daro seals are not yet read, nor is their language or its structures identified for certain.