Proto-Dravidian is the proto-language of the Dravidian languages.

Origins of the word Dravidian

The English word Dravidian was first employed by Caldwell in his book of comparative Dravidian grammar based on the usage of the Sanskrit word in the work Tantravārttika by (Zvelebil 1990:xx). As for the origin of the Sanskrit word itself there have been various theories proposed. Basically the theories are about the direction of derivation between and . That is to say, while linguists such as Zvelebil assert that the direction is > (ibid. page xxi), others state that the name Dravida also forms the root of the word Tamil (Dravida -> Dramila -> Tamizha or Tamil).

There is no definite philological and linguistic basis for asserting unilaterally that the name Dravida also forms the origin of the word Tamil (Dravida -> Dramila -> Tamizha or Tamil). Zvelebil cites the forms such as dramila (in 's Sanskrit work Avanisundarīkathā) (found in Ceylonese chronical Mahavamsa) and then goes on to say (ibid. page xxi): "The forms /damila almost certainly provide a connection of " and "... < ...whereby the further development might have been * > * > - / damila- and further, with the intrusive, 'hypercorrect' (or perhaps analogical) -r-, into . The -m-/-v- alternation is a common enough phenomenon in Dravidian phonology" (Zvelebil 1990:xxi)

Further another eminent Dravidian linguist Bhadriraju Krishnamurti in his book Dravidian Languages (Krishnamurti 2003:p2, footnote 2) states: "Joseph (1989: IJDL 18.2:134-42) gives extensive references to the use of the term , dramila first as the name of a people, then of a country. Sinhala inscriptions cite -, damela- denoting Tamil merchants. Early Budhdhist and Jaina sources used - to refer to a people of in south India (presumably Tamil); - was a southern non-Aryan country; -, , and - were used as variants to designate a country in the south (Kādambarī, Daśakumāracarita-, fourth to seventh centuries AD) (1989: 134-8). It appears that - was older than - which could be its Sanskritization."

Based on what Krishnamurti states referring to a scholary paper published in the International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics the Sanskrit word itself is later than since the dates for the forms with -r- are centuries later than the dates for the forms without -r- (-, damela- etc.). So it is clear that it is difficult to maintain Dravida -> Dramila -> Tamizha or Tamil.

The Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary lists for the Sanskrit word draviḍa a meaning of "collective Name for 5 peoples, viz. the Āndhras, Karṇāṭakas, Gurjaras, Tailaṅgas, and Mahārāṣṭras".

Hypothetical language

Proto-languages are, by definition, hypothetical languages reconstructed by linguists, and hence no proto-language has any historical record. So is the case with Proto-Dravidian. Due to a dearth of comparative linguistic research into the Dravidian languages, not many details as to the grammar, epoch, or location of Proto-Dravidian are known.


It is thought to have differentiated into Proto-North Dravidian, Proto-Central Dravidian and Proto-South Dravidian around 1500 BC, although some linguists have argued that the degree of differentiation between the sub-families points to an earlier split. The only book which covers all the Dravidian languages which can point to Proto-Dravidian forms is Dravidian Etymological Dictionary still consist only of lists of related words without further explanation; therefore for a talented linguist Proto-Dravidian offers large possibilities

The Reconstructed Language

Here we discuss the salient features of the reconstructed Proto-Dravidian language.

Historical Phonology

Vowels: Proto-Dravidian contrasted between five short and long vowels: a, ā, i, ī, u, ū, e, ē, o, ō. The sequences ai and au are treated as *ay and *av (or *aw)

Consonants: Proto-Dravidian is reconstructible with the following consonantal phonemes (Subrahmanyam 1983:p40, Zvelebil 1990, Krishnamurthi 2003):

Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ñ (ṅ)
Plosive p t c k
Fricative ḻ (ṛ, r̤) (h)
Flap r
Approximant v l y

The alveolar stop *ṯ in many daughter languages developed into an alveolar trill /r/. The stop sound is retained in Kota and Toda (Subrahmanyam 1983). Malayalam still retains the original (alveolar) stop sound in gemination. (ibid). In Old Tamil it took the enunciative vowel like the other stops. In other words, *ṯ (or *ṟ) did not occur word-finally without the enunciative vowel (ibid).

Velar nasal *ṅ occurred only before *k in Proto-Dravidian (as in many of its daughter languages). Therefore it is not considered a separate phoneme in Proto-Dravidian. However, it attained phonemic status in languages like Malayalam, Gondi, Konda and Pengo due to the simplification of the original sequence *ṅk to *ṅ. (Subrahmanyam 1983)

The glottal fricative *h has been proposed by Bh. Krishnamurthi to account for the Old Tamil Aytam (Āytam) and other Dravidian comparative phonological phenomena (Krishnamurthi 2003).


This geographical and chronological horizon can correspond with an identification of Proto-Dravidian with the unknown language of the Indus Valley civilization, and the individual groups of Dravidian speakers would have been scattered after its collapse in the early 2nd millennium BC, a fact that receives some support from human genetics: the frequency of Haplogroup L (Y-DNA) in Dravidian upper and middle castes suggests that it may have been (perhaps besides J2) the original Y-haplogroup of the creators of this civilization (Sengupta et al. 2006). Various substratic influence on Vedic Sanskrit ascribed to Dravidian lends further support to this Proto-Dravidian as the IVC language. Asko Parpola has suggested that Meluhha may be the Sumerian rendition of the a native Proto-Dravidian name for the Indus Valley Civilization.

However this is disputed and the Indus valley script is yet to be conclusively deciphered.

The identification of Indus Valley Civilization language with some form of Dravidian has not been conclusive or successful. Iravatham Mahadevan, who with his knowledge of both Tamil and Sanskrit, spent many decades studying the IVC script said in an interview in 1998 that IVC script is undeciphered. According to Michael Witzel, the well-known Indologist, there are not many Dravidian loan words in the earliest stratum of Vedas, even though, the Dravidian influence quickly increases in the post-Rigvedic period. In the essay "Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan", Prof. Witzel says "As we can no longer reckon with Dravidian influence on the early RV, this means that the language of the pre-Rigvedic Indus civilization, at least in the Panjab, was of (Para-) Austro-Asiatic nature."


Many linguists tend to favour the theory that speakers of Dravidian languages spread southwards and eastwards through the Indian subcontinent, based on the fact that the southern Dravidian languages show some signs of contact with linguistic groups which the northern Dravidian languages do not.


  • Krishnamurti, B., The Dravidian Languages, Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-521-77111-0
  • Subrahmanyam, P.S., Dravidian Comparative Phonology, Annamalai University, 1983.
  • Zvelebil, Kamil., ''Dravidian Linguistics: An Introduction", PILC (Pondicherry Institute of Linguistics and Culture), 1990
  • S. Sengupta et al.: Polarity and Temporality of High-Resolution Y-Chromosome Distributions in India Identify Both Indigenous and Exogenous Expansions and Reveal Minor Genetic Influence of Central Asian Pastoralists. American Journal of Human Genetics, 2006, p. 202-221

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