Linguistics Dravidian Languages
Sanford Steever
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0188


By number of speakers, the Dravidian language family is the fourth or fifth largest in the world. It includes approximately twenty-five modern languages, four of which also have extensive literary traditions predating the modern era. While some sources have listed the number of languages as high as seventy, many of these turn out to be alternative names or dialects of existing languages. Comparative study shows that, on the basis of shared innovations, the Dravidian languages comprise four subgroups: South Dravidian, South-Central Dravidian, Central Dravidian, and North Dravidian. The majority of the languages lack a written tradition and were not recorded before the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At one end of the spectrum is Naiki, a Central Dravidian language, which we know only from annotated word lists. At the other end stands Tamil, a South Dravidian language with two thousand years of literature, an indigenous grammatical tradition and no lack of grammatical descriptions. While concentrated primarily in south and central India, several Dravidian languages, such as Tamil, have spread through commerce and colonization to Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore as well as eastern Africa and parts of the Caribbean.

General Overviews

Introductions to individual Dravidian languages as well as the whole family may be found in Steever 1998. Caldwell 1913 and Krishnamurti 2003 describe and analyze the Dravidian languages from a diachronic standpoint. Burrow 1968 and Emeneau 1994 are collections of essays on specific topics related to the description and analysis of the Dravidian languages; these two pioneers of modern Dravidian linguistics set out a number of problems for which subsequent research has sought solutions.

  • Burrow, Thomas. 1968. Collected papers on Dravidian linguistics. Annamalainagar, India: Annamalai Univ. Press.

    Analyzes topics in individual languages as well as the family. Covers etymologies, borrowing, and sound correspondences, among other topics.

  • Caldwell, Robert. 1913. A comparative grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages. 3d ed. rev. Edited by J. L. Wyatt and T. Ramakrishna Pillai. Madras, India: Univ. of Madras Press.

    First published in 1856, Caldwell is the historical cornerstone of all subsequent Dravidian studies. It remains useful even though Caldwell had access to only half the Dravidian languages known today.

  • Emeneau, Murray B. 1994. Dravidian studies: Selected papers. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

    Collects many key articles, written over sixty years, on a broad range of topics, including echo words, subgrouping, the Indian linguistic area, and analyses of specific languages.

  • Krishnamurti, Bh. 2003. The Dravidian languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486876

    Modern analysis of Dravidian languages, ranging from phonology, descriptive and historical, to morphology, syntax, and lexicon. Written to facilitate comparisons between the languages.

  • Steever, Sanford B., ed. 1998. The Dravidian languages. London: Routledge.

    Provides full descriptions of twelve languages, selected from all four subgroups. Additional material includes an introduction and a chapter on the writing systems (pp. 40–71).

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