The 1965 movie, Panchavarna Kili, is still etched in the minds of millions of Doordarshan viewers. Who can forget the epic sequence of KR Vijaya’s quivering lips over-emoting the ‘Tamizhukkum amudhendru per’ number penned by poet Bharathidasan. Along with a liberal glimpse of the actress’ rubbery jaw and her pearly-pearlies, the song also gave us a hint of the meaning of ‘Tamil’.
As you must have guessed by now, it simply means ‘that which is sweet’. Derived from ‘Tam’ (self) and ‘-izh’ (the root word for honey), the 19th most spoken tongue pre-dates the existence of all mother tongues in India, except say Sanskrit which, incidentally, was never called ‘Sanskrit’ by Panini the grammarian. He referred to the Vedic language as ‘Chandasa’. Sanskrit (meaning: refined) was perhaps a later day coinage built upon a distillation of the best of Prakrit, the original vernacular of our nation.
Malayalam took root as a distinct entity from Tamil when the Pandyan Dynasty lost its control over large tracts of Kerala. ‘Malai’ (‘hilly’ in Tamil) and ‘Aalum’ (‘ruled by’ in Tamil) somehow got fused together and the region gave rise to Malayalam.
Telugu is another story. The dominant school of thought seems to believe that Telugu came from Trilinga Desa, the land with three Shiva temples—Srisailam, Drakasharamam and Kaleshwaram. I somehow subscribe to Ganti Jogi Somyaji’s hypothesis that Telugu is a derivation from Ten-ungu. ‘Ten’ in Proto-Dravidian means ‘South’. And therefore, Tenungu means ‘Southerners’. The explanation feels as logical as Hindi being that which is spoken by the people of Hind.
Kannada’s history, too, owes a lot to its geography. Etymologically built from Karu-nadu (land of the black cotton soil), Kannada is an exotic cocktail brewed over centuries from Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Tamil.
Kannada’s amiable cousin Tulu owes its ancestry to the Dravidian root word ‘tuli’ (drop of water), which is probably an attribution to its coastal provenance. The ‘Kon’ in Konkani makes a similar allusion to the ‘mountain range’. Urdu, on the other hand, is from the Turkic word ‘ordu’ and it decodes to the language of the army camp. Probably the reference is to Mahmud Ghazni and his hordes who camped around the Delhi Sultanate and developed its lexicon.
There are at least 770 more dialects to cover. If you lend me your ears, will be glad to leave you speechless over a cuppa.