Languages of the World: Tulu


Although the name of this language sounds just like the name of part man, part dragon, and part octopus monster created by H.P Lovecraft (‘Cthulhu’), I can assure you the two have nothing to do with each other. Unless, of course, Cthulhu was based on a mysterious sea monster lurking in the Arabian Sea.

Coming back to the language, Tulu language is spoken by around 2 million people in the southwest part of Indian state of Karnataka and a small part of northern Kerala. Native Tulu speakers are referred to as “Tuluva”. Linguists, apparently, believe that the word “Tulu” means “that which is connected with water”. This makes perfect sense to me as the language was born in coastal India, but these are in fact just assumptions.

We Tuluvas have a popular saying in Tulu – “Oorudu nanji aanda, paardh badhkodu”. This loosely translates to – “If it gets tough at home; run away and survive”. Staying true to this saying, Tuluvas have migrated in large numbers to different cities in India – mainly Mumbai, Thane and Bangalore. A sizeable population resides in the Gulf countries too. Early Tuluva migrants mainly ran Udupi cuisine restaurants but today the Tuluvas are found in various professions.


Origin of Tulu:


Anyone familiar with Indian languages can tell you that they are divided into two main categories – Aryan Languages (North Indian) and Dravidian Languages (South Indian). Tulu, being a south Indian language, falls under the category of Dravidian Languages.

For those of you unfamiliar with the classifications of Dravidian languages (which I assume is most of you), Proto-South Dravidian descends directly from Proto-Dravidian, which is the hypothesised mother language of all Dravidian languages.

Tulu is believed to have branched independently from its Proto-Dravidian roots nearly 2,000 years ago. As you can see in the image above, Tulu separated very early from Proto-South Dravidian and developed independently of any other present day major South Indian Language like Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, and Telugu, all of  which now enjoy the status of being official languages of India.

Yes, the fact that Tulu has been denied this status does pain me deeply.

The age of Tulu is highly debated upon but there’s enough proof to suggest that the language has been around for a very long time. The Tamil poet Mamular who belongs to the Sangam Age (200 AD) describes Tulu Nadu and its dancing beauties in one of his poems. Also, Tulu country is mentioned as the kingdom of the Alupas in the Halmidi inscriptions. According to Keralolpathi (Malayalam) and Sangam literature (Tamil), the region stretching from the Chandragiri river (Kasaragod, Kerala) to Gokarna (Uttara Kannada, Karnataka) was ruled by the Alupas and was known as Alva Kheda. This kingdom is believed to be the homeland of the Tulu speaking people.



Tigalari script was employed by Tulu Brahmins in the early days to write Vedas and other Sanskrit works in Tulu. Tigalari script descended from Grantha script and is the sister script of Malayalam.

There’s an interesting story behind the death of Tulu script. It is believed that somewhere bduring the 18th-19th centuries, missionaries arrived in Tulu Nadu with a printer that only printed in Kannada. In their defence, print was not available in Tilgalari back then. This led to the missionaries improvising and printing Tulu Christian literature using Kannada script. This is believed to be the beginning of the end of the Tulu script.

The picture below shows a few Tulu alphabets in Tigalari with respect to Kannada alphabets.



Dialects and Variations:

Tulu language primarily has four dialects:

  1. Common Tulu – This is the dialect spoken by the majority of Tulu speakers and is considered to be the dialect of commerce, trade and entertainment, and inter-community communication.
  2. Brahmin Tulu – This is a dialect spoken mainly by the Brahmin caste and contains several Sanskrit words.
  3. Jain Tulu – This is a dialect spoken mainly by the Tulu speakers belonging to the Jain religion.
  4. Girijan Tulu – This is a dialect spoken mainly by Girijans and Tribal classes.


Honorable Mention:

Beary language – Although it doesn’t really qualify as a dialect, Beary is very similar to Tulu. It is mainly spoken by the Muslim communities in southern coastal Karnataka and some parts of Kerala. The language is made of Malayalam idioms with Tulu phonology and grammar.


Culture and Recent Developments:

Yakshagana, a theatre form presented from dusk to dawn, is very popular and has greatly preserved the finer aspects of the Tulu language. Tulu plays too are quite popular among Tuluvas and are generally centered on the comic genre.

A lot of work is being done towards preservation of Tulu and its script. The Karnataka Tulu Sahitya Academy released the Unicode version of Tulu script in September 2014. A ‘Tulu Wikipedia’ is said to be underway and is expected to contain more than 600 articles. Several Tulu dictionaries are also available online, making it easier for people to learn it. Tulu now can also boast of a movie industry: around 2-3 movies are produced annually.

Efforts are on to include Tulu in the list of Official Languages of India and get the status it deserves.

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