Did the Indus Valley civilisation speak an ancient form of Tamil?

A Bengaluru-based researcher on Indus scripts said that one can say Harappans spoke an ancient form of present day Dravidian languages such as Tamil or Telugu or Kannada

Indus Valley seals: A recent study by a Bengaluru-based researcher has revealed that it is possible majority of the Harappans could have spoken some ancestral Dravidian languages.. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

What was the language spoken by the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC)? This is one of the major questions historians, archaeologists and linguists have been tussling with all these years. Though many inscriptions have been excavated from the Indus Valley site, most of them have not been deciphered because the language of the script continues to be a mystery.

Until now, opinions differed among researchers about the language spoken in the Indus Valley civilisation spread across 10 lakh sq km. It should be noted that the ancient world had some 12,000 to 20,000 languages which has dwindled to only 7,000 languages in the present age.

Researchers argued that the languages back then may have been ‘proto-Indo-Aryan’, ‘proto-Dravidian’ or ‘proto-Munda’/para-Munda’. However, scholars like Colin P Masica, professor emeritus, Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations and Department of Linguistics, University of Chicago believed that “Dravidian stock is a strong but as yet unproven contender for the languages of the Harappans”.

For the first time, a study has been conducted based on some ultra-conserved proto-words (an earliest form of a word, used before languages were fully developed), which has originated from Indus Valley and backed by hard archaeological and zoological data.


The article, in which this study has appeared, is titled ‘Ancestral Dravidian Languages in Indus Civilisation: Ultraconserved Dravidian Tooth-word Reveals Deep Linguistic Ancestry and Supports Genetics’ and has been published in the recent issue of Humanities and Social Sciences Communications (8, article no:193, 2021), a prestigious Nature group journal.

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Written by Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay, the article makes a major revelation that the majority of the Harappans could have spoken some ancestral Dravidian languages.

Mukhopadhyay, a Bengaluru-based software technologist and a passionate researcher of Indus scripts, began to evince interest in studying Indus Valley languages from 2014. In an earlier research paper titled ‘Interrogating Indus inscriptions to unravel their mechanism of meaning conveyance’ (Palgrave Communication, volume 5, article no:73, 2019), she has argued that the Indus inscriptions were originally logographic/semasiographic (a writing system where symbols are used as word-sign or meaning-units) and not phonograms (where a symbol is used as a sound).

Her current multi-disciplinary study however has confirmed earlier conjectures made by historians that the proto-Dravidian speakers from the Indus Valley could have migrated to south India.

“In the absence of any deciphered written documents of IVC, we have no direct way of identifying Harappan languages. So, the only feasible starting point is finding some proto-words,” said Mukhopadhyay.

An elephant in the word

The Indus script
Tablets with the Indus Valley/Harappa script

According to Mukhopadhyay, proto-words should meet most of the following criteria: i) historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence should prove that the proto-words and objects they signify originated in IVC; the etymology of the proto-word should have a root in one of the languages presently spoken in India; and genetics should support the present speaker of that language has considerable IVC ancestry.

Most importantly, the proto-words should be related to the basic non-borrowable vocabulary of a speech community, as a borrowable word cannot predict its speaker’s linguistic lineage.

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In her study, Mukhopadhyay discovered that the proto-words ‘piru’/’piri’, which basically refers to an elephant in the Akkadian language and ivory (pirus) in Old Persian language, could have likely originated from IVC.

Ancient Near East of middle-third-millennium to early-second-millennium BC had no native elephants. The Syrian elephants of 1700 BC were also arguably imported from India. Archaeological evidence confirmed that Mesopotamian people imported ivory from only IVC, and the Persian Gulf traders had functioned as intermediaries in the thriving trade between IVC and Mesopotamia.

Thus, the way speakers of all the Indian languages call kangaroo, a completely foreign animal from Australia, only by its foreign name, the people of Mesopotamia must have called elephant by the name the Indus people called it. Interestingly, in the current Dravidian languages of south India, elephants are referred to as ‘pilu’ in Kannada, ‘pilluvam’ in Tamil and ‘piliru’ in Telugu. Linguists say that ‘pilu’ entered classical Sanskrit very late, as a borrowed word.

Today, to say ‘elephant trumpeting’ in Tamil, we say ‘yaanai pilirthal’, as ‘piḷiṟu’ means ‘roaring of elephant’, and its root-word must have been ‘pilu’, said Mukhopadhyay. Since ancient Iranian languages did not use the sound ‘l’, they change the ‘l’s of foreign word to ‘r’s. Thus ‘pilu’ became ‘piru’, just the way ‘Babilu’ (Babylon) became ‘Babiru’, and the Mesopotamians adapted the same.

The most crucial part of her study is where Mukhopadhyay has claimed that the etymology of the elephant-word ‘pilu’ is related to the Dravidian tooth-word ‘pal’, the way the Sanskrit elephant-word ‘Danti’ is coming from the tooth-word ‘danta’ and the ‘abu’-based Egyptian elephant-words are related to the Egyptian tooth-words ‘abaḥi’ and ‘ȧbeḥ’.

Now, ‘pal’, and its phonological variations are used across 25 of the current Dravidian languages and it is considered to be a proto-Dravidian word used since several thousand years.

But again, how did the root word ‘pal’ change to ‘pil’? To this, Mukhopadhyay argued: “Like how we have various dialects in a language, in the IVC period too the language could have had various dialects. For example, take the word ‘dream’. In Dravidian languages, it means ‘Kanavu’ (Tamil), Kinavu (Malayalam), Kana (Kannada), etc. Similarly, the word male cattle (buffalo, goat, sheep) are known as kitay (Tamil), kitavu (Malayalam), kadasu (Kannada), etc. Along the same lines, the tooth-word ‘pal’ could have also been used as ‘pil’ in those times.

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A Second evidence

Mukhopadhyay also provided other intriguing alternative grammatical arguments in her article. The most important being that tooth is a kind of word part of the non-borrowable basic vocabulary (the basic 100 vocabulary items proposed by linguist Morris Swadesh are used to classify languages by linguists across the world) of a speech community. Thus, since the IVC people have named their tuskers using their tooth-word, and that tooth-word had a proto-Dravidan root, tooth being an ultraconserved non-borrowable vocabulary item, this researcher deduced that the Harappans must have spoken some ancestral form of Dravidian too.

Another revealing and independent evidence of pīlu’s connection with the meaning of tooth comes from the widespread Indic phytonym pīlu, used for the tree Salvadora persica, known in the western world as ‘toothbrush tree’, and in Arabic countries as ‘miswak’ tree; ‘miswak’ meaning ‘tooth-cleaning-stick’.

Mukhopadhyay provides ample botanical and ethnohistorical evidence tto show hat the trees of the Salvadora species, whose roots and branches have been used for time immemorial in north-western parts of the Indian subcontinent, were one of the most characteristic flora of ancient IVC, and Harappans had used the tree and most likely coined its name.

Having made these points, can we conclude that the Dravidian language the Harappans spoke in those times may have been Tamil?

“We should not directly say Tamil, as pre-Tamil had branched from the other Dravidian languages only around the 6th century BC, according to the eminent Dravidian linguist Bhadriraju Krishnamurti”, said Mukhopadhyay. Further, she added that “one can say that many Harappans surely spoke an ancient form of the present-day Dravidian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malto, Brahui, or Parji”.That is the reason they are called ancestral Dravidian languages because according to linguists they had not branched out as Tamil or Telugu or Kannada before the end of the second-millennium BC.