Of vernacular variety

Of vernacular variety

Jain temple from Karkala (North Tulu speaking region with Jain Tulu speakers).

In addition to rich linguistic diversity, Indian languages — like any other languages — show considerable internal variation, in the form of myriad dialects. These dialects offer linguists a wealth of insights. 

Tulu, a Dravidian language spoken by around 1.85 million people primarily along the southern coast of Karnataka, is no different when it comes to variation.

Tulu is primarily an unwritten language, known for its oral traditions. It is also the non-literary Dravidian language that has attracted the most attention from linguists.

As is the case with languages in general, dialectal variation in Tulu exists along two primary
axes — social and regional.

Mapping the language

To visualise Tulu linguistic variation, it’s important to understand the cultural geography in which it is spoken, a region commonly termed Tulu Nadu.

According to the linguist D N S Bhat, Tulu Nadu is “geographically and sociolinguistically compact,” and is defined by a set of natural borders — from the Suvarna river in the north to the Chandragiri river in the south (roughly from Udupi to Kasaragod), and west of the Western Ghats.

The mighty Netravati river divides the region into two almost equal halves, each half also featuring its own regional dialect — North Tulu, and South Tulu.

Mangaluru (Kudla in Tulu) is the largest city in northern Tulu Nadu, and in the entire region as a whole; Puttur, a significantly smaller town, is the largest urban centre in its south.

Up until modern times, the caste system restricted mixing between different caste groups, and as a result, different communities evolved their own linguistic mannerisms.

Social-linguistic variations are most pronounced along Brahmin and non-Brahmin lines, with Dalit and adivasi dialects forming a smaller but prominent group within the broader non-Brahmin dialect, called the Common dialect in literature.

The usage of Standard Kannada as a formal written language is superimposed on this usage of Tulu and other local languages like Byari and Konkani; Tulu Nadu’s bilingualism is a key part of its identity — Kannada has influenced its languages for centuries.

Linguists have divided Tulu into four dialects, based on its divisions — North Common, North Brahmin, South Common, South Brahmin. There are further regional and social subdivisions, with less variation.

The book A Comparative Study Of Tulu Dialects, written by the linguist Padmanabha Kekunnaya and published in 1994 by the Rashtrakavi Govinda Pai Research Centre (RGPRC), is a landmark work in Tulu linguistics highlighting various phonological, gram matical, and lexical differences between these four broad dialects — many along social lines, many others regional.

A conspicuous difference between both regional varieties of Tulu is that the -a sound at the end of nouns in North Tulu corresponds to-o in South Tulu. The title of the Tulu epic, SriīBhagavato, reflects its origins in modern Kasaragod district. 

The Tulu Lexicon Project, undertaken by the RGPRC, incorporates Tulu’s rich dialectal variation. Each entry is identified with the dialect(s) in which it appears, with its corresponding forms in the other dialects listed as well

Brahmin dialects show a higher percentage of Sanskrit words. Southern dialects, especially in the west, feature more Malayalam borrowings. The data for the project was taken from various paddana (the primary genre of Tulu folk songs) and proverbs, as well as Classical Tulu literature. Classical Tulu literature, including the two epic poems Sri Bhagavato and Kaveri, was written in Brahmin dialects, as works of literature composed by the elites. On the other hand, paddana uses Common
dialects, since these songs were composed and sung by the masses. 

According to D N S Bhat, the North Common dialect is the most linguistically innovative form of Tulu, while the South Brahmin dialect is its most linguistically conservative form. 

The North Common dialect, the chief language variety spoken in Mangaluru city, has emerged as a de facto standard form by virtue of the city’s status as Tulu Nadu’s economic and cultural hub.

A striking feature of this dialect, not shared by other varieties of Tulu, is the loss of the retroflex or hard ‘l’ and ‘n’ sounds, such as in words like kannu (eye) and puli (tamarind).

Given the general neglect of non-literary languages in Indian language discourse in general, it’s refreshing to see linguistic variation in Tulu documented and studied in such depth.

In addition, such research offers us a window into the various forces that have shaped the Tulu language throughout its long and storied history.

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