Telugu – the language, people and the land through ages  

Telugu – the language, people and the land through ages. India officially has only 23 recognized languages, but these have given birth to more than 1700 mother tongues that have evolved over time from these different language families. Telugu, one of these 23 official languages is not only the largest spoken Dravidian language, but also the second largest spoken language after Hindi. More than 80 million people across the world (Bahrain, Fiji, Malaysia, Mauritius, United Arab Emirates and the United States), including 66 million native speakers in India – Andhra Pradesh and Pondicherry (where it is the official language of the state), and Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Chhattisgarh also know how to speak, read or write in this beautiful, culturally rich and evolved over ages language. Telugu like Hindi, Bengali, Marathi and Gujrati, is also considered as another “shudh bhasha”. In India, 40% of the population or a vast majority speaks Hindi, either as the mother tongue or the second language. Also, only 0.5% of educated society also uses English as a second language and as a medium for research and official communication between inter-lingual cultures. In contrast, though Telugu is the most frequently spoken Dravidian language (like Bengali, Marathi or Tamil), only 6.0 to 8.0 % of the population speaks or understands it. Carnatic Music, the Classical music of South India is expressed through Dravidian languages, including Telugu as its medium of expression. Presently, though Tamil Nadu represents the centre for Carnatic culture, most Carnatic songs are written and sung in Telugu. One need not go far to find the reason for it. Telugu was the principal court language when Carnatic Music evolved. Besides, Telugu is a language that ends in vowels, which is suitable to express music well. One word Telugu represents all – the language, the people who speak it and the land where they live. The actual land of Telugu people is bounded by three mountains Kalesvara, Srisaila, and Bhimeshvara that form the geographical boundary of Telugu region, where it is believed Lord Shiva descended. Thus, the word “Telugu”, many claim is derived from the word “trilinga”, which is synonymous with Lord Shiva. Some other scholars associate Telugu as originating from a frequently used Sanskrit word “Kalinga” or “Kling”, which in Puranas and Ashok’s inscriptions depicted people of Continental India – as it is even today in the Malay language. The word “Telugu”, still others claim has originated either from the word “talaing” - few people who conquered Andhra region, or from “tenunga” - refering to white or fair-skinned people (or people of the South). However, “Andhra” seems to be the old Aryan name for Telugu country.

Telugu is one of the few languages that has borrowed and absorbed everything from every language of the period it evolved and grew in. Telugu script or characters closely resemble Kannada and there now seems to be evidence that they were derived from the Kannada writing of the Calukya dynasty.

Coexistence of Buddhism in the ancient Telugu country, where it was widely practiced and Jainism in the Kannada country, where it flourished is another evidence of Telugu script and alphabets evolving from Kannada. The close ties between the two spread the Jain traditions in the Telugu country. Though, both religions had influence in their respective territory, Jain gurus were preferred and often taught even Telugu children.

Later, between 10th and 14th centuries, when Shivism became wide spread in the Telugu country, Shivites, instead of Jains were now the preferred religious leaders and teachers and initiated prayers and imparted knowledge. But the Jain traditions had taken deep roots and did not die away easily. The initiation prayer over the years which then was in the form of “O-Na-Ma-See-Vaa-Yaa-See-Dham-Namaha” continued. The alphabets that were learnt with this prayer came to be called “O-na-ma-lu.”

Onamaalu, or the Telugu alphabet consist of 60 symbols - 16 vowels, 3 vowel modifiers, and 41 consonants have almost 1-to-1 correspondence with Sanskrit alphabets, yet another proof of its influence on its evolution. A blank space separates two words. Telugu, like most other languages is written from left to right and consists of sequences of simple and/or complex characters made from these 60 symbols. Telugu script is syllabic. In other words, syllables that form the basic units of writing Telugu are composed of more basic units: vowels (“achchu” or “swar”) and consonants (“hallu” or “vyanjan”). Consonants are pure consonants, i.e., without any vowel sound. However, like in Hindi or other Indian languages, consonants are read and written with an implied sound of the vowel ‘a’. When consonants combine with other vowel signs, the vowel part is indicated orthographically using “maatras” signs. Each “maatra” has a definite shape, different from the shape of the corresponding vowel.

The earliest entirely Telugu inscriptions are not found before the 6th century. Literary texts, however begin to appear only later in the 11th century. Much like the other major Dravidian languages, the Telugu script has a very marked distinction between its formal / literary and colloquial language and social dialect.

Though no inscriptions in Telugu language (as it is written/ spoken today) have been found prior to the period 200 BC – 500 AD, inferences to the existence of Telugu during that time can be made from the frequent use of words of that period found in the “Telugu” region found on Parakrit (Sanskrit) inscriptions and also in anthology of poems in Parakrit language, collected by the Satavahna dynasty King – all point to existence of Telugu and Telugu people in that period between the Krishna and Godavri rivers basin. Thus, we can safely presume Telugu to have originated earlier than 200 BC.

Besides, Sanskrit words are imbedded into the language. Urdu and Turk languages, as the court language during Mogul domination (especially in Hyderabad) have left their imprint on its vocabulary. It was only much later, when the movement began to “cleanse” Telugu language that use of pure Telugu and sanskritised words began to be used. Period after 575 AD marks the development and evolution of Telugu script. Under Chola kings around that period broke the tradition of writing Telugu in Sanskrit. Instead, they began to insist on making inscriptions and royal proclamations in their local language only. The other kings too picked up this tradition and it soon spread across everywhere. Breaking away from the use of Sanskrit, this period marks the growth of Telugu language and literature, which first appeared as inscriptions and poetry in courts and later in written works. Growth of literature also is one parameter in the language life cycle. The spoken language of commons at this time begins to differ from the literary one and the two take off on different growth trajectories. Thus, grew the “spoken” Telugu and the “literary” Telugu. 1100-1900 AD marks the period of beginning of Muslim influence on Telugu language. First Muslim ruled state – Telangana is established. This brings further sophistication in Telugu language. After 1600 AD, Telugu undergoes dramatic change towards modernization. Moguls establishing the princely state of Hyderabad again increase Muslim influence on Telugu (especially in Hyderabad), which is felt on Telugu prose. Muslim influence on Telugu creates a distinctive dialect out of the “Telengana Telugu”, whereas “pure” Telugu elsewhere (Vijayanagar empire in Rayalseema region) bloomed and experienced its golden era. The authors in Rayalseema region were forbidden to use commonly used spoken words in prose and poetry. English armies and British Empire’s victory after 1900 marks a period of English influence on Telugu language. Telugu is popularized through mass media - press, television and films bring Telugu closer to the common people. Telugu is also started as a subject and is taught in schools. After independence, Telugu people migrating abroad and settling in those areas has further enriched the language through intermingling of people and cultures. Thus, today, Telugu with Sanskrit, Muslim and English influence and Kannada script is far richer in context, literature, prose and poetry. Even the script of late has undergone change. Few vowels that are randomly used have been discarded to make language simpler.

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