Kannada Language: A Glorious Story of History and Evolution



If there is anything we humans can do well, it is communication. From the wall painting of a bull in that cave centuries ago to the use of the continuously evolving English language – we’ve, indeed, come a long way in terms of communication. The history of languages goes back to the Mesopotamian era. Did you know that one of the oldest written languages in the world was Sumerian? And considering how essential Sumerian was to understand the components of the Mesopotamian civilization, it is no secret that the language of a region is the purest, most sacred form of its ideals.

Image – Omniglot.com

The south-western state of Karnataka, home to several important bearers of Indian identity like Bangalore, Mysore, and Hampi, is also the birthplace of the Kannada language. Kannada is a Dravidian language spoken by the inhabitants of Karnataka (and sometimes in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Goa). It is officially a scheduled language under the Indian Constitution and it has a total population of about 43 million in India. The list of accomplishments of this language is long. Evolved from the Kannada script, the Kannada literature has bagged 8 Jnanapith awards, which is deemed the highest for any Dravidian language. Kannada language is also a designated classical language of India and was the court language of several powerful empires in ancient India as well. Impressive, no?

History of Kannada Language

Kannada Language-History
6th Century Kannada Inscription, Badami/Wikimedia

Kannada is a language that was prevalent even in the 3rd Century BCE. The proof of the existence of the Kannada language is plenty and scattered all around India and sometimes abroad. For instance, a word called ‘isila’ was found on an Ashokan inscription, which was later confirmed to be a word from the Kannada language. Several Kannada words were found on this curious Ashokan inscription. Next, we know the details regarding the language from Ptolemy’s book, The Geography which speaks of the places in Karnataka and their language.

Moreover, the famous Halmidi record of the Kadambas is one of the oldest living pieces of evidence of the existence of the Kannada language in the 5th century AD. From this we can well establish the fact that Kannada was a developed language; both spoken and written from the very early ages. Another surprising revelation suggested that Kannada was also found in several Tamil inscriptions. In a 1st century CE Tamil inscription, the Kannada word ‘ayjayya ‘was found. Similarly, in a 3rd Century Tamil inscription, the word ‘oppa nappa vlan’ has been repeated throughout the inscription. This is noteworthy because ‘oppanappa’ contains the Kannada word ‘Appa’. Several scholars believe that the grammatical categories found in these inscriptions belong more to Kannada rather than to Tamil.

Kannada flag

Kannada had become an administrative language around 450 century AD. We know this due to a full-length stone inscription entirely in the Kannada language known as the Halmidi inscription. This inscription has been invaluable in tracing the early culture and paradigms of the society and culture in Karnataka. Interestingly, Kannada inscriptions are not only found in Karnataka but are also extensively found in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and sometimes in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh. Yes, Madhya Pradesh. A Kannada inscription was found near Jabalpur (present-day Madhya Pradesh) which is believed to have been from the reign of Krishna III. This also tells us about the inter-communication and reach of languages between the then-cities of India. It is also important to know that the various inscriptions in Kannada can be categorized into two segments- Pre-old Kannada (450 to 800 AD) and old Kannada (800 to 1000 AD). Of course, the language currently spoken is termed Modern Kannada.

Another topic of discussion which frequently emerges when one talks about Kannada is the influence of Sanskrit and Prakrit on Kannada grammar. According to scholars, Prakrit has had a spot in Karnataka’s society since the early ages. Sources suggest that people engaging in vernacular Prakrit may have come into contact with the Kannada speaking population (before Kannada was used as an administrative language) and thus influenced a large part of it. For example, the Kannada word for color is Banna. The Prakrit word for color is Vanna. Sound familiar?

Kannada Literature

Kannada Language-Literature

The Kannada literature has been divided into three parts – Old Kannada, Middle Kannada, and Modern Kannada. The earliest Kannada work speaks about its grammar and literary styles and most of the early Kannada texts were poems on religious subjects such as the 12th century Ramayana by Abhinava Pampa. Speaking about Kannada novels, one of the earliest forms of Kannada literature which can be considered as a novel is, “Nemicandra’s Lilavati”. The story narrates the love story between a prince and a princess. Another famous Kannada literature is “Rajashekara Vilasa” by Sadaksaradeva. It is a fictional story written in 1657 which contains both prose and poetry. From the 20th century, Kannada literature was influenced by the Western concept of writing and saw an intermix of writing styles.

Key Figures in Modern Kannada Literature

Kannada Language-Key Figures

Modern Kannada literature saw its development when Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar III began writing prose based on Sanskrit epics in the early 19th century. The first Modern Kannada novel is”Mudramanjusha” by Kempu Narayana. The dawn of the 20th century saw the emergence of B.M. Srikantaiah or B.M. Sri, who revolutionized Modern Kannada literature and is thus termed as the ‘Father of modern Kannada literature’. B.M. Sri published his work – English Geethegalu – a collection of poems that are translated into English. This era was marked by the writing of new, original work in Modern Kannada, while simultaneously leaving behind the old forms. Some other famous 21st century Kannada writers include Kuvempu, V.K. Gokak, K. Shivaram Karanth, Srinivasa, Girish Karnad, U.R. Ananthamurthy, and Ambikatanayadatta.

The birth and subsequent development of the Kannada language and literature is truly fascinating. Emerging from the earliest periods and still going strong, the works in the Kannada language are a wonder. The stages of transformation of a language are common in every region. Even languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, and English have evolved and changed over the years. These changes give birth to the languages as we know them.


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