Most Indian languages are classified as syllable-timed. Some Dravidian languages, such as Tamil and Telugu, are mora-timed, which in recent research on speech rhythm has been called super-syllable-timed.

Due to persistent and intensive language contact, Indian languages share many features. This prompted Emeneau 1 to describe these languages as belonging to a common linguistic area or sprachbund. For example, it has been claimed (see also references in the linked article) that Dravidian languages have influence the phonology and phonetics of Indo-Aryan languages. Retroflexion, for example, might have been introduced to Sanskrit from Dravidian.

Q: Is syllable-timing in Indo-Aryan languages due to contact with Dravidian languages? If yes, please provide references.

1 Emeneau, Murray B. (1956) India as a linguistic area. Language 32, 3–16

  • 1
    Sprachbunds are usually matters of a large number of languages and language families (there's more than Dravidian and I-E in India) sharing common features in a given area. They are not a simple matter of one family influencing another. These situations take millennia to establish, and by that time the source of any particular characteristic (like syllable/stress/mora timing) is impossible to establish.
    – jlawler
    Sep 27, 2013 at 1:40
  • 1
    See edit for previous claims of phonetic influence from Dravidian to Indo-Aryan. And while these two are indeed not the only language families in India, Tibeto-Burman and Austronesian languages account for only a vanishing number of speakers, at least today.
    – robert
    Sep 27, 2013 at 1:53
  • @robert: Well "India" is a somewhat arbitrary politically- and historically- based concept that's been both a bunch of smaller entities and a single larger entity. If we consider the entire region of Indic languages are there more language family neighbours? Apr 24, 2014 at 1:22
  • 1
    @hippietrail Yes, but the other families are still somewhat marginal in terms of geography and numbers. However, Austronesian might have had some very remote historical influence - I think I read somewhere that before the Dravidian invasion Austronesian peoples might have dominated India. But the Dravidian invasion took place long before the Indo-Aryan invasion, which in turn took place several thousands of years ago.
    – robert
    Apr 25, 2014 at 0:22
  • Austronesian languages in India? Surely you mean Austroasiatic (=Mon-Khmer)? Jun 15, 2014 at 1:02

2 Answers 2


I wouldn't hundred percent subscribe to Tamil (refering here to classical Tamil Sangam poetry) being mora-timed. The counting of morae (from the first grammar Tolkāppiyam onwards) is somewhat confusing. E.g. there is of course one mora allotted to a short syllable and two morae to a long one, but moreover there is half a mora for overshort u and i and even a quarter mora to an overshort aytam and so on. The terminology of morae seems to be superfluous in Tamil and probably taken from Sanskrit, as can be gleaned from the borrowing of māttirai from Skt. mātrā - mora.

Basically Tamil meter is based not on a dichotomy of long and short syllables but on one of simple and compound metrical units, called nēr and nirai respectively.

Compound unit: one short syllable followed by anything. Simple unit: the residue single syllables.

These units are then arranged in bars, for example bars of two units each and e.g. four bars to a line. It therefore does bear some likeness to Middle High German meter, which is based on bars and it indeed does insinuate moric equivalence of one long syllable to two shorts.

Now, syllabic meter can be considered native to Indo-Aryan, since already Vedic Meter is based on the distinction of longs and shorts, though with much less strict patterns than Classical Sanskrit meter. It seems rather likely, that the moric meters of early Middle Indian and then Classical Sanskrit evolved by midwifery of Dravidian meter.

Cf. for Tamil Meter Kamil K. Zvelebil - Classical Tamil Prosody, New Era Publications, Madras 1989; for suggestion of Tamil meter being purely moric and bar-timed George L. Hart - The poems of Ancient Tamil, University of California Press, Berkeley 1975.

For an overall discussion of the evolution of Classical Sanskrit Meter there is an unpublished master thesis of University of Tübingen in Germany, which I could provide, if German is an option.

  • Thanks for your answer, German is definitely an option. Would be really curious to take a look at the MA thesis! An as a follow-up question, are there any present-day reflexes of the moraic meters of early Middle Indian and Classical Sanskrit that you suggest developed under Dravidian influence?
    – robert
    Apr 25, 2014 at 0:15
  • In which language now? New Indo-Aryan ones? Hindi?
    – zwiebel
    Apr 25, 2014 at 9:53
  • Yes, contemporary Indo-Aryan languages, including Hindi.
    – robert
    Apr 25, 2014 at 20:32
  • 1
    I'm not an expert in this field, but the Apabhraṃśa metres were mostly, if not exclusively moric. The two most important metres in Early Hindi (Awadhi, Braj Bhasha) are the Caupāī and the Dohā, both of them being based on morae: both of them have - as in Sanskrit - four lines to the stanza with a mora count of 16, 16, 16, 16 in case of the first one mentioned and 13, 11, 13, 11 in the second.
    – zwiebel
    Apr 25, 2014 at 22:51

I think there is a need for a comprehensive review of the origins of the features of Indian Linguistic Area. Indian subcontinent has been a home of at least 8 different linguistic families viz., Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Munda, Tibeto-Burman, Daic, Iranian, Nuristani besides other Austro-Asiatic languages such as Khasi (spoken primarily in Meghalaya) and Nicobarese, and the language isolates Burushaski, Nahali, and Kusunda. There is not enough evidence to prove that retroflexion in Indo-Aryan is a result of a direct influence from Dravidian. Moreover, the early Dravidian and Indo-Aryan phonetic systems differ considerably — Sanskrit has initial retroflex consonants and Sanskrit also has a retroflex sibilant ṣ, both of which are absent in Dravidian. Furthermore, Dravidian has a triple contrast between dental, alveolar and retroflex, while the Indo-Aryan languages only has dental and retroflex contrast.

There is new evidence to hypothesize that both the Dravidian languages and the Munda languages were recent entrants to the mainland India. In the light of such evidence, there is a need for a deeper understanding of Indian pre-history involving a multidisciplinary perspective to reconcile seemingly contrary positions for a greater clarity on the linguistic prehistory of South Asia.

  • 2
    Do you have any references? I'd be interested in further reading.
    – acattle
    Jun 13, 2014 at 1:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.