An Introduction to Telugu

(Reproduced from a forthcoming book by Prof. Vemuri)


            Telugu is the language of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Well over 75 million people, the world over, speak Telugu, and it stands second only to Hindi in India as to the number of native speakers. According to linguists, Telugu is a Dravidian language. That is to say, it does not belong to the Indo-Aryan family to which Hindi, Sanskrit, Latin and Greek belong. Linguists also determined that the four major southern Indian languages, namely Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam belong to the Dravidian family of languages. If someone is counting, there are some twenty one Dravidian languages in the Indian subcontinent. Some of these are still being spoken in remote parts of Pakistan and Afganistan.


Although the roots of proto-Dravidian languages can be traced back to several millennia before Christ, Telugu itself has a recorded history from the 6th century A. D. and a fine literary record dating back to the 11th century A. D.  Much of the Telugu written literature, up to the end of the nineteenth century was in highly formal “literary style.” It is only in the twentieth century that colloquial spoken language began to earn the literary mantle. Nowadays almost all the language used in the media (print, radio, television, movies) is the colloquial style. This book attempted only to capture this colloquial style.


Telugu accepts foreign words with comfort and ease. Sanskrit and its vocabulary heavily influenced Telugu literature; no other language has as much of an influence on Telugu as Sanskrit has. Indeed a large fraction of the characters of the Telugu alphabet – such as many of the aspirated consonants - were created especially to facilitate the writing and pronunciation of Sanskrit words. It is, therefore no exaggeration to boast that some of the best Sanskrit pronunciation can be heard from scholars residing in the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh.


Just as Sanskrit found a permanent niche for itself in Telugu literary circles, Arabic, Persian and Urdu words also found their way into the administrative jargon of Telugu. With the advent of British rule and the technology revolution sweeping the globe, it is no surprise to see, nowadays, that a Telugu person cannot conduct a conversation with another Telugu person for no more than a minute before switching to English or sprinkling the conversation with English words. No wonder J. B. S. Haldane, the well-known British geneticist, once remarked that Telugu fills the bill as the most suitable one to serve as India's national language.


In spite of this love affair between the Telugu-speaking people and the English language, linguistically, culturally and grammatically, Telugu and English are as far apart as two languages can be. In a Telugu sentence the subject, object and verb come in that order, whereas in English the normal order is subject-verb-object. For an English speaking person the word order in Telugu appears inverted. There are other subtle differences – especially when it comes to past perfect tense.


In spite of these differences, Telugu is a very expressive and one of the most regular languages of the world. Its grammar is simple and structurally neat. Because of its vowel ending sounds, it has been the language of choice for lyrical compositions in Karnatic music – one of the two musical schools of India. Due to this reason, nineteenth century Europeans dubbed this language, “the Italian of the East.”


In Telugu pronouns and verbs play a key role. The more you learn about verbs and the declensions of pronouns, the better your command will be. If you cannot recall the correct verb form for a thought you have in mind, do not hesitate to use the English verb and the chances are the other person will understand. In fact, Telugu is so forgiving and accommodating that you can insert entire English phrases in the middle of a Telugu sentence and it will pass as Telugu. Many Telugu people you interact with use more English than Telugu when they talk to their grand mother!


Another special feature of Telugu, as well as other Indian languages, is the grammatical operation of sandhi, which literally means “junction” or “union.” When two words are pronounced in rapid succession, under some special circumstances, these words are fused together into a new word with the resulting morphing of the words at the point of fusion. In some circumstances, this fusing operation is mandatory and in other circumstances it is optional. A rare example from English is the morphing of “no one” into “none.” (Can you think of any other examples?) Until the student understands the process of analyzing this operation, it is best to avoid this operation, if at all possible. As understanding of this is important for the mastery of the language, it is treated extensively in one of the later chapters of this book.


Like many things Indian, there has never been a serious effort to standardize the language. Indians are truly the world’s freedom-loving people; they like to do the things their own way. Variations in the language from region to region often lead to slight variations in spelling. Unless you are reading a highly standardized book, there is no guarantee that the spelling you see is standard spelling. Added to these variations, proofreading, it appears, is a job toward which no one seems to pay any attention. This makes it difficult to assess whether an apparent spelling error is real or merely a variation in dialect. So is the situation with pronunciation. Variations in pronunciation from region to region and from the educated urbanite to the un-educated villager are so much that people are used to listening and understanding non-standard Telugu. For the beginner, this fluidity indeed is a blessing. Any errors you make are likely to be accepted as a variation from the standard. So do not be afraid to speak. And speaking is the best way to learn a new language. This book is only a prop, treat it as such.


You made a wise decision to buy this book in order to learn Telugu. Modern brain research points toward the possibility that people with bi-lingual or multi-lingual talents are less likely to fall victim to debilitating brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. There is also anecdotal evidence that people who learn a second language are less likely to be dyslexic – a learning disorder. Just like we keep our physical body fit by exercising, so can we keep our mental faculties fit by constantly challenging them. Learning to speak another language is being touted as one such exercise.