Tulu language

Native to India
Region Tulu Nadu: Region of Karnataka and Kasaragod district, Kerala.[1][2]
Gulf countries[4][5]
Ethnicity Tuluva
Native speakers
1.7 million (2001 census)[6]
Kannada script (Contemporary)[7]
Tigalari script (Historical-rarely used)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tcy
Glottolog tulu1258[8]

Tulu (Tulu: ತುಳು ಭಾಷೆ Tulu bāse [ˈt̪ulu ˈbɒːsæ])[9] is a language one among the five major Dravidian languages[10] spoken by around 2 million native speakers[11] mainly in the south west part of the Indian state of Karnataka and in the Kasaragod district of Kerala which is collectively known as Tulu Nadu. It belongs to the Dravidian family of languages.

In India, circa 2 million people speak it as their native language (2011 estimation), they were 1,722,768 in 2001[12] increased by 10 percent over the 1991 census.[13] According to one estimate reported in 2009, Tulu is currently spoken by three to five million native speakers in the world.[14] Native speakers of Tulu are referred to as Tuluva or Tulu people.

Separated early from Proto-South Dravidian,[15] Tulu has several features not found in Tamil–Kannada. For example, it has the pluperfect and the future perfect, like French or Spanish, but formed without an auxiliary verb.

Robert Caldwell, in his pioneering work A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages, called this language "peculiar and very interesting". According to him, "Tulu is one of the most highly developed languages of the Dravidian family. It looks as if it had been cultivated for its own sake."[16][17] The language has a lot of written literature and a rich oral literature such as the Epic of Siri.

Tulu is the primary spoken language in Tulu Nadu, a region comprising the districts of Udupi and Dakshina Kannada[18] in the west of the state of Karnataka and the Kasaragod taluk. Apart from Tulu Nadu, a significant emigrant population of Tuluva people is found in Maharashtra,[3] Bangalore, Anglosphere, United States, and the Gulf countries.[4][19]

Non-native speakers such as the Konkani-speaking Mangalorean Catholics, Goud Saraswath Brahmins, Karhade Brahmins, Havyaka Brahmins and Daivajnas, as well as the Beary people in Tulu Nadu are generally well-versed in the language.[20] Apart from Kannada script, historically Tulu Brahmins used Tigalari script mainly used to write Sanskrit, but some Tulu works are available.

A Wikipedia in Tulu is currently being developed.[21]


Main article: Dravidian languages

Tulu belongs to the southern branch of the family of Dravidian languages. It descends directly from Proto-Southern Dravidian, which in turn descends directly from Proto-Dravidian, the hypothesised mother language from which all Dravidian languages descend.


Linguists Purushottama Bilimale (ಪುರುಷೋತ್ತಮ ಬಿಳಿಮಲೆ) have suggested that the word "Tulu" means "that which is connected with water", based on words from Tulu, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam. "Tulave" (jack fruit) means "watery" in Tulu; and, other water-related words in Tulu include "talipu", "teli", "teLi", "teLpu", "tuLipu", "tulavu", and "tamel". In Kannada, there are words such as tuLuku and toLe. In Tamil, tuli means drop of water; and, tulli means the same in Malayalam.


The oldest available inscriptions in Tulu are from the period between 14th to 15th century AD.[22][23][24][25] These inscriptions are in the Tigalari script and are found in areas in and around Barkur which was the capital of Tulu Nadu during the Vijayanagar period. Another group of inscriptions are found in the Ullur Subrahmanya Temple near Kundapura. Many linguists like S.U. Panniyadi and L. V. Ramaswami Iyer as well as P.S. Subrahmanya suggested that Tulu is among the oldest languages in the Dravidian family which branched independently from its Proto-Dravidian roots nearly 2,000 years ago. This assertion is based on the fact that Tulu still preserves many aspects of the Proto-Dravidian language.

This dating of Tulu is also based on the fact that region where Tulu is natively spoken was known to the ancient Tamils as Tulu Nadu and the Tamil poet Mamular who belongs to the Sangam Age (200 AD) describes Tulu Nadu and its dancing beauties in one of his poems.[26] In the Halmidi inscriptions one finds mention of the Tulu country as the kingdom of the Alupas.[27] The region was also known to the Greeks of the 2nd century as Tolokoyra. The history of Tulu would not be complete without the mention of the Charition mime, a Greek play belonging to 2nd century BC. The play's plot centres around the coastal Karnataka, where Tulu is mainly spoken. The play is mostly in Greek, but the Indian characters in the play are seen speaking a language different from Greek.

There is considerable ambiguity regarding the Indian language in the play, though all scholars agree the Indian language is Dravidian, but there is considerable dispute over which one. Noted German Indologist Dr. E. Hultzsch was the first to suggest that the language was Dravidian. The dispute regarding the language in the play is yet to be settled, but scholars agree that the dispute arises from the fact that Old Kannada, Old Tamil and Tulu during the time when the play was written were perhaps dialectical variations of the same proto-language, and that over the years they evolved into their present forms as separate languages.

Geographic distribution

Map Showing ancient Tulu kingdom of Alva Kheda

According to Malayalam works like Keralolpathi and Sangam literature in Tamil, the region stretching from the Chandragiri river, now part of the Kasaragod district, Kerala, to Gokarna, now part of Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, was ruled by the Alupas and was known as Alva Kheda. This kingdom was the homeland of the Tulu speaking people.

However the present day Tulu linguistic majority area is confined to the region of Tulu Nadu, which comprises the districts of Udupi and Dakshina Kannada in the Indian state of Karnataka and the northern part of Kasaragod district of Kerala up to the river Payaswani also known as Chandragiri.[28] The cities of Mangalore, Udupi and Kasaragod being the cultural centres of Tulu culture.

Tuluvas have a saying: "Oorudu nanji aanda paardh badkodu". A loose translation would be: "If it's tough at home; run away and survive". Tuluvas are true to this character and have migrated to other places in great numbers. Early migration was to neighbouring regions like Malabar (now Kerala), Mysore kingdom, Madras Presidency ( Tamil Nadu now - areas like salem, attur, chinnasalem, thiruvannamalai, villupuram, vellore, chennai and perambalur). The large scale migration of Tulu speaking people from undivided South Canara district to other provinces (regions) of India happened during World War I, but there is no concrete materialistic evidence to prove.

The reason being rationing of food grains by British who were ruling India then and spread of communicable diseases. The next wave of emigration was during World War II, now they settled in interior parts of Karnataka, coastal Andhra Pradesh and also far off cities like Mumbai and Chennai. They mostly ran restaurants serving Udupi cuisine. Mumbai and Thane in Maharashtra state has a sizable population of Tuluvas. Even today Tulu is widely spoken in the Dakshina Kannada, partially in Udupi district of Karnataka state and to some extent in Kasaragod of Kerala. Efforts are also being made to include Tulu in the list of Official languages of India.[29]

Writing system

tigalari script.
Tigalari Script.

Kannada is the native script for Tulu language. All contemporary works and literature are done in the Kannada script. Historically, Brahmins of Tulu Nadu and Havyaka Brahmins used the Tigalari script to write Vedas and other Sanskrit works. The Tigalari script is descended from the Brahmi through the Grantha script. It is a sister script of Malayalam. However, very few works written in vernacular languages like Kannada and Tulu are available. Hence, the Tigalari script was employed by Tulu Brahmins to write Tulu and Kannada languages apart from the Kannada script. The National Mission for Manuscripts has conducted several workshops on this script with the help of a scholar, Keladi Gunda Jois. In the 18th century, the use of the Kannada script for writing Tulu and non-availability of print in the Tigalari script contributed to the marginalization of the Tigalari script. Currently, the script is studied by few scholars and manuscriptologists for research and religious purposes.


Tulu language has four dialects, which are broadly similar, with slight variations.

The four dialects are:

  1. Common Tulu:[30] Spoken by the majority includes the Mogaveera, Bunts, Billava,Kottary, Devadiga, Jogi, Mera communities and others. This is the dialect of commerce, trade and entertainment and is mainly used for inter-community communication. It is further subdivided into seven groups:
    1. Central Tulu: Spoken in Mangalore.
    2. Northwest Tulu: Spoken in Udupi.
    3. Northeast Tulu: Spoken in Karkala and Belthangadi.
    4. Southwest Tulu: Spoken in Manjeshwar and Kasaragod, known as Kasaragod Tulu.
    5. Southcentral Tulu: Spoken in Bantwal,.
    6. Southeast Tulu: Spoken in Puttur Sullia.
    7. Southern Tulu: Spoken in South of Kasaragod and Payaswini (Chandragiri) river, known as Thenkaayi Tulu.
  2. Brahmin Tulu:[30] Spoken by the Tulu Brahmins who are subdivided into Shivalli Brahmins, Sthanika Brahmins and Tuluva Hebbars. It is slightly influenced by Sanskrit.
  3. Jain Dialect:[31] Spoken by the Tulu Jains. It is a dialect where the initial letters 'T' and 'S' have been replaced by the letter 'H'. For example, the word Tare is pronounced as Hare, Saadi is pronounced as Haadi.
  4. Girijan Dialect:[31] Spoken by the Koraga, Mansa, other Girijans and Tribal classes.

Spoken characteristics


Five short and five long vowels (a, ā, e, ē, u, ū, i, ī, o, ō) are common in Dravidian languages. Like Kodava Takk (and also like Konkani and Sinhala), Tulu also has an [ɛ]- or [æ]-like vowel, generally occurring word-finally. Kannada script does not have a symbol to specifically represent this vowel, which is often written as a normal e.[32] For example, the first person singular form and the third person singular masculine form of a verb are spelled identically in all tenses, both ending in e, but are pronounced differently: the terminating e in the former sounds nearly like ‘a’ in the English word ‘man’ (ಮಲ್ಪುವೆ maḷpuve /maɭpuvæ/, “I make”), while that in the latter like ‘e’ in ‘men’ (ಮಲ್ಪುವೆ maḷpuve /maɭpuve/, “he makes”).[33] Paniyadi in his 1932 grammar used a special vowel sign to denote Tulu /ɛ/ in the Kannada script: according to Bhat, he used two telakaṭṭus for this purpose (usually, a telakaṭṭu means the crest that a Kannada character like ಕ, ತ, ನ has), and the same convention was adopted by Upadhyaya in his 1988 Tulu Lexicon.[32] The long counterpart of this vowel occurs in some words.[34] In all dialects, the pair /e/ and /ɛ/ contrasts.[34]

Additionally, like Kodava Takk and Toda, and like Malayalam saṁvr̥tōkāram, Tulu has an [ɯ]-like vowel (or schwa /ə/) as a phoneme, which is romanized as ŭ (ISO), ɯ, or . Both J. Brigel and A. Männer say that it is pronounced like e in the French je. Bhat describes this phoneme as /ɯ/. However, if it is like Malayalam “half-u”, [ə] or [ɨ] may be a better description. In the Kannada script, Brigel and Männer used a virama (halant),  , to denote this vowel. Bhat says a telakaṭṭu is used for this purpose, but apparently he too means a virama.[35]

  Front Back
Rounded Unrounded
Short Long Short Long Short Long
Close iuɯ (ə) 
Mid eɯ  
Open ɛ (æ)ɛː (æː)ɒɒː  

The following are consonant phonemes in Tulu:

  Labial Dental Retroflex Palatal Velar
Plosive Voiceless ptʈc (t͡ʃ)k
Voiced bdɖɟ (d͡ʒ)ɡ
Nasal mnɳɲŋ
Approximant ʋ  j 
Lateral  l( m )  
Tap  ɾ   
Fricative  ɳ ç (ʃ) 

The contrast between /l/ and /ɭ/ is preserved in the South Common dialect and in the Brahmin dialect, but is lost in several dialects.[34] Additionally, the Brahmin dialect has /ʂ/ and /ɦ/. Aspirated consonants are sometimes used in the Brahmin dialect, but are not phonemic.[34] In the Koraga and Holeya dialects, s /s/ and ś /ʃ/ merge with c /t͡ʃ/ (the Koraga dialect of the Tulu language is different from the Koraga language).[34] Word-initial consonant clusters are rare and occur mainly in Sanskrit loanwords.[34]


Tulu has five parts of speech: nouns (substantives and adjectives), pronouns, numerals, verbs, and particles.[36]

Substantives have three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), two numbers (singular and plural), and eight cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative, ablative or instrumental, communicative, and vocative). According to Bhat, Tulu has two distinct locative cases. The communicative case is used with verbs like “tell”, “speak”, “ask”, “beseech”, “inquire”, and denotes at whom a message, an inquiry, or a request is aimed, as in “I told him.” or “I speak to them.” It is also used to denote relationship with whom it is about, in a context like “I am on good terms with him.” or “I have nothing against him.”[37] Bhat calls it the sociative case. It is somewhat similar to the comitative case, but different in that it denotes communication or relationship, not physical companionship. The plural suffix is -rŭ, -ḷu, -kuḷu, or -āḍḷu; as, mēji (“table”), mējiḷu (“tables”).[38] The nominative case is unmarked, while the remaining cases are expressed by different suffixes.

The following table shows the declension of a noun, based on Brigel and Bhat ( used by Brigel and ɯ used by Bhat are both shown as ŭ for clarity): when two forms are given, the one in parentheses is by Bhat, and the other is by Brigel.[39][40] Some of these differences may be dialectal variations.

Declension of substantives: example mara (“a tree”)
Case Singular Meaning Plural Meaning
Nominative maraa treemarokuḷu (marakulu)trees
Genitive marataof a treemarokuḷe (marakulena)of trees
Dative maroku (marakŭ)to a treemarokuḷegŭ (marakulegŭ)to trees
Accusative maronu (maranŭ)a tree (object)marokuḷenŭ (marakulenŭ)trees (object)
Locative maroṭu (maraṭŭ)in a treemarokuḷeḍŭ (marakuleḍŭ)in trees
Locative 2 — (maraṭɛ)at or through a tree— (marakuleḍɛ)at or through trees
Ablative maroḍŭdu (maraḍdŭ)from, by, or through a treemarokuḷeḍŭdŭ (marakuleḍdŭ)from, by, or through trees
Communicative maraṭato a treemarokuḷeḍa (marakuleḍa)to trees
Vocative marāO tree!marokuḷē (marakulɛ̄)O trees!

The personal pronouns are irregularly inflected: yānŭ “I” becomes yen- in oblique cases.[41] Tulu makes the distinction between the inclusive and exclusive “we” (See Clusivity: Dravidian languages): nama “we (including you)” as opposed to yenkuḷu “we (not including you)”.[42] For verbs, this distinction does not exist. The personal pronouns of the second person are ī (oblique: nin-) “you (singular)” and nikuḷu “you (plural)”. Three genders are distinguished in the third person, as well as proximate and remote forms. For example, imbe “he (proximate)”, āye “he (remote)”. The suffix -rŭ makes a polite form of personal pronouns, as in īrŭ “you (respectfully)”, ārŭ “he (remote; respectfully)”.[42] Postpositions are used usually with a noun in the genitive case, as in guḍḍe-da mittŭ “on the hill”.

Tulu verbs have three forms: active, causative, and reflexive (or middle voice).[43] They conjugate for person, number, gender, tense (present, past, pluperfect, future, and future perfect), mood (indicative, imperative, conditional, infinitive, potential, and subjunctive), and polarity (positive and negative).[44]

Written literature

The written literature of Tulu is not as large as the literature of other literary Dravidian languages like Tamil.[45] Nevertheless, Tulu is one of only five literary Dravidian languages, the other four being Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. The earliest available Tulu literature that survives to this date is the Tulu Translation of the great Sanskrit epic of Mahabharata called Mahabharato(ಮಹಾಭಾರತೊ). It was written by Arunabja(1657 AD), a poet who lived in Kodavur near Udupi[46] around late 14th to early 15th century AD.[47] Other important literary works in Tulu are:

Till, 20th century Tigalari script by Tulu Brahmins was used apart from Kannada script[48] Tigalari and Malayalam are descended from Grantha.[49] This script was mainly used to write religious and literary works of Sanskrit,.[11][49] The Kannada script was used by Non-Brahmin people and for official purposes. Even today the official script of the eight Tulu monasteries (Ashta Mathas of Udupi) founded by Madhvacharya in Udupi is Tigalari.[50][51] The pontiffs of the monasteries write their names using this script when they are appointed.[51]

Modern day Tulu literature is written using the Kannada script. Mandara Ramayana is the most notable piece of modern Tulu literature. Written by Mandara Keshava Bhatt, it received the Sahitya Academy award for best poetry.[52] Madipu, Mogaveera,Saphala and Samparka are popular Tulu periodicals published from Mangalore. Tulu Sahitya Academy established by the state government of Karnataka in 1994 as also the Kerala Tulu academy established by the Indian State Government of Kerala in Manjeshwaram in 2007 are important governmental organisations that promote Tulu literature. Nevertheless, there are numerous organisations spread all over the world with significant Tulu migrated populations that contribute to Tulu literature. Some notable contributors of Tulu literature are Kayyar Kinhanna Rai, Amruta Someshwara, B. A. Viveka Rai, Kedambadi Jattappa Rai, Venkataraja Puninchattaya, Paltadi Ramakrishna Achar, Dr. Sunitha M. Shetty, Dr. Vamana Nandavara, Sri. Balakrishna Shetty Polali.

Oral traditions

The oral traditions of Tulu are one of the major traditions that greatly show the finer aspects of the language. The following are various forms of Tulu oral tradition and literature.


A Yakshagana Artist
A female character in Yakshagana

Theatre in form of the traditional Yakshagana, prevalent in coastal Karnataka and northern Kerala has greatly preserved the finer aspects of the Tulu language. Yakshagana which is conducted in Tulu is pretty popular among the Tuluva people. It can also be seen as a form of temple art, as there are many Yakshagana groups that are attached to temples namely that of Kateel Durga Parameshwari Temple as also the Udupi Krishna Temple.

Presently, eight professional Yakshagana troupes perform only Tulu Yakshagana not only during the Yakshagana season but also during the off season in various places of Karnataka and outside. In Mumbai, Tulu Yakshagana is very popular among the Tulu audiences. More than 2,000 Yakshagana artistes take part in the performance in various places in Mumbai annually. Notable performers include Kalladi Koraga Shetty, Pundur Venkatraja Puninchathaya, Guru Bannanje Sanjiva Suvarna and Pathala Venkatramana Bhat.

Tulu plays are among the major entertainment for admirers of art and culture in the Tulu Nadu. Tulu plays generally centered on the comic genre are very popular in Mumbai and Bangalore outside Tulu Nadu[53]

Tulu cinema

The Tulu cinema industry is pretty small; it produces around five films annually. The first film, Enna Thangadi, was released in 1971. Usually these films are released in theatres across the Tulu Nadu region and on DVD.[54] The critically acclaimed film Suddha won the award for the Best Indian Film at the Osian's Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema in New Delhi in 2006.[55][56][57] As of 2015, Oriyardori Asal (2011) has been the most commercially successful Tulu film.[58]Chaali Polilu is the longest running film in Tulu film industry. This movie is the highest-grossing film in the Tulu film industry. It has successfully completed 470 days at PVR Cinemas in Mangalore.[59] 2014 movie Madime was reported to be remade in Marathi, thereby becoming the first Tulu movie to be remade in another language.[60] Shutterdulai is the first remake in Tulu cinemas. [61] Eregla Panodchi is the second remake in Tulu cinemas.

For a full list of movies in Tulu, see the article Tulu cinema.

Centres of Tulu study and research

The front cover of the Tulu dictionary published by Männer in 1886.

Tulu as a language continues to thrive in coastal Karnataka and Kasaragod in Kerala. Tulu Sahitya Academy,[62] an institute established by the state government of Karnataka, has introduced Tulu as a language in schools around coastal Karnataka, including Alva's High School, Moodbidri; Dattanjaneya High School, Odiyoor; Ramakunjeshwara English-medium High School, Ramakunja; and Vani Composite Pre-University College, Belthangady. Now, Tulu is taught as a language in 16 schools of Dakshina Kannada district, Karnataka.[63]

Tulu is also taught as a language at the post graduate level in Mangalore University, and there is a dedicated department for Tulu studies, Translation and Research at Dravidian University[64] in Kuppam Andhra Pradesh.The Government Degree College[65] at Kasaragod in Kerala has also introduced a certificate course in Tulu for the academic year 2009-2010. It has also introduced Tulu as an optional subject in its Kannada post-graduation course. It has adopted syllabi from the books published by the Tulu Sahitya Academy.

German missionaries Revs. Kammerer and Männer were the first people to conduct research on the language. Rev. Krammer collected about 3,000 words and their meanings until he died. Later his work was carried on by Rev. Männer, who completed the research and published the first dictionary of the Tulu language in 1886 with the help of the then Madras government. The effort was incomplete, as it did not cover all aspects of the language. The Govinda Pai Research Centre at MGM College, Udupi started an 18-year Tulu lexicon project in the year 1979.[66]

Different dialects, special vocabularies used for different occupational activities, rituals, and folk literature in the forms of Paād-danāas were included in this project. The Centre has also released a six-volume, trilingual, modestly priced Tulu-Kannada-English lexicon.[67] The Tulu lexicon was awarded the Gundert Award for the best dictionary in the country in 1996. In September 2011, the Academic Council of Mangalore University accepted a proposal, to allow the university and the colleges affiliated to it to offer certificates, diplomas and postgraduate diploma courses in Tulu, both in regular and correspondence modes[68][69]

Demand for a separate Tulunadu state

See also


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  9. Tulu can be written in three different scripts: Tulu bāse is written <File: Tuḷu bāse> in Tulu script, Kannada: ತುಳು ಬಾಸೆ in Kannada script . ಭಾಷೆ bhāṣe, ಭಾಶೆ, bhāśe, and ಬಾಶೆ bāśe are alternative spellings for the Tulu word bāse in the Kannada script. The correct spelling for the word “language” in Kannada is Kannada: ಭಾಷೆ bhāṣe, but that is not necessarily true in Tulu. Männer’s Tulu-English and English-Tulu Dictionary (1886) says, “ಬಾಶೆ, ಬಾಸೆ bāšè, bāsè, see ಭಾಷೆ.” (vol. 1, p. 478), “ಭಾಶೆ, ಭಾಷೆ bhāšè, bhāshè, s. Speech, language.” (vol. 1, p. 508), meaning that the four spellings are more or less acceptable. The word is actually pronounced ಬಾಸೆ bāse in Tulu. Note that š and sh in his dictionary correspond to ś and , respectively, in ISO 15919.
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