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Languages of India


Classification of India's Languages

Language and Society- Official Languages, Organization by states, Government Policy, Language Conflict, Education

Indo-European Languages- Vedic and classical Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, and Apabhramsha, Modern Indo-European Languages

Dravidian Languages

Scripts and Sounds in Indian Languages


The Indian subcontinent consists of a number of separate linguistic communities each of which share a common language and culture. The people of India speak many languages and dialects which are mostly varieties of about 14 principal languages. Some Indian languages have a long literary history--Sanskrit literature is 3,000 years old and Tamil 2,000. India also has some languages that do not have written forms. 

The number of people speaking each language varies greatly. For example, Hindi has more than 250 million speakers, but relatively few people speak Andamanese. Although some of the languages are called "tribal" or "aboriginal," their populations may be larger than those that speak some European languages. For example, Bhili and Santali, both tribal languages, each have more than 4 million speakers. Gondi is spoken by nearly 2 million people. 

India's schools teach 58 different languages. The nation has newspapers in 87 languages, radio programmes in 71, and films in 15.

Classification of India's languages

The Indian languages belong to four language families: Indo-European, Dravidian, Mon-Khmer, and Sino-Tibetan . Indo-European and Dravidian languages are used by a large majority of India's population. The language families divide roughly into geographic groups. Languages of the Indo-European group are spoken mainly in northern and central regions. The languages of southern India are mainly of the Dravidian group. Some ethnic groups in Assam and other parts of eastern India speak languages of the Mon-Khmer group. People in the northern Himalayan region and near the Burmese border speak Sino-Tibetan languages. 

Speakers of 54 different languages of the Indo-European family make up about three-quarters of India's population. Twenty Dravidian languages are spoken by nearly a quarter of the people. Speakers of 20 Mon-Khmer languages and 98 Sino-Tibetan languages together make up about 2 per cent of the population. (Top)

Language and society

Official languages. Hindi is the principal official language of India. Sanskrit and 16 regional languages are also official languages. English has the status of an "associate" language. Hindi is the native language of more than a third of India's people, and many others speak Hindi as a second language. Only about 2 per cent speak English but it serves as a common language among most educated Indians, and people use it for many official and administrative purposes. (Top)

Organization by states. In general, Indians who speak the same language live in the same state. At least one major language is spoken in each state. Some states have been created from parts of others to unite members of a language group. 

In 1956, the government reorganized the states for this reason, reducing their number from 27 to 14. But the people of the new state of Bombay still included two large language groups--people who spoke Gujarati and those who spoke Marathi. Each group was dissatisfied and wanted its own state. So, in 1960, the government divided Bombay into two new states, Gujarat and Maharashtra. 

In 1966, two states were formed from Punjab because of language differences. The states are Punjab, where the majority of the people speak Punjabi, and Haryana, where the majority speak Hindi. Several minority groups in northeastern India also have their own states. 

Although the states are organized according to languages, each state has speakers of minority languages. The number of speakers of minority languages varies greatly from state to state. For example, 30 per cent of the population of Tripura speak minority languages, but in Kerala there are only a few. Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh have no majority language. A state may have more than one official language, with each language serving a specifically designated purpose or being used in a certain region.

Government policy.The Indian government at times has tried to promote Hindi as a national language. However, many Indians who do not speak Hindi do not want it to become the nation's only official language. They claim that the best jobs in government would go to those who speak Hindi. In addition, many Indians take pride in their regional languages, many of which have old and honoured literatures and are the expression of a great cultural heritage. They fear that this heritage would one day be lost if everyone spoke Hindi. 

In response to these concerns, the Indian government now recognizes 16 regional languages as official languages. The eighth schedule to the Constitution of India mentions 16 regional languages in addition to Hindi.

Language conflict. The official language of India is Hindi. But for many years, there have been bitter divisions, sometimes leading to violent confrontations, over the official language. One division concerns the relative positions of Hindi and the regional languages, some of which are spoken by tens of millions of people. A related question is the status of English. Supporters of Hindi as an official language mostly oppose the use of English. But supporters of the regional languages look to English as an alternative link between the Indian states. (Top)

Education. Children in primary and secondary schools study in their regional languages. At the end of ten years of school education, a student normally learns three languages, two of which are Hindi and English. The third language is either the official language of the state, the mother tongue of the student, or a classical language such as Sanskrit. In most colleges and universities, teaching is in regional languages but English is also widely used. (Top)

Indo-European languages

Language experts have traced three main stages in the development of Indo-European languages. The first stage was the Sanskrit language. Migrant peoples from the northwest used Sanskrit in northern India sometime before 1000 B.C. In the next stage, Prakrit evolved from Sanskrit by 250 B.C. Pali was another language of these times that derived from Sanskrit. From about A.D. 1000, later forms of Prakrit, collectively called Apabhramsha, gave birth to the various regional languages in common usage today. (Top)

Vedic and classical Sanskrit.The old Sanskrit called Vedic or Vedic Sanskrit, was more complex than the later form of the language, called classical Sanskrit. The Vedic language became simplified as it changed into classical Sanskrit. In the 400's B.C., the grammarian Panini wrote a very detailed description of classical Sanskrit. This stopped the literary (written) language from changing any further. 

Though simpler than Vedic Sanskrit, classical Sanskrit is more complex than modern languages. It has eight grammatical cases (inflected forms of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives). It also has three "numbers"--that is singular, plural, and dual (a class of noun, adjective, and verb form used when referring to two people or things). There is also an important spelling system called sandhi, in which a word ending varies according to its neighbouring sound.

Pali, Prakrit, and Apabhramsha. While Sanskrit remained largely unchanged as the classical language of literature, the spoken language evolved through further stages. The first of these was Pali, adopted as the language of Buddhism. 

A number of different spoken languages collectively called Prakrit--meaning "natural" speech, as opposed to Sanskrit, which means "refined speech"--continued the process of evolution. Some forms of Prakrit were used for literature, while the spoken dialects continued to evolve under the name Apabhramsha ("corrupt" speech).

Modern Indo-European languages. The main modern languages to evolve from the various regional forms of Apabhramsha are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Konkani, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Rajasthani, and Sindhi. These languages began to emerge after A.D. 1000. As they evolved, they borrowed words from Sanskrit and also from Persian (one of the languages of India's Muslim dynasties). These northern Indian languages are now major regional languages, each spoken by several million people. Nepali, a close relative of Hindi, is the national language of Nepal. Bengali is the national language of Bangladesh as well as being the language of West Bengal. Modern Hindi, which is based on a Delhi dialect but borrows many words from Sanskrit, is India's majority language. Hindi's sister language, Urdu, has the same grammar but borrows many words from Persian and Arabic. Urdu is the national language of Pakistan. 

Apart from Persian and Arabic loan words, modern Indo-European languages have borrowed many words from English and other European languages.

Dravidian languages

The languages of southern India make up the Dravidian family. Speakers of Dravidian languages also group together in parts of India where northern languages predominate. About 200 million of India's people speak Dravidian languages. 

The Dravidian languages form a completely separate group from the Indo-European languages, although they too have borrowed many words from Sanskrit. The four main Dravidian languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada (also called Canarese), and Malayalam. These languages are four of India's official languages. Tamil is the official language of Tamil Nadu; Telugu is the language of Andhra Pradesh; Kannada is the language of Karnataka; and Malayalam is the language of Kerala. 

Dravidians have lived in the area for at least 4,500 years, and Dravidian languages have a recorded history of more than 2,000 years. Speakers of Dravidian languages feel a strong sense of cultural unity. Some of these people resent the fact that Hindi is the chief official language of India. (Top)

Scripts and sounds in Indian languages

Many features of pronunciation are shared by all languages of southern Asia. An important example is the distinction between one form of t, made with the tongue against the top teeth, and another form of t, made with the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouth. Another feature is the use of a consonant pronounced with a release of breath. In English script this is shown by adding h (in such words as Sikh). 

India has different ways of writing its languages. Most of these written forms, or scripts, come from an ancient Indian script called Brahmi. Most regional languages have their own script, which helps give each region a sense of its own identity. The scripts run from left to right. There is no equivalent to capital letters. The script usually used for Sanskrit, which is called Devanagari or Nagari, is also used for Hindi, Marathi, and Nepali. 

The Roman script used for European languages has the individual letter as its basic unit. In Indian scripts, however, the basic unit is the whole syllable--a consonant plus a vowel. See the illustration with this article. The numerals in Indian scripts are the origin of the "Arabic" numerals used in European writing systems. This is because Arabic numerals, borrowed by Europeans, were themselves borrowed from India by the Arabs. 

The scripts used for most northern Indian languages are closely related to Devanagari. South Indian scripts generally have a much rounder shape. This is probably because they were originally written on palm leaves, and straight, horizontal lines were avoided because they would cut into the fibre of the leaf. The script used for Urdu is the Persian script introduced by the Turks and Afghans. It runs from right to left. It has been slightly modified to accommodate some Indian sounds.

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