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Indian Languages

The history and geography of the place play an important role in deciding the cultural elements like food habits, attires, customs and the scripts used and languages spoken. The historical events that took place in India made Indo-Aryan language the main language of India as it was spoken by the Aryans who came to India. Indo-Aryan language is a sub-branch of Indo European language spoken in and around the Central Asia and Aral Sea. This is spoken by more than 74 percent people in India. The earlier inhabitants of India who used Dravidian language were pushed down to southern parts of India. They were able to save their culture and language and today around 23 percent people of India speak Dravidian language. The northeastern bordering states use Tibeto-Burman languages due to their vicinity with people of Mongoloid race in Tibet, China and Myanmar. A small percentage of population speak Austro-Asiatic and other minor languages less spoken and known today.

Taking into account the cultural diversity of India and the situation prevailing during the time of formation of India, the makers of the Constitution did not recognize any one language as the national language of India. Purely from the point of view of democratic ethos, the language spoken by the majority of the people, Hindi was recognized as the official language of India. English being the linking language of India was recognized as the secondary official language of India. The Constitution of India mentions that Hindi language in Devanagri script would be the official language of the Union. A ‘national language’ is mentioned neither by the Constitution of India nor by any legislative law. This position is also supported by successive rulings of the High Courts in India. However, the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution mentions a list of Indian languages and these are generally considered to be national languages, of course without any legal basis, in India.

Apart from the major languages having their scripts, various minor languages or colloquial languages are spoken in India. The 1961 census of India recognized 1,652 such minor languages (SIL Ethnologue lists 415). According to the most recent Census of India, 2001, around one million people speak 30 different languages while more than 10,000 people speak 122 other languages. Three thousand years of contact with other countries and cultures and within the country itself has led to a great influence on the four main language families in India. At the same time, Persian and English languages have impacted the most on the present language style of India.


The advent of Aryans brought Sanskrit in India and in course of time, especially during the later Vedic period, Sanskrit became the main language of communication. Sanskrit or Indo-Aryan language was the offshoot of language of Indo-European family. The language in course of time got modified and an easier version for the common use developed which was called Prakrit. Prakrit was completely in use during the times of Buddha around 4th and 3rd century B.C. During the middle ages around 7th and 8th century A.D., Apabhraṃśa, a more modified version of Prakrit, gave rise to several new languages taking into account the local and regional variations. While there is no consensus when exactly did the modern languages as spoken in the north India like Hindi-Urdu, Rajasthani, Gujarati, Punjabi, Marathi, Assamese, Bengali etc emerged in the present form, but period around 1000 A.D. is generally accepted to be the time of their emergence.

The language spoken in the South India or the Dravidian languages grew independent of Sanskrit. The major Dravidian languages are five in numbers. They are Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Tulu. Most of the lexicon in Malayalam and Telugu, around 80 percent, is taken from Sanskrit. In fact, complete range of Sanskrit phonetics could be exactly reproduced by the Telugu script without changing any of the originality of the text. Similarly, the Malayalam script has graphemes which are capable to represent every sounds of Sanskrit and almost all Dravidian languages. But the case with the Kannada and Tamil languages is somewhat different. They have limited influence of Sanskrit and Prakrit on its language and in this way is greatly independent. Same is true with the Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in North-eastern parts of India.

Language Families

The Indian languages represent to various families of languages. However, the majority of Indians speak the language derived from Indo-Aryan branch of the original Indo-European family of the languages. This accounts for around 74 percent of the Indian population. The Indo-European family of language includes Hindi, Sanskrit, Rajasthani, Gujarati, Bengali and other regional languages under the broader category of Indo-Aryan language, and languages like English, French, Portuguese and Persian. Few languages have linkages with Indo-Iranian family like Kashmiri and other Dardic languages. The speakers of this group account to around 4.6 million in India. After Indo-European language, the family of Dravidian language comes on the second position in terms of number of speakers in India. The earlier inhabitants of India who used Dravidian language were pushed down to southern parts of India. They were able to save their culture and language and today around 23% to 26% people of India speak Dravidian language. The northeastern bordering states use Tibeto-Burman languages due to their vicinity with people of Mongoloid race in Tibet, China and Myanmar. A small percentage of population speak Austro-Asiatic and other minor languages less spoken and known today. They both account for around 16 million speakers or 5% of the Indian population.

The fifth family of language that is used by very small section of population is Ongan used by inhabitants of southern Andaman Islands. There is also the Nihali language, which does not relate to any known language family. Similarly, Shompen language remains unclassified till today. Sentinelese is also not known to many.

List of Official Languages

Language State(s) Family Speakers
(in millions, 2001)
Assamese Assam, Arunachal Pradesh Indo-Aryan, Eastern 13
Bengali West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, Andaman & Nicobar Islands Indo-Aryan, Eastern 83
Bodo Assam Tibeto-Burman 1.4
Dogri Jammu and Kashmir Indo-Aryan, Northwestern 2.3
Gujarati Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Gujarat Indo-Aryan, Western 46
Hindi Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, the national capital territory of Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand Indo-Aryan, Central 258–422[27]
Kannada Karnataka Dravidian 38
Kashmiri Jammu and Kashmir Indo-Aryan, Dardic 5.5
Konkani Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala Indo-Aryan, Southern 2.5–7.6[28]
Maithili Bihar Indo-Aryan, Eastern 12–32[29]
Malayalam Kerala, Lakshadweep, Puducherry Dravidian 33
Manipuri (also Meitei or Meithei) Manipur Tibeto-Burman 1.5
Marathi Maharashtra, Goa, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Madhya Pradesh Indo-Aryan, Southern 72
Nepali Sikkim, West Bengal Indo-Aryan, Northern 2.9
Oriya Odisha Indo-Aryan, Eastern 33
Punjabi Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab Indo-Aryan, Northwestern 29
Sanskrit non-regional Indo-Aryan 0.01
Santhali Santhal tribals of the Chota Nagpur Plateau (comprising the states of Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha) Munda 6.5
Sindhi non-regional Indo-Aryan, Northwestern 2.5
Tamil Tamil Nadu, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Puducherry Dravidian 61
Telugu Andhra Pradesh, Puducherry, Andaman & Nicobar Islands Dravidian 74
Urdu Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh Indo-Aryan, Central 52


Official Classical Languages

In the year 2004, idea of according the status of ‘Classical Language in India’ was floated by the Government of India. According to the Government declaration few criteria were fixed to decide the languages qualifying for this status. As a result Tamil; Sanskrit; and Kannada and Telugu were given the Classical Language status in the year 2004, 2005, 2008 respectively.

Sanskrit already enjoyed special status under the Article 351 of the Constitution of India for being the source language for Hindi. In addition, Sanskrit was given the status of classical language in the year 2005. Ministry of Culture, Government of India, constituted a committee of linguistic experts which recommended that Kannada and Telugu to be included in the list of classical language of India which was done in the year 2008.

In 2006, Minister of Tourism & Culture, Ms Ambika Soni informed the Rajya Sabha about the criteria which were followed for determining the eligibility of languages to qualify for being considered as a "Classical Language". In her words, following were the criteria laid down :

"High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500-2000 years; A body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; The literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community; The classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots."

Regional Languages

Britishers made English as the sole language to be used for administrative and higher education purposes. After the independence of India, the Indian legislators faced the challenge of selecting a language out of so many regional languages, which could be used for official purposes. The choices in front of them were:

  • Hindi:- Around 43% people of India used Hindi for communication purposes. Thus the language was found to be the mother tongue of a majority of Indian people at that time and so came forward as a valid option for being declared as “Official language”.
  • English:- This was preferred mostly by the people of South India and North-east India. The people from these regions particularly Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Mizoram and Nagaland were in favor of making English as the official language.
  • The third option was to declare Hindi and English, both as official languages. At the same time every state could be given the freedom to opt their language as the official language of the state.

After a lot of thought and discussions, finally the Indian constitution declared Hindi as the official language of India. The script declared to be used for Hindi was Devanagari script. At the same time, English was also allowed to be used for the official purposes for the next 15 years with effect from 26th January 1950, and made a provision that if the Parliament thinks fit after assessing the prevailing situation, English could be abolished after 15 years to give way to Hindi as the sole language used for the official purposes. This alarmed the non Hindi-speaking regions of India, especially the southern states of India whose language were not at all related to Hindi in any ways. To ward off their fear, finally the Parliament made the Official Languages Act, 1963 and the provisions were made under which English was to be used for official purposes along with Hindi, even after 1965.

Writing Systems

Most of the Indian languages also have their own scripts. While languages like Hindi, Marathi and Angika use the Devanagari script for the writing purposes, other languages use scripts specific to them. For example Assamese are written with Assamese/Axomiya script, Bengali with Bengali, Punjabi with Gurmukhi and Oriya with Utkal Lipi. A few languages where the influence of Urdu is greater such as Kashmiri, Saraiki and Sindhi, modified versions of the Perso-Arabic script are used for writing purposes.

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