Languages of India

Languages of India

About 80 percent of all Indians--nearly 750 million people based on 1995 population estimates--speak one of the Indo-Aryan group of languages. Persian and the languages of Afghanistan are close relatives, belonging, like the Indo-Aryan languages, to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. Brought into India from the northwest during the second millennium B.C., the Indo-Aryan tongues spread throughout the north, gradually displacing the earlier languages of the area.

Modern linguistic knowledge of this process of assimilation comes through the Sanskrit language employed in the sacred literature known as the Vedas (see The Vedas and Polytheism, ch. 3). Over a period of centuries, Indo-Aryan languages came to predominate in the northern and central portions of South Asia (see Antecedents, ch. 1).

As Indo-Aryan speakers spread across northern and central India, their languages experienced constant change and development. By about 500 B.C., Prakrits, or "common" forms of speech, were widespread throughout the north. By about the same time, the "sacred," "polished," or "pure" tongue--Sanskrit--used in religious rites had also developed along independent lines, changing significantly from the form used in the Vedas. However, its use in ritual settings encouraged the retention of archaic forms lost in the Prakrits. Concerns for the purity and correctness of Sanskrit gave rise to an elaborate science of grammar and phonetics and an alphabetical system seen by some scholars as superior to the Roman system. By the fourth century B.C., these trends had culminated in the work of Panini, whose Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi (Eight Chapters), set the basic form of Sanskrit for subsequent generations. Panini's work is often compared to Euclid's as an intellectual feat of systematization.

The Prakrits continued to evolve through everyday use. One of these dialects was Pali, which was spoken in the western portion of peninsular India. Pali became the language of Theravada Buddhism; eventually it came to be identified exclusively with religious contexts. By around A.D. 500, the Prakrits had changed further into Apabhramshas, or the "decayed" speech; it is from these dialects that the contemporary Indo-Aryan languages of South Asia developed. The rudiments of modern Indo-Aryan vernaculars were in place by about A.D. 1000 to 1300.

It would be misleading, however, to call Sanskrit a dead language because for many centuries huge numbers of works in all genres and on all subjects continued to be written in Sanskrit. Original works are still written in it, although in much smaller numbers than formerly. Many students still learn Sanskrit as a second or third language, classical music concerts regularly feature Sanskrit vocal compositions, and there are even television programs conducted entirely in Sanskrit.

Around 18 percent of the Indian populace (about 169 million people in 1995) speak Dravidian languages. Most Dravidian speakers reside in South India, where Indo-Aryan influence was less extensive than in the north. Only a few isolated groups of Dravidian speakers, such as the Gonds in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, and the Kurukhs in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, remain in the north as representatives of the Dravidian speakers who presumably once dominated much more of South Asia. (The only other significant population of Dravidian speakers are the Brahuis in Pakistan.)

The oldest documented Dravidian language is Tamil, with a substantial body of literature, particularly the Cankam poetry, going back to the first century A.D. Kannada and Telugu developed extensive bodies of literature after the sixth century, while Malayalam split from Tamil as a literary language by the twelfth century. In spite of the profound influence of the Sanskrit language and Sanskritic culture on the Dravidian languages, a strong consciousness of the distinctness of Dravidian languages from Sanskrit remained. All four major Dravidian languages had consciously differentiated styles varying in the amount of Sanskrit they contained. In the twentieth century, as part of an anti-Brahman movement in Tamil Nadu, a strong movement arose to "purify" Tamil of its Sanskrit elements, with mixed success. The other three Dravidian languages were not much affected by this trend.

There are smaller groups, mostly tribal peoples, who speak Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic languages. Sino-Tibetan speakers live along the Himalayan fringe from Jammu and Kashmir to eastern Assam (see fig. 9). They comprise about 1.3 percent, or 12 million, of India's 1995 population. The Austroasiatic languages, composed of the Munda tongues and others thought to be related to them, are spoken by groups of tribal peoples from West Bengal through Bihar and Orissa and into Madhya Pradesh. These groups make up approximately 0.7 percent (about 6.5 million people) of the population.

Despite the extensive linguistic diversity in India, many scholars treat South Asia as a single linguistic area because the various language families share a number of features not found together outside South Asia. Languages entering South Asia were "Indianized." Scholars cite the presence of retroflex consonants, characteristic structures in verb formations, and a significant amount of vocabulary in Sanskrit with Dravidian or Austroasiatic origin as indications of mutual borrowing, influences, and counterinfluences. Retroflex consonants, for example, which are formed with the tongue curled back to the hard palate, appear to have been incorporated into Sanskrit and other Indo-Aryan languages through the medium of borrowed Dravidian words.

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