Languages of India

The languages of India belong to several language families, the major ones being the Indo-Aryan languages spoken by 73% of Indians and the Dravidian languages spoken by 24% of Indians. The Republic of India does not have a national language. The official languages of the Union Government of Republic of India are Hindi in the Devanagari script and English, a position supported by a High Court ruling. The languages of the Eighth Schedule, which have been referred to as the national languages of India since Nehru initiated such a practice. The 1991 census recognized “1576 rationalized mother tongues” which were further grouped into language categories. The 1961 census recognized 1,652, and the 2011 census recognized 1,635. (SIL Ethnologue lists 415). According to Census of India of 2001, 30 languages are spoken by more than a million native speakers, 122 by more than 10,000. More than three millennia of language contact has led to significant mutual influence among the four language families in India and South Asia. Two contact languages have played an important role in the history of India: Persian and English.

History of languages in India

The northern Indian languages from the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family evolved from Old Indic by way of the Middle Indic Prakrit languages and Apabhraṃśa of the Middle Ages. There is no consensus for a specific time where the modern north Indian languages such as Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjab, Rajasthani, Sindhi and Oriya emerged, but AD 1000 is commonly accepted. Each language had different influences, with Hindustani strongly influenced by Sanskrit and Persian. Oriya is the only classical language from this language family and it is least influenced by any foreign language.

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The Dravidian languages of South India had a history independent of Sanskrit. The major Dravidian language is Tamil. Though Malayalam and Telugu are Dravidian in origin, over eighty percent of their lexicon is borrowed from Sanskrit. The Telugu script can reproduce the full range of Sanskrit phonetics without losing any of the text’s originality, whereas the Malayalam script includes graphemes capable of representing all the sounds of Sanskrit and all Dravidian languages. The Kannada language has lesser though considerable influence of Prakrit and Sanskrit vocabulary. The Austroasiatic and Tibeto-Burman languages of North-East India also have long independent histories.

Language families

The languages of India belong to several language families. The largest of these in terms of speakers is the Indo-European family, predominantly represented in its Indo-Iranian branch (accounting for some 700 million speakers, or 69% of the population), but also including minority languages such as Persian, Portuguese or French, and English as a lingua franca.

The second largest language family is the Dravidian family, accounting for some 200 million speakers, or 26%. Families with smaller numbers of speakers are Austroasiatic and numerous small Tibeto-Burman languages, with some 10 and 6 million speakers, respectively, together 5% of the population.

The Ongan languages of the southern Andaman Islands form a fifth family; the Great Andamanese languages are extinct apart from one highly endangered language with a dwindling number of speakers. There is also a known language isolate, the Nihali language. The Bantu language Sidi was spoken until the mid-20th century in Gujarat.

Most languages in the Indian republic are written in Brahmi-derived scripts, such as Devanagari, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Oriya, Eastern Nagari – Assamese/Bengali, etc., though Urdu is written in a script derived from Arabic, and a few minor languages such as Santali use independent scripts.

Official languages in India

The official languages of the Union Government (not the entire country) are Hindi and English. According to the article 343 (1) of the Constitution of India, “The Official Language of the Union government shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.”The individual states can legislate their own official languages, depending on their linguistic demographics. For example, the state of Andhra Pradesh has Telugu as its official language, the state of Karnataka has Kannada as its sole official language, the state of Gujarat has Gujarati as its sole official language, the state of Maharashtra has Marathi as its sole official language, the state of Punjab has Punjabi as its sole official language, the state of Odisha has Odiya as its sole official language, the state of Tamil Nadu has Tamil as its sole official language, while the state of Kerala has Malayalam and English as its official languages, the state of Jammu and Kashmir has Kashmiri, Urdu, and Dogri as its official languages.

Article 345 of the constitution authorizes the several states of India to adopt as “official languages” of that state — which people of that state can then use in all dealings with all branches of the local, state and federal governments — either Hindi or any one or more of the languages spoken in that state. Until the Twenty-First Amendment of the Constitution in 1967, the country recognised 14 official regional languages.

The Eighth Schedule and the Seventy-First Amendment provided for the inclusion of Sindhi, Konkani, Meiteilon and Nepali, thereby increasing the number of official regional languages of India to 18. At present there are 22 official languages of India. Individual states, whose borders are mostly drawn on socio-linguistic lines, are free to decide their own language for internal administration and education.