An Introduction to Indian Languages

Ever wondered why some words are similar across Indian languages? Do all of our languages have the same root? Let us take a bird’s eye view of the history of language and in particular, of Indian languages, to find some answers!
Written by: Chandrasekhar G

Translated by: Raghunath J

Every living creature on the earth thinks of food, sleep, reproduction and self-preservation. It is only the human species that has the brain power to think beyond these instincts. Compared to a human, an elephant is larger in size, however its brain can’t think beyond a limit. But, the human brain broke off the limits, approximately 70,000 years ago in the course of evolution. This is sometimes called ‘Cognitive Revolution’. With a newly evolved brain power, humans began to settle in fixed geographical locations and began to learn about their surroundings. The knowledge thus gained, needed to be shared with fellow humans. This knowledge transfer, first took the form of ‘signals’ and therefore came to be called ‘Signal Language’. Later, it took the form of ‘words’ and came to be known as a ‘Language’. Initially, it didn’t have a script at all, it was only when the language evolved to a certain stage that linguists designed one. It is not clear as to which language is the very first one developed on this earth. This is because, humans developed many languages in the early stages after ‘Cognitive Revolution’, but many of those could not survive beyond a limited period of time. So, it is impossible to determine if a particular language is the very first one. But, we can still estimate which language among the existing ones has the longest recorded history.

Languages of India

The current population of the world is around 770 crores and they speak more than 5,000 languages. In our country, the population is 130 crores and the number of languages is more than 780, as per People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), carried out between 2010 and 2013. From a number of 1650 as of 1961, tens of languages have been withering away each year into non-existence. If it continues this way, after about 100 years, it would not be surprising if the number of languages-in-use drops down further to below 500. The Indian Constitution, in its 8th schedule, has recognized 22 ‘official languages’. They are 1) Assamese 2) Bengali 3) Bodo 4) Dogri 5) Gujarati 6) Hindi 7) Kannada 8) Kashmiri 9) Konkani 10) Mythili 11) Malayalam 12) Manipuri 13) Marathi 14) Nepali 15) Oriya 16) Punjabi 17) Sanskrit 18) Santhali 19) Sindhi 20) Tamil 21) Telugu and 22) Urdu.

Based on their roots, Indian languages are classified into 4 categories : 1. Indo-Aryan language family 2. Dravidian language family 3. Astro-asiatic language family 4. Tibeto-burman language family. We can learn about most of the indian languages by understanding these 4 families.

Indo-Aryan language family

First, let us look into the Indo-Aryan family. This family is part of the Indo-European language family, which is the largest in the world. In the Indo-Aryan family, the first language is Sanskrit. Rig Veda is the first piece of literature in this language. There are those who would call it the very first piece of literature in the entire world, but that is contested by many other scholars. Sanskrit in the vedic era was primarily intended at performing religious rituals and associated worship. The time period associated with this, was between 1500 and 1000 BC. Later, Vedic Sanskrit evolved into a version of itself that is separate from religion, called Classical Sanskrit, a language of poetry. This sustained from 1000 BC to 600 BC. From this version of Sanskrit, the languages Pali, Prakrit and Apabhramsha evolved during the period 600 BC to 1000 AD.

Pali : Between 563 and 483 BC. It was in this language that the Buddha taught his followers.

Prakrit : Between 600 BC and 1000 AD. It was formed from Classical Sanskrit by either losing some alphabets or changing its form. It appears in many Buddhist and Jain texts such as edicts, inscriptions and plays.

Apabhramsha : These languages were born out of Prakrit. Since these were different from the Prakrit language used in literature, they got the name Apa-bhramsha.

Modern Languages : These were born out of Apabhramsha languages. Prominent ones among these are 1. Hindi 2. Urdu 3. Bengali 4. Punjabi 5. Assamese 6. Gujarati 7. Oriya 8. Marathi 9. Kashmiri 10. Konkani 11. Nepali 12. Sindhi and others.

  1. Hindi : Dating back to around 1000 AD, Hindi is spoken by around 65 crore people, who reside largely in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. Dialects of Hindi are classified into two prominent categories. The western region has the dialects like Rajasthani, Vraja, Bunderi, Malavi, Bhojpuri, and Mewari. Because it is spoken by a large fraction of the population, there is a misconception that Hindi is the only National Language of India. In fact, all the 22 languages recognized by the Indian Constitution are National Languages. Belittling other languages because they are spoken by fewer number of people is a sign of narrow-minded view point.
  2. Urdu : About 11 crore people scattered across the country speak Urdu, which originated from soldier camps, shops and baazaars after the Allauddin Khilji’s invasion of South India. In the deccan region such as in Hyderabad, it is also referred to as Dakhini.
  3. Bengali : About 30 crore people in West Bengal and Bangladesh speak this language. It dates back to around 1000 AD.
  4. Punjabi : About 10 crore people speak this language. It also dates back to around 1000 AD.
  5. Gujarati : About 6.5 crore people speak this language. It dates back to around 1100 AD.
  6. Assameese : About 2.5 crore people speak this language. It dates back to around 1200 AD.
  7. Oriya : About 4 crore people speak this language. It dates back to around 1200 AD.
  8. Marathi : About 8 crore people speak this language. It dates back to around 1100 AD.
  9. Kashmiri : About 0.5 crore people speak this language. It dates back to around 900 AD.
  10. Konkani : About 0.5 crore people who reside largely in Goa and to a smaller extent in Mangalore, Mumbai and Kerala, speak this language. This is largely spoken by the Christian community.
  11. Nepali : About 1.7 crore people speak this language.
  12. Sindhi : About 2 crore people across the country speak this language.

Dravidian language family

After the indo-aryan language family, the dravidian family is the next in terms of size. In this family, 23 languages have been identified. Prominent among them are 1. Tamil, 2. Telugu, 3. Kannada, 4. Malayalam.

  1. Tamil : It is one of the oldest languages in the world. About 8 crore people residing in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia speak this language. It has literature dating back to the BC era.
  2. Telugu : About 8.5 crore people who reside in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana speak this language. It dates back around 2,000 years.
  3. Kannada : About 4.5 crore people speak this language. Its history almost equals that of Telugu.
  4. Malayalam: About 4 crore people who reside in Kerala speak this language. It was born out of Tamil, about 1000 years ago.

There are a few similarities in the scripts of Tamil and Malayalam as well as in those of Telugu and Kannada.

Astro-asiatic language family

From the astro-asiatic language family come the languages Santhali, Mundari, Hu, Savara, Kork, Jwang, Kaasi, Nicobaris.

Tibeto-burman language family

From the tibeto-burman family, the languages Bodo, Manipuri, Lushta, Garo, Bhutima, Newari, Lepcha, Asmaka and Mikir are the prominent ones.

Post Script : Among the most spoken languages in the Indo-Aryan family, most of them have roots in Sanskrit. Because it gradually lost its prevalence in the society, the number of its speakers today is estimated at 15,000 only and is therefore close to extinction today, largely used in religious contexts.

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