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A Closer Look at India’s Languages

A Closer Look at India’s Languages
on September, 15 2016

“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition.” Mark Twain.

Did you know that an Indian rupee note has denominations worded in 18 languages? India’s currency is a testament to the astonishing breadth of cultural variety within the so-called ‘Union of India’. This spectrum of cultural variety has given rise to the national expression of “Within union, there is diversity.”

Few countries in the world can boast such a terrific array of languages, each shaped by centuries of native culture, regional differences, war and religion. Indeed, the diversity of its languages and cultures lend the country a sense of mystique. Wonder has drawn in many a foreigner intent on unraveling the many juxtapositions found in Indian society. For example, materialism and spirituality, clashing class strata and the co-existence of several religious faiths under one flag.

In a land where traveling a few miles in any direction can jarringly expose one to a new language, India is home and host to a people of stunningly different backgrounds, customs and lifestyles. The many invaders, merchants, conquerors and adventurers that India has attracted throughout her rich history are astonishing. Playing a role in greatly influencing the diverse cultural spectrum of the nation in terms of its food, art, architecture, languages and religion.

As a result, its linguistic chart is highly diverse, with no one single language spoken across the country or even within a state.

Official Indian Languages

The 1961 census in the country identified no fewer than 1,652 mother languages in the Indian subcontinent. Twenty-nine of these, according to a census taken 40 years later in 2001, are spoken by over a million citizens each. And 60 of the total languages are spoken by over 100,000 citizens each. However, the government of India has only awarded national language status to 22 languages so far.

The 22 national languages are as follows: Bengali, Hindi, Maithili, Nepali, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, Assamesse, Dogri, Kannada, Gujarati, Bodo, Manipuri (otherwise known as Meitei), Oriya, Marathi, Santali, Telugu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Malayalam, Konkani and Kashmiri.

The different dialects in India number several hundred and increase the number of currently spoken languages in India to over 2,500. Language classification in the country has been difficult as experts have to differentiate between dialects and mother tongues that can have striking similarities.

Grammar and Writing

The majority of India’s languages have their own specific alphabets, except for Punjabi, Kashmiri, Urdu and Sindhi, which use slightly variant versions of the Arabic script. Hindi and other Indian languages use the Devanagari script that is written from left to right; this is the script also used by the Nepalese.

On an interesting note, the Indian languages of Hindi and Urdu hail from the same source – their speakers can understand each other perfectly even though each has a different script. Hindi uses the Devanagari alphabet while Urdu relies on the Persian-Arabic alphabet.

Roots of the Four Language Families of India

The more than 1,600 mother tongues found in India can be traced to the Indo-European, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan and Mon-Khmer language families. There are a few language isolates as well, for example, the Kalto, or Nihali, language that is native to Maharashtra state.

Most languages in India pertain to the Indo-Aryan or Dravidian language families. The former is a subdivision of the Indo-European language family and is spoken by 70% of the Indians, mostly in North India. While the Dravidian languages are only spoken by 22% of the population and are dominant in the South.

Each of the 28 states in India has one, two or even three official languages with each family of languages being spoken in anywhere from one to twelve states. As a result, many travelers in India experience culture shock as they come across different and contrasting community pockets of native peoples, and require in-person interpreters.

Hindi and English are the two official languages of the Union of India.

The Hindi Language

Hindi is the second most spoken language in the world today after Mandarin Chinese, with about 570 million native speakers of the language living in India, which brings the worldwide total to over 970 million speakers. Bengali and Punjabi rank 7th and 10th in the listing of top languages spoken worldwide with about 253 million and 120 million total speakers respectively. All three Indian languages outrank popular European languages, such as German and French.

Hindi pertains to the Indo-Aryan language family and directly descends from Sanskrit – one of the officially recognized classical languages of India. (Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, Tamil and Telugu are the other five recognized Indian classical languages.)

As the most commonly spoken language in India, Hindi is the official language of most states including Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and the national capital of New Delhi. Hindi speakers total more than  200 million people, or about 20% of the total population of 1.2 billion people living in India today.

With dialects and accents differing from state to state and region to region, Hindi is the most popular language in India, particularly in the north. In the southern parts of India, few natives speak the language, opting instead to speak English or their local language. Hindi is one of the few Indian languages spoken outside of India, namely in countries like Mauritius, Pakistan, Nepal and Fiji.

English Language in India

The co-official language of the country, as recognized by the Constitution - English, plays a special role in India. English was introduced to the country in colonial times and has since been the language of government, media, science, technology and education. It is the language of prestige and the elite and guarantees societal advancement for the average Indian.

Over 125 million people in India speak English, which makes it the second most widely spoken language in the country after Hindi. In practice, the English language promises white-collar job opportunities for Indians and is considered the “link” language in a country where citizens speak hundreds of different languages.
For cultural and linguistic reasons, Indian English is widely different from SSBE (Spoken Standard British English) and is often dubbed as “Hinglish” by observers.

Other Languages

While both Hindi and English are the official languages of the central government in India, individual state parliaments can adopt any regional language as a language of state government and education. The Indian Constitution guarantees all Indians the right to be able to express themselves in their own tongue to any government agency.

The largest language that is not one of the 22 official languages of India is the Bhili language, with some 5.5 million native speakers (ranked 13th by number of speakers), followed by Gondi (15th), Tulu (19th) and Kurukh (20th).

Clearly, in a nation of so many languages, translators and interpreters play a vital role. These professionals help ensure communication between Indians in business, government, hospitals, and more. Premier translations and interpretation agency Day Translations is one such agency that is helping Indians everywhere fulfil their language needs. We are opening up an office in New Delhi and are ready to serve you anywhere in India with our quality services.

Image Copyrighteermakova / 123RF Foto de archivo

Denise Recalde

Denise Recalde is a Senior Content Writer at Day Translations. A seasoned writer and editor with eleven years of experience under her belt, she is a bonafide wordsmith who loves playing with the written word creatively and always takes care to lend a certain hue of snap and color to her drafts. Always one to rise up to challenges, she has traveled to 14 countries and has worked on a smorgasbord of writing projects that spanned several industries, from finance to health to beauty and fashion.

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