Cricket champions, successful filmmakers, and one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. Today, we’ll try to answer the not-so-simple question of ‘how many languages are spoken in India?’.
Let’s start with some basic facts. India counts with 1.3 billion inhabitants. It’s hard to imagine that many people living in the same territory speaking one unique tongue. And the thing is, they don’t.
Now, first of all, you should know that this has been a quite controversial subject, especially because there are different definitions of what constitutes a “language”. This is why it would be important to understand that a language is not the same thing as a dialect. A language responds to a particular standardized code, that has a structure for written and spoken communication content, whereas a dialect can be spoken without including a written established code, which leaves it exposed to phonetic changes.
Let’s break it down with an example. Latin. See, back in the day, Italian, French and Spanish were all different dialects of Latin that were modified in their pronunciation styles depending on the geographic location up to the point where, after centuries, they became languages of its own, with its own dialects.
This linguistic phenomenon reflects perfectly the situation of India’s history its language. This also explains why the different languages inside this populous country differ so much from eachother. Some say that India has around 450 languages. According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, there is a total of 780 languages! These discrepancies happen because there are different ideas on what constitutes a language as opposed to a dialect. Additionally, there are languages in India that are referred to with different names, depending on the locality or ethnicity…
So, sure. It can be messy.
However, some historical context is always helpful to get things in order and add some perspective. Let’s see!
The Long answer to ‘What language is spoken in India?’ – Language Families
We can group India’s languages into several language families. In fact, most can be classified by its origins among two families:
The Indo-Aryan family
This is actually a branch of the Indo-European language family and it’s predominant in northern India, as are the origins of about 78% of the languages there today.
Indo-Aryan languages are not agglutinative and Punjabi is their tonal language (one of the few tonal Indo-European languages). Something interesting about Indo-Aryan languages is how many influences they got form Persian, and even Turkic and Arabic. This is largely due to centuries of Turkish Muslim rule in these territories.
Actually, the Delhi sultanate first introduced the Persian language, including its literary tradition, in the 13th century and this continued with the Mughal Empire from the 16th century up until the beginning of British rule. This way, Persian was the official language of the Empire. Even the elite of the society back then had it as their lingua franca–the tongue they chose to communicate with those who didn’t share their origins– and it was perceived as a prestigious literary language for art and writing.
Now, northeastern India today is by far the most linguistically diverse area of the country, concentrating almost 75% of the country’s languages, which has become a problem over time. This dialectic variation combined with a low degree of mutual intelligibility make it necessary for people to use a different and separate lingua franca for communicating effectively with each other.
The Dravidian language family
This one is predominant in southern India, and it includes approximately 73 languages. There was considerably less Persian influence amongst Dravidian languages since it was the northern territory that was more exposed and submitted to Muslim control.
The Dravidian languages are fusional, which means that they have fewer infections than the tongues that come from the Indo-Aryan branch. These are agglutinative languages.
Back in 1856, Robert Caldwell published the Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages. This work established Dravidian as one of the major language groups of the world.
What language is Spoken in India?
This is a tricky question since, in India, several languages are spoken. It has a lot to do with the history of the country that we’ve mentioned before, and the different cultural and political aspects that have influenced today’s India. Simply put, India has two official languages at the national level: Hindi and English.
Almost 425 million people speak Hindi as a first language and, even though no more than 12% of Hindi natives are multilingual, almost 120 million people in India at least speak it as a second language. From this perspective, there’s a common idea that could serve as an example: it is said that if two unknown Indians met randomly on the street, there would only be a 36% chance that they would understand each other. Crazy, right?
Additionally, India has other 22 scheduled languages and, according to their regulations and the linguistic organization of the state, each State or Union territory is free to determine its own official languages.
As a result of this, many children grow up in a bilingual environment. It’s very likely that their parents speak more than one tongue and, even if that’s not the case, they could be surrounded by a community originated in a different part of the country that brings its own dialect with them.
Most private schools look for ways to motivate children to learn several languages, even from the beginning of their instruction in primary school.
What about the writing?
Scripts are truly one of the most intriguing aspects of India’s linguistic diversity. According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, 66 different scripts are used. Most languages use scripts derived from the ancient Brahmi script, which is the oldest readable script of the subcontinent.
These days, the Devanagari script is the most widely used in India. As with the rest of the Brahmi-derived scripts, the vowels are connected to a base consonant and the two can’t be separated.
The Bottom line
Many non-Hindi speakers can understand Hindi through exposure, even if they’re not able to speak it fluently. Every state has several languages being spoken and, according to most surveys, people tend to spend more time with those who speak the same language as them. Being multilingual is rather common and even expected.
English, for instance, becomes a lot more important when Indo-Aryan speakers communicate with Dravidian speakers. Having native language so dissimilar makes it practical for them to understand each other. In any case, as an Indian citizen or not, it’s always good to count on reliable Hindi translation services, to find specialized and professional help in a country with such a rich language history.