Languages of India

Languages of India
Languages of India
Official language(s) Standard Hindi written in the Devanāgarī script (the Indian Constitution recognises English as a subsidiary official language)
Regional language(s) Assamese · Bengali · Bodo · Chhattisgarhi · Dogri · Garo · Gujarati · Standard Hindi · Kannada · Kashmiri · Khasi · Kokborok · Konkani · Maithili · Malayalam · Manipuri · Marathi · Mizo · Nepali · Oriya · Punjabi · Sanskrit  · Santali · Sindhi · Tamil · Telugu · Tulu · Urdu ·

The languages of India belong to several language families, the major ones being the Indo-European languagesIndo-Aryan (spoken by 72% of Indians) and the Dravidian languages (spoken by 25% of Indians).[1] Other languages spoken in India belong to the Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman, and a few minor language families and isolates.[2]

The principal official language of the Republic of India is Standard Hindi, while English is the secondary official language.[3] The constitution of India states that "The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script."[4] Neither the Constitution of India nor Indian law specifies a national language, a position supported by a High Court ruling.[5] However, languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian constitution are sometimes referred to, without legal standing, as the national languages of India.[6][7]

Individual mother tongues in India number several hundred;[8] the 1961 census recognized 1,652[9] (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. 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.[10]



The Hindi-belt, including Hindi-related languages such as Rajasthani and Bihari.

The northern Indian languages from the Indo-European family evolved from Old Indo-Aryan such as Sanskrit, by way of the Middle Indo-Aryan 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-Urdu, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Sindhi and Oriya emerged, but AD 1000 is commonly accepted.[11] Each language had different influences, with Hindi-Urdu (Hindustani) being strongly influenced by Persian.

The Dravidian languages of South India had a history independent of Sanskrit. The major Dravidian languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.[12] Though Dravidian in origin, over eighty percent of words in Malayalam and Telugu are pure Sanskrit words.[13][14][15][16] Telugu script can reproduce the full range of Sanskrit phonetics without losing any of the text's originality,[17] where as Malayalam script includes letters capable of representing all the sounds of Sanskrit and all Dravidian languages.[18][19] The Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman languages of North-East India also have long independent histories.


Dialectologists distinguish the terms "language" and "dialect" on the basis of mutual intelligibility. The Indian census uses two specific classifications in its own unique way: (1) 'language' and (2) 'mother tongue'. The 'mother tongues' are grouped within each 'language'. Many 'mother tongues' so defined would be considered a language rather than a dialect by linguistic standards. This is especially so for many 'mother tongues' with tens of millions of speakers that is officially grouped under the 'language' Hindi.

The Indian census of 1961 recognised 1,652 different languages in India (including languages not native to the subcontinent). The 1991 census recognizes 1,576 classified "mother tongues"[20] The People of India (POI) project of Anthropological Survey of India reported 325 languages which are used for in-group communication by the Indian communities. SIL Ethnologue lists 415 living "Languages of India" (out of 6,912 worldwide).

According to the 1991 census, 22 'languages' had more than a million native speakers, 50 had more than 100,000 and 114 had more than 10,000 native speakers. The remaining accounted for a total of 566,000 native speakers (out of a total of 838 million Indians in 1991).[20]

According to the most recent census of 2001, 29 'languages' have more than a million native speakers, 60 have more than 100,000 and 122 have more than 10,000 native speakers.

The government of India has given 22 "languages of the 8th Schedule" the status of official language. The number of languages given this status has increased through the political process. Some languages with a large number of speakers still do not have this status, the largest of these being Bhili/Bhiladi with some 9.6 million native speakers (ranked 14th), followed by Gondi with 2.7 million speakers (ranked 18th) and Khandeshi with 2.1 million speakers (ranked 22nd). On the other hand, 2 languages with fewer than 2 million native speakers have recently been included in the 8th Schedule for mostly political reasons: Manipuri/Maithei with 1.5 million speakers (ranked 25th) and Bodo with 1.4 million speakers (ranked 26th).

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-Aryan 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. Kashmiri and other Dardic languages, which form part of the Indo-Iranian, and arguably Indo-Aryan family, have some 4.6 million speakers in India.

The second largest language family is the Dravidian family, accounting for some 200 million speakers, or 26%. Families with smaller numbers of speakers are Austro-Asiatic 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 Shompen language or languages is/are poorly attested and unclassified. Sentinelese is entirely unknown.

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

Official languages

The official languages of the Republic of India are Standard Hindi and English. According to the article 343 (1), "The Official Language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script."[21] The individual states can legislate their own official languages, depending on their linguistic demographics. For example,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 Andhra Pradesh has Telugu as its sole official language, the state of Orissa has Oriya as its sole official language, the state of Tamil Nadu has Tamil as its sole official language and the state of Karnataka has Kannada, as its sole official language and the state of Kerala has Malayalam as its sole official language, while the state of Jammu and Kashmir has Kashmiri, Urdu, and Dogri as its official languages.

Article 345 of the Indian constitution provides recognition to "official languages" of the union to include Standard Hindi or any one or more of the languages adopted by a state legislature as the official language. 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.[22] Individual states, whose borders are mostly drawn on socio-linguistic lines, are free to decide their own language for internal administration and education.

The following table lists the official languages, aside from English, set out in the eighth schedule as of May 2008:[23]

Language Family Speakers (2001, in millions)[24] State(s)
Assamese/Axomiya Indo-Aryan, Eastern 13 Assam, Arunachal Pradesh
Bengali Indo-Aryan, Eastern 83 in India West Bengal, Tripura, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and also few regions of Assam, Jharkhand
Bodo Tibeto-Burman 1.4 Assam
Dogri Indo-Aryan, Northwestern 2.3 Jammu and Kashmir
Gujarati Indo-Aryan, Western 46 Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Gujarat
Hindi Indo-Aryan, Central 258-422[25] Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, the national capital territory of Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand
Kannada Dravidian 38 Karnataka
Kashmiri Indo-Aryan, Dardic 5.5 Jammu and Kashmir
Konkani Indo-Aryan, Southern 2.5 (7.6 per Ethnologue) Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala
Maithili Indo-Aryan, Eastern 12 (32 in India in 2000 per Ethnologue) Bihar
Malayalam Dravidian 33 Kerala, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, Puducherry
Manipuri (also Meitei or Meithei) Tibeto-Burman 1.5 Manipur
Marathi Indo-Aryan, Southern 72 Maharashtra, Goa, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka
Nepali Indo-Aryan, Northern 2.9 in India Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam
Oriya Indo-Aryan, Eastern 33 Orissa
Punjabi Indo-Aryan, Northwestern 29 in India Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab
Sanskrit Indo-Aryan 0.01 non-regional
Santhali Munda 6.5 Santhal tribals of the Chota Nagpur Plateau (comprising the states of Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa)
Sindhi Indo-Aryan, Northwestern 2.5 in India non-regional
Tamil Dravidian 61 in India Tamil Nadu, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Puducherry
Telugu Dravidian 74 Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Andhra Pradesh, Puducherry
Urdu Indo-Aryan, Central 52 in India Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand

Official classical languages

In 2004, the Government of India declared that languages that met certain requirements could be accorded the status of a "Classical Language in India".[26] Languages thus far declared to be Classical are Tamil (in 2004),[27] Sanskrit (in 2005),[28] Kannada and Telugu (in 2008).[29]

In 2005, Sanskrit, which already had special status in Article 351 of the Constitution of India as the primary source language for the development of the official standard of Hindi,[30] was also declared to be a classical language; this was followed by similar declarations for Kannada and Telugu in 2008, based on the recommendation of a committee of linguistic experts constituted by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.[29]

In a 2006 press release, Minister of Tourism & Culture Ambika Soni told the Rajya Sabha the following criteria were laid down to determine the eligibility of languages to be considered for classification as a "classical Language",[31]

High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500-2000 years; A body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; The literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community; The classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.

Regional languages

In British India, English was the sole language used for administrative purposes as well as for higher education purposes. When India became independent in 1947, the Indian legislators had the challenge of choosing a language for official communication as well as for communication between different linguistic regions across India. The choices available were:

  • Making "Hindi", which a plurality of the people (40%)[citation needed] identified as their mother tongue, the official language, though only a minority of these "Hindi" speakers spoke Hindi proper.
  • Making English, as preferred by non-Hindi speakers, particularly Tamils, and those from Mizoram and Nagaland, the official language. See also Anti-Hindi agitations.
  • Declare both Hindi and English as official languages and each state is given freedom to choose the official language of the state.

The Indian constitution, in 1950, declared Hindi in Devanagari script to be the official language of the union.[32] Unless Parliament decided otherwise, the use of English for official purposes was to cease 15 years after the constitution came into effect, i.e., on 26 January 1965.[32] The prospect of the changeover, however, led to much alarm in the non Hindi-speaking areas of India, especially Dravidian-speaking states whose languages were not related to Hindi at all. As a result, Parliament enacted the Official Languages Act, 1963,[33][34][35][36][37][38] which provided for the continued use of English for official purposes along with Hindi, even after 1965.

Practical problems

India has hundreds of active dialects in use. Therefore, choosing any single language as an official language presents serious problems to all those whose "mother tongue" is different. However, all the boards of education across India, recognize the 'need' for training people to one common language. This results in many complaints: There are many complaints that in North India, non-Hindi speakers undergo considerable difficulties on account of language. Similarly, there are numerous complaints that all North Indians have language trouble when traveling to South India. It's common to hear of incidents that result due friction between those who strongly believe in the chosen official language, and those who follow the thought that the chosen language(s) do not take into account everyone's preferences. Of course, in a country of over a billion people, it's never going to be easy to establish such standards.

[39][dead link] Local official language commissions have been established and various steps are being taken in a direction to reduce tensions and friction.[citation needed]

Language conflicts

There are some significant conflicts over linguistic rights in India.

The first major linguistic conflict, known as the Anti-Hindi agitations of Tamil Nadu took place in Tamil Nadu against the implementation of Hindi as the sole official language of India. Political analysts consider this as a major factor in bringing DMK to power and leading to the ousting and nearly total elimination of the Congress party in Tamil Nadu.[40] Strong cultural pride based on language is also found in other Indian states such as Kerala, Bengal, Maharashtra and in Karnataka. To express disapproval of the imposition of an alien language Hindi on its people as a result of the central government overstepping its constitutional authority, Maharashtra and Karnataka Governments made the state languages compulsory in educational institutions.[41] In 2011, V S Achuthananthan Ministry in Kerala made state language, Malayalam compulsory in all schools.

Recently anti-Hindi feelings have been expressed in Mumbai by Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena[42]

The Government of India attempts to assuage these conflicts with various campaigns, coordinated by the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore, a branch of the Department of Higher Education, Language Bureau, Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Writing systems

Ashoka's 6th pillar edict, 3rd century BC

Various Indian languages have corresponding scripts for them. Marathi language is written with Devanagari. Most other languages are written using a script specific to them, such as Bengali with Bengali, Punjabi with Gurmukhi, Oriya with Utkal Lipi, Gujarati with Gujarati, etc. Urdu and sometimes Kashmiri, Saraiki and Sindhi are written in modified versions of the Perso-Arabic script. With this one exception, the scripts of Indian languages are native to India. (See ISO 15919 regarding Romanization of Indian languages)

See also

Portal icon India portal
Portal icon Languages portal
  • English in India
  • List of languages by number of native speakers in India
  • List of states and union territories of India by population
  • Multilingual list of Indian family relation names
  • National Translation Mission


  1. ^
  2. ^ Nihali, Shompen languages, and the various Andamanese languages
  3. ^ 1. Schwartzberg, Joseph E., 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica, India—Linguistic Composition. Quote: "By far the most widely spoken is Hindi, the country's official language, with more than 300 million speakers." 2. Oldenburg, Phillip. (1997-2007) Encarta Encyclopedia "India: Official Languages." Quote: "Hindi is the main language of more than 40 percent of the population. No single language other than Hindi can claim speakers among even 10 percent of the total population. Hindi was therefore made India’s official language in 1965. English, which was associated with British rule, was retained as an option for official use because some non-Hindi speakers, particularly in Tamil Nādu, opposed the official use of Hindi." 3. United Kingdom, Foreign and Commonwealth Office: India—Country Profile. Quote: "The official language of India is Hindi written in the Devanagari script and spoken by some 30% of the population as a first language. Since 1965 English has been recognised as an 'associated language'." 4. UNESCO: Education for All—The Nine Largest Countries Quote: "Hindi is the language of 30% of the population and the official language of India." 5. United States Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, Country Profile: India Quote: "Languages: Hindi is the official language and the most commonly spoken, but not all dialects are mutually comprehensible. English also has official status and is widely used in business and politics, although knowledge of English varies widely from fluency to knowledge of just a few words." 6 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Country Profile: India Quote: "Hindi is constitutionally designated as the official language of India, with English as an associate official language."
  5. ^ There's no national language in India: Gujarat High Court
  6. ^ Andrew Simpson (2007). Language and national identity in Asia. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199267480. "... the languages of the Eighth Schedule, which have been referred to as the national languages of India since Nehru initiated such a practice ..." 
  7. ^ James W. Tollefson (2002). Language policies in education: critical issues. Routledge. ISBN 0805836012. "... Despite negligible practical import, the symbolic significant of Schedule VIII inclusion is substantial ... Any language included in Schedule VIII is a national language of India ... the "national" languages of India, i.e., those in Schedule VIII ..." 
  8. ^ More than a thousand including major dialects. The 1991 census recognized "1576 rationalized mother tongues" which were further grouped into language categories (Indian Census)
  9. ^ "Language in India". Language in India. Retrieved 2010-08-01. 
  10. ^ Bhatia, Tej K and William C. Ritchie. (2006) Bilingualism in South Asia. In: Handbook of Bilingualism, pp. 780-807. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  11. ^ Shapiro, M: Hindi.
  12. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. "Dravidian languages - Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2010-08-01. 
  13. ^ Narayan, Shyamala; Jha (1997). Non-fictional Indian prose in English, 1960-1990. Sahitya Akademi. ISBN 9788126002948. 
  14. ^ Malayalam literary survey, Volume 15. Kēraḷa Sāhitya Akkādami. 1993. p. 76. 
  15. ^ Gupta, Balarama (2007). The Journal of Indian writing in English, Volume 35. p. 8. 
  16. ^ Velcheru Narayana Rao; David Shulman. Classical Telugu Poetry (2 ed.). The Regents of the University of California. p. 3 
  17. ^ Chenchiah, P.; Rao, Raja Bhujanga (1988). A History of Telugu Literature. Asian Educational Services. p. 18. ISBN 8120603133. 
  18. ^ Aiyar, Swaminatha (1987). Dravidian theories. p. 286. ISBN 9788120803312. 
  19. ^ "Malayalam". ALS International. Retrieved 19 June 2011. 
  20. ^ a b Indian Census
  21. ^ 1. Oldenburg, Phillip. (1997-2007) Encarta Encyclopedia "India: Official Languages."
    2. United Kingdom, Foreign and Commonwealth Office: India—Country Profile.
    3. UNESCO: Education for All—The Nine Largest Countries Quote: "Hindi is the language of 30% of the population and the official language of India." (these do not refer to the same conception of Hindi)
    4. United States Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, Country Profile: India.
    5 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Country Profile: India.
  22. ^ "Legislation: Legislation dealing with the use of languages". Constitution of India. Articles 29, 30, 120, 210, 343-351 as amended in the 21st and 71st Amendments.
  23. ^ Constitution of India, page 330, EIGHTH SCHEDULE, Articles 344 (1) and 351]. Languages.
  24. ^ Official 2001 census data
  25. ^ The 2001 census records two figures, of 258 million and 422 million "Hindi" speakers. However, both figures include languages other than Standard Hindi, such as Rajasthani (ca. 80 million in independent estimates), Bhojpuri (40 million), Awadhi (38 million), Chhattisgarhi (18 million), and dozens of other languages with a million to over ten million speakers apiece. The figure of 422 million specifically includes all such people, whereas the figure of 258 depends on speaker identification as recorded in the census. For example, of the estimated 38 million Awadhi speakers, only 2½ million gave their language as "Awadhi", with the rest apparently giving it as "Hindi"[citation needed] , and of the approximately 80 million Rajasthani speakers, only 18 million were counted separately[citation needed]. Maithili, listed as a separate language in the 2001 census but previously considered a dialect of Hindi, also appeared to be severely undercounted.[citation needed]
  26. ^ "India sets up classical languages". BBC. 2004-09-17. Retrieved 2007-05-01. 
  27. ^ "Front Page : Tamil to be a classical language". Chennai, India: The Hindu. 2004-09-18. Retrieved 2010-08-01. 
  28. ^ "National : Sanskrit to be declared classical language". Chennai, India: The Hindu. 2005-10-28. Retrieved 2010-08-01. 
  29. ^ a b "Declaration of Telugu and Kannada as classical languages". Press Information Bureau. Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India. Retrieved 2008-10-31. 
  30. ^ Constitution of India, Part XVII.—Official Language.—Art. 351. Page 217 Quote: "It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India and to secure its enrichment by assimilating without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule, and by drawing, wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages."
  31. ^ "CLASSICAL LANGUAGE STATUS TO KANNADA". Press Information Bureau, Government of India. 2006-08-08. Retrieved 2008-11-06. 
  32. ^ a b "Constitution of India as of 29 July 2008". The Constitution Of India. Ministry of Law & Justice. Retrieved 13 April 2011. 
  33. ^ DOL
  34. ^ Commissioner Linguistic Minorities
  35. ^ Language in India
  37. ^ National Portal of India : Know India : Profile
  38. ^ Committee of Parliament on Official Language report
  39. ^ The Pioneer > Columnists
  40. ^ "Magazine / Columns : Hindi against India". Chennai, India: The Hindu. 16 January 2005. Retrieved 2010-08-01. 
  41. ^ "Marathi a must in Maharashtra schools - India News". IBNLive. 2010-02-03. Retrieved 2010-08-01. 
  42. ^ "Abu Azmi slapped by MNS MLA for taking oath in Hindi". 2009-11-09. Retrieved 2010-08-01. 

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