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The Indian Languages

By Remi, published on 28/08/2018 Blog > Languages > Hindi > What Are The Indian Languages?

The Indian Constitution recognised 22 languages by giving them official status. However English and Hindi are the official languages of the government of India.

22 might seem like a lot, but according to the 2011 census, India counts no less than 122 dialects spoken by at least 10,00 people besides another 30 languages spoken by at least one million people.

It should come to no surprise that a country as vast, as populous and as rich in history as India, has been influenced by many outside factors while at the same time developing very distinct regional cultures.

The successive rule of the Muslim Mughal Empire, the Hindu Maratha Empire, and the British Raj have significantly influenced the cultures, religions and languages of the Indian sub-continent.

Persian and English were the two contact languages that had the most influence on the local dialects commonly spoken in India.

Persian came along with the Muslim Turco-Mongol Chagatai dynasty that ruled the Mughal Empire. The Empire was founded in 1526 by Babur, and the Moguls rulers only managed to access power after conquering or submitting the many princely states that composed medieval India up to the middle of the 16th century.

The Red Fort in Delhi was built more than 400 years ago and served as the main residence of the Mogul Emperor’s family for more than two centuries. (by Carlos A Zambrano)The Mogul court adhered to the Indo-Persian culture and while the ruling family brought a lot of elements drawn from the Persian society they also adopted many local Indian traditions and customs. Hindustani dawned under their influence.

The Persian language started to mix with several Śauraseni dialects that were spoken in central India, mainly Braj Bhasha, Awadhi and the dialect of Delhi.

The Imperial court and the different waves of immigration coming from the West boosted the introduction of Persian, Arabic and Turkish words into the local Indian Khari Boli (meaning “standing dialects”, elevated to literary languages).

Another source of influence was the Muslim Imperial army, camping in and around the principal cities of the Empire, including the capital Delhi. At the time, most of the soldiers were garrisoned in the Red Fort near which the Urdu Bazar (Urdu meaning army or camp) developed. Soldiers speaking Persian and local shopkeepers and residents mixed, and so did their languages.

The Red Fort in Delhi.

Although Persian was the official language, used at the Imperial court and within the socio-economic institutions of the time, Arabic remained as the official language of the Muslim religion in the Indian subcontinent.  The integration of local dialects words into the Persian lingua franca, mainly conducted by merchants, soldiers, preachers and the local justice courts, meant that by the 17h century an early form of Hindustani had emerged, and though it was born from the Persian and Arabic languages, its base was slowly replaced with local Indian dialects words.

The emergence of one common language

Hindustani became the universal language of Hindu and Muslim communities (even though not the official one) and showed how much both civilisations had influenced each other through more than 300 years of co-existence.

The language remained as the common vernacular up until 1837, when Hindustani in the Persian script (i.e. Urdu) replaced Persian as the official language.

This change created a divide between Hindus and Muslims especially in the North of India where the Hindu majority argued that the government and official institutions should use the written native Devanagari script.

Following years of lobbying and political games, Hindi in the Devanagari script eventually became the official language of the Indian nation in 1949 but only after British rule over the country ended.

Holi festival in India/ Holi festival is celebrated all over India. The festival of colours can last up to one week and though it is an Hindu tradition, it has also been celebrated by Muslims, especially to celebrate the fact that both Muslims and Hindu fought together against the British Empire.

The Use of English in India

English was introduced in India, in 1611, when the East India Company arrived at the court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir and secured the rights to trade in India.

The East India Company was an English private company owned by stockholders and reporting to a board of directors in London, formed to trade with the East Indies (presently maritime Southeast Asia). While it started as a monopoly on trade institution, the powers of the Company quickly rose to be a de facto government with its own army and legal system.

For more than a century the Company’s influence continued to grow throughout the Indian subcontinent, and in 1757, the Company started its military expansion, using the decline of the Mughal Empire to its advantage. During those years, the official language of the Company’s government was English, and the education system put in place also used English as a teaching language.

In less than 50 years the private company had conquered most of India as well as other territories in South East Asia.

But in 1858, the British Parliament, dissatisfied with corruption that reigned within the East India Company, liquidated it and took control of all its assets. Thus began the British Raj.

The British Crown continued to control India for almost a century until its Independence in 1947 and the subsequent creation of the Indian Union.

Although there never were many British people living in India, they controlled most of the country’s wealth and political institution. They imposed British laws and created wicked ones to maintain their dominion over the Indian sub-continent.

Mountbatten and Gandhi in India. The Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma was the last viceroy of India and negotiated the independence of the country with leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi.

During all this time, English was the language of the ruling elite, and despite India’s independence, English remained an official language.

Because of India’s vast territories and primarily divided regions, the choice of Hindi as a national language did not appear to be fair for states in which natives spoke another language. It is mainly because of India’s strong regionalism that English remains so used today.

Higher education, most national and international businesses, as well as certain parts of the Indian government, continue to use English as their primary language.

The Bengali Language in India

Bengali is the second most widely spoken language in India after Hindi. Like Hindi, Bengali belongs to the Indo-Aryan family of languages.

The modern form of Bengali emerged during the 19th and 20th century and was based on the dialect spoken in the Nadia region, today part of the Indian state of West Bengal. The vocabulary of the emerging language drew most of its words from Magadhi Prakrit and Pali dialects but also borrowed a great deal from Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic as well as other Asian languages the locals were in contact with.

Today Bengali is mostly spoken in the Indian states of  West Bengal, Tripura and parts of Assam as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and counts more than 80 million speakers in India only.

Because it is also the national language of Bangladesh (one of the most populous countries in the world) Bengali is the 7th most spoken native language with around 300 million speakers worldwide.

The national anthem of both India and Bangladesh are in Bengali.

Bengali newspaper in the UK. Many Bengali newspapers can be found for free in Bricklane, London as most of the restaurant owners on the streets are Indian or Bengla. (by Rob McKaughan)

The Telugu Language in India

Telugu is the third most spoken native language after Hindi and Bengali. Contrary to Hindi, Telugu belongs to the Dravidian language family, which linguists have struggled to identify a birthplace for. Some think that the Dravidian languages may have been born in India while others believe that it was brought by migrations three to four thousands years ago.

Wherever it came from, the Dravidian languages, including Telugu, are mainly spoken in South and Southeast India with small communities speaking Telugu-related languages living in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore

Telugu is the official language of the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and the union territory of Puducherry but due to historical migrations, Telugu is also spoken in some other regions: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, parts of Jharkhand and the Kharagpur region of West Bengal. It is also commonly used in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and surprisingly it is also the language of the Sri Lankan Gypsy people known as the Ahikuntakas.

Because Telugu is one of the oldest languages in India, with historical proof of Telugu being used going as far as 400BCE, the language has been listed by the Indian government, besides five other Indian languages, as a classical language of India.

A newspaper in Telugu. Learning how to read Telugu will be very complicated for Latin and Germanic language speaker. (by timtom.ch)

The Marathi Language in India

Marathi is another Indo-Aryan language mainly spoken on the western coast of India in the states of Goa and Maharashtra (making it the official language of the city of Mumbai) and in the union territories of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Even though it is not the official language of the state of Goa, any official business can legally be conducted in the Marathi language.

As one of the oldest Indo-Aryan languages in India and because it was the official language of the Maratha Empire, Marathi spread far beyond its birthplace and counts today more than 83 million native speakers making it the third most spoken language in India.

The first apparition of Marathi-related dialects can be traced all the way back to the 3rd century BCE and is often considered to be a sister language to Sanskrit with both languages borrowing from each other lexicon. Marahati was also influenced by Persian, Arabic, English as well as Portuguese (Goa was a Portuguese territory).

Despite its rich history and extensive literary culture, Marahati has yet to be listed as a Classical Language of India.

Holi festival goers in India. Holi is one of the most impressive festivals of India. Celebrated by the Hindu community across India, whatever the language they speak, during a night and a day people throw coloured powder at each other to celebrate the victory of good, the end of winter and the arrival of spring.

The Tamil Language in India

Tamil is the 5th most spoken native language in India with more than 60 million speakers and similar to Tengulu it belongs to the Dravidian language groups.

It is one of the 22 languages recognised by the 8th schedule of the India Constitution, and it is also the official languages of the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry but it is also commonly used by larges minorities in the states of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh.

Because of the importance of the Tamil diaspora, Tamil is the official language of two countries: Singapore and Sri-Lanka as well as being a recognised minority language in  Canada, Malaysia, Mauritius and South Africa.

Tamil is one of the oldest surviving classical languages in the world, and it is the oldest language ever recorded in India.

In 2004, due to political lobbying, Tamil became the very first Indian language to be listed as one of the Classical Language of India.

A newspaper in Tamil. Tamil has its own alphabet, different from the Sanskrit based Hindi one. (by John-OShea)

The Urdu Language in India

Urdu and Hindi are considered to be two dialects of one same language: Hindustani

Both languages are mutually intelligible meaning that Urdu speakers and Hindi speakers can understand each other. The difference resides in the alphabet that both languages used. Unlike Hindi which uses the native Devanagari script (originating from Brahmic family language), Urdu uses the  Persianised standard register that evolved from the Persian alphabet imported from the West by the Mogul rulers.

Urdu became the national language of Pakistan following the partition of British India in 1947 and is the official language of the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. It is also commonly spoken in some parts of Nepal.

The difference between Urdu and Hindi, besides their writing system, is mostly socio-politic. Hindi has long been the universal language of the Hindu community while Urdu served as vernacular for the Muslim community. In Indian cities and town, even where a majority of the population is Hindu, Muslim who co-exist peacefully often use Urdu, spreading the language beyond the states where it holds official status.

These days, Hindi speakers are entirely comfortable with Persian-Arabic borrowed words while Urdu speakers have no problem using words drawn from Sanskrit. Even though differences remain in technical and literary texts, the barrier created between the two languages is slowly eroding.

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