The Indian subcontinent consists of a number of separate linguistic communities each of which share a common language and culture. The people of India speak many languages and dialects which are mostly varieties of about 14 principal languages. Some Indian languages have a long literary history--Sanskrit literature is 3,000 years old and Tamil 2,000. India also has some languages that do not have written forms.
The Indian languages belong to four language families: Indo-European, Dravidian, Mon-Khmer, and Sino-Tibetan
. Indo-European and Dravidian languages are used by a large majority of India's population. The language families divide roughly into geographic groups. Languages of the Indo-European group are spoken mainly in northern and central regions. The languages of southern India are mainly of the Dravidian group. Some ethnic groups in Assam and other parts of eastern India speak languages of the Mon-Khmer group. People in the northern Himalayan region and near the Burmese border speak Sino-Tibetan languages.
Language and society
Official languages. Hindi is the principal official language of India. Sanskrit and 16 regional languages are also official languages. English has the status of an "associate" language. Hindi is the native language of more than a third of India's people, and many others speak Hindi as a second language. Only about 2 per cent speak English but it serves as a common language among most educated Indians, and people use it for many official and administrative purposes. (Top)
Organization by states. In general, Indians who speak the same language live in the same state. At least one major language is spoken in each state. Some states have been created from parts of others to unite members of a language group.
Government policy.The Indian government at times has tried to promote Hindi as a national language. However, many Indians who do not speak Hindi do not want it to become the nation's only official language. They claim that the best jobs in government would go to those who speak Hindi. In addition, many Indians take pride in their regional languages, many of which have old and honoured literatures and are the expression of a great cultural heritage. They fear that this heritage would one day be lost if everyone spoke Hindi.
Language conflict. The official language of India is Hindi. But for many years, there have been bitter divisions, sometimes leading to violent confrontations, over the official language. One division concerns the relative positions of Hindi and the regional languages, some of which are spoken by tens of millions of people. A related question is the status of English. Supporters of Hindi as an official language mostly oppose the use of English. But supporters of the regional languages look to English as an alternative link between the Indian states. (Top)
Education. Children in primary and secondary schools study in their regional languages. At the end of ten years of school education, a student normally learns three languages, two of which are Hindi and English. The third language is either the official language of the state, the mother tongue of the student, or a classical language such as Sanskrit. In most colleges and universities, teaching is in regional languages but English is also widely used. (Top)
Language experts have traced three main stages in the development of Indo-European languages. The first stage was the Sanskrit language. Migrant peoples from the northwest used Sanskrit in northern India sometime before 1000 B.C. In the next stage, Prakrit evolved from Sanskrit by 250 B.C. Pali was another language of these times that derived from Sanskrit. From about A.D. 1000, later forms of Prakrit, collectively called Apabhramsha, gave birth to the various regional languages in common usage today. (Top)
Vedic and classical Sanskrit.The old Sanskrit called Vedic or Vedic Sanskrit, was more complex than the later form of the language, called classical Sanskrit. The Vedic language became simplified as it changed into classical Sanskrit. In the 400's B.C., the grammarian Panini wrote a very detailed description of classical Sanskrit. This stopped the literary (written) language from changing any further.
Pali, Prakrit, and Apabhramsha.
While Sanskrit remained largely unchanged as the classical language of literature, the spoken language evolved through further stages. The first of these was Pali, adopted as the language of Buddhism.
Modern Indo-European languages.
The main modern languages to evolve from the various regional forms of Apabhramsha are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Konkani, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Rajasthani, and Sindhi. These languages began to emerge after A.D. 1000. As they evolved, they borrowed words from Sanskrit and also from Persian (one of the languages of India's Muslim dynasties). These northern Indian languages are now major regional languages, each spoken by several million people. Nepali, a close relative of Hindi, is the national language of Nepal. Bengali is the national language of Bangladesh as well as being the language of West Bengal. Modern Hindi, which is based on a Delhi dialect but borrows many words from Sanskrit, is India's majority language. Hindi's sister language, Urdu, has the same grammar but borrows many words from Persian and Arabic. Urdu is the national language of Pakistan.
The languages of southern India make up the Dravidian family. Speakers of Dravidian languages also group together in parts of India where northern languages predominate. About 200 million of India's people speak Dravidian languages.
Many features of pronunciation are shared by all languages of southern Asia. An important example is the distinction between one form of t, made with the tongue against the top teeth, and another form of t, made with the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouth. Another feature is the use of a consonant pronounced with a release of breath. In English script this is shown by adding h (in such words as Sikh).