According to a saying, a culture’s attributes are defined by the languages spoken in it. In that case, India’s culture must be quite diversified as there are a total of 22 official languages there.
But which languages are the most common ones? Which areas are they spoken in? Why is Hindi the most prominent language in India? Here’s everything you need to know about Indian languages.
First things first
The first thing you need to know is: there’s no clear rule to define Indian linguistics. India’s population is more than 1.3 billion, making it the 7th largest country in the world. With such a population comes the biggest diversification in languages we have ever seen.
If two Indian strangers met on the street, there is only a 36% chance that they’d be able to understand each other. There are numerous contributing factors for it, including origin, mother tongue, and ethnicity.
Which is “The” Indian language?
Truth be told, there’s no single “the” Indian language. India’s constitution consists of 22 different official languages dispersed all across India. These are Hindi, Bengali, Maithili, Nepalese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, Assamese, Dogri, Kannada, Gujarati, Bodo, Manipur (also known as Meitei), Oriya, Marathi, Santali, Telugu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Malayalam, Konkani, and Kashmiri.
Here’s a short description of the most commonly spoken languages of India.
Hindi is a big language — not only in India but in the entire world. It’s the fourth largest language in the world, right after Mandarin, English, and Spanish. However, as you might have guessed, the biggest hub for Hindi is in India.
With more than 500 million active speakers, Hindi is the most commonly spoken language in India. Hindi is spoken widely amongst the “Hindi Belt” in the country; this belt runs across parts of the west, east, and north India. Moreover, nine states recognize Hindi as their official language in the country.
While the Hindi language is classified as a descendant of Sanskrit, it has also been influenced by many other languages throughout its long history.
The most prominent of the languages are Arabic, English, Turkic, Persian, and the Dravidian tongues. With such subtle influences on the languages throughout centuries, there are several dialects & differences of the language between its west and east variations.
In India, Hindi is heavily promoted, and there have been efforts to make the language more popular amongst the general consensus. These measures include altering milestone signage on highways from English to Hindi. This took place in Tamil Nadu, where Hindi isn’t that prevalent amongst the population.
Furthermore, the numerals on Indian notes were changed to those from the Devanagari script, which happens to be the script that Hindi and many other languages are written in.
Bengali is another one of the most prominent languages in India. Although Bengali is the national language of the country Bangladesh, it is also widely prevalent in some Indian States like Tripura, West Bengal, Lower Assam. It is also called Bangla by its native speakers.
Bengali currently holds the title as the fifth most spoken first language throughout the world today. It has more than 97 million active speakers throughout India only, which puts it second to only Hindi in terms of speakers within the country.
It is also similar to Hindi in terms of origins. Bengali, like Hindi, evolved from Sanskrit along with the addition of Prakit and Pali. There were also influences from many other languages throughout the world today. These include but are not limited to Dutch, Portuguese, English, French, and Persian.
In the present day, Bengali is divided into eight major disparate groups. The characteristics and differences of these groups depend on the geographical locations of their existence.
Marathi is an ancient language of India whose origins have been dated to more than 1,300 years ago. Currently, Marathi is recognized as an official language in states located in the western region of India. These states include Maharashtra and Goa.
In terms of native speakers, Marathi falls short of only Hindi and Bengali. It stands at over 83 million native speakers within the country, which makes it India’s third most widely spoken language.
Furthermore, due to its ancient past, Marathi has its share in some of the oldest works of literature that are found within the rich history of the country.
Like many other prominent Indian languages, Marathi, too, is a descendant of Sanskrit. Furthermore, it encompasses 42 regional dialects, at the very least. In fact, some of these dialects resemble Eastern Hindi in terms of structure and sound.
However, contrary to Hindi and Bengali, the influence on Marathi from foreign languages has remained minimal throughout the years. Rather, the roots of the language can be found in local languages within India like Gowlan, Deccan, Konkani, Ikrani, and more.
Standing at 81 million speakers within the country, Telugu falls just short of Marathi and is the fourth most widely spoken language in India. Telugu is a Dravidian language that is mainly found in the states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Yanam. It is also quite popular in Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and the Nicobar Islands.
Furthermore, Telugu also has the honor of being one of the few main languages in the country that is proclaimed the official lingo in more than one state.
Telugu itself has very ancient roots. Its earliest sign of existence is found in coins dating back to 400 BCE. A few words written in Telugu were found on coins dating back as such.
The first real inscription found that was written completely in Telugu is believed to date back to 575 AD and is presumed to be written by Renati Cholas.
Renati Cholas is known for choosing Telugu rather than Sanskrit while writing royal proclamations.
As both languages have Dravidian roots, Tamil is similar to Telugu. It is one of the official languages of Sri Lanka and Singapore and is also recognized in countries of minorities like Mauritius, Malaysia, and South Africa.
Tamil is praised as one of the oldest languages to exist in the modern age, and it has a literary history that dates back to more than 2,000 years ago. It is spoken widely, mainly in the Southern part of India. This primarily includes Tamil Nadu and the IUT (Indian Union Territory) of Puducherry.
The earliest transcriptions of the language have been found to be of 500 BCE, and literary works of the language date back to as early as 300 CE. These works are, however, in the original form of the language, which is known as Old Tamil.
Gujarati is mainly spoken in the Indian state of Gujarat. The language has more than 55 million native speakers. It is categorized as an Indo-European Language and is the official language in not only Gujarat but also Nagar Haveli, Diu, Daman, and Dadra.
In terms of the number of native speakers, Gujurati is the sixth most popular language found in the country.
The Urdu tongue can be considered as a Persianized version of the Hindu Language. It is also known as Lashkari within the borders of India. With more than 50 million native speakers of the language within the country, it qualifies as the seventh most popular language found in India.
Urdu is another one of the languages in India that has gained official status in more than a single state.
The states which recognize it as an official language include Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Telangana, West Bengal, Bihar, and also Delhi.
The native speakers of the Kannada language are known as Kannadigas. The language has the prestige of being honored as one of India’s classical languages.
Its literary history is unbroken, and it spans more than a millennium into the past. Kannadas is another language that has Dravidian roots.
There are more than 44 million Kannadigans throughout India, and it ranks as the eighth most spoken language in India. The language is spoken mainly in Karnataka, which is located in Southwestern India. There it has gained the status of an official state language. Its speakers are also found in some parts of Goa, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra.
Odia is another one of India’s classical languages. It has a very extensive history in literature and is widely spoken mainly in Odisha (a state in India). It is an Indo-Aryan language and has more than 37 million native speakers. Aside from Odisha, the language is also found in some other parts of India. These include Jharkhand, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.
India can be defined as a country that has a very rich heritage in linguistics. It makes India a fascinating country and a focal point of attraction for those who are interested in languages. Aside from the 22 official languages in India, there are also many others that are prevalent, but just not to a wide enough scale yet.
India is a very large country with a lot of versatile languages, and educating yourself on some of the most common ones out of only the 22 official languages is just the start of the journey.