The Many Languages of India

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Last week we observed how the starting point of the millenary voyage of the Romani people, now known for their diffusion all across Europe, was the Indian subcontinent. Interestingly enough, the strongest evidence for dating the exact departure of the nomadic people from India comes from the language they still to this day speak, which, despite the heavy influence of later contact languages, retains its characteristic Indian heritage.

However, to say that a language is “Indian” is a somewhat vague umbrella term. The languages of India were the object of a recent study by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which counted a staggering 780 languages being spoken in the country today and estimated that the actual number may be closer to 900.

Just like in Europe, the Indo-European family is the predominant language group. 700 million people (corresponding to 69% of the population of India, mostly in the Northern and Central parts of the country) speak a language belonging to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. The 422 million speakers of Hindi counted by the People’s Linguistic Survey make it the most-spoken language in the country, although this group is far from homogeneous; the language defined as “Hindi” contains many dialects, some of which (such as Rajasthani) are considered languages of their own right under some definitions, including by the very people who speak these variants of Hindi. Other Indo-Aryan languages such as Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, and Urdu are each spoken by tens of millions of people.

The Dravidian languages represent the second largest group, with about 200 million speakers, or 26% of the population, concentrated especially in the southern part of the country. Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada all have more than 30 million speakers. The British presence in India in the 1800s led to the “discovery” of these languages and the postulation that they represented a close-knit language group.

In addition to these two main language blocks, there is a smattering of Austroasiatic languages in Northeastern and Eastern India which account for “only” 10 million speakers, while the Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken by about 6 million speakers living mostly along the Indian borders with, not surprisingly, Tibet and Burma.

The languages indigenous to the Andaman islands belong to the Ongan language group; today just two of these languages survive and both are considered to be endangered. Onge and Jarawa have just 96 and 220 speakers each (as of 1997) compared to the hundreds of millions which speak an Indo-Aryan language.

India is also home to one language isolate, which means a language which cannot be classified as belonging to any language group (Basque is a European example of a language isolate). As of 1991 only about 2,000 people living south of the Tapti River in West-Central India could claim to speak Nihali.

The People’s Linguistic Survey places special attention on these endangered languages. It estimates that 220 Indian languages have disappeared in the past 50 years and that another 150 could meet the same fate in the 50 years to come.

Despite the great number of “local” possibilities, Indians have chosen to use a European language – English – as their lingua franca. The overseer of the People’s Linguistic Survey, linguist Ganesh Devy, says that English, however, does not represent a threat to the survival of Indian languages. Rather, he sees the disregard for smaller minority languages as the greatest danger for the health of Indian languages, both big and small.

“When a language imbibes words from outside, it grows. Languages grow by taking words from other languages. Every language is from beginning to the end, a polluted language. The threat will come. Hindi has its roots – there are 126 languages surrounding the Hindi belt… Because they are feeder languages, they feed into Hindi, they are the roots for Hindi.

English is the sky. The sky will not harm the tree, but if you chop the roots, a mighty tree can fall. This happened with Latin, and should not happen with Hindi. Out attitude of neglect towards smaller languages is a threat to larger languages.”

Do you speak any of India’s plethora of languages?

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