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Encyclopedia > Indian language

The article describes the languages spoken in the Republic of India. For information on languages spoken by the native peoples of North America, see Native American languages.

India is rich in languages, boasting not only the indigenous sprouting of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan tongues, but of the absorption of Middle-Eastern and European influences as well. Distinct, often ancient, and rich literary traditions are to be found in several languages, among them Bengali, Marathi, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada and Urdu, not to mention one of the world's most voluminous traditions of antiquity, Sanskrit.


The languages of India

Hindi, in the Devanagari script, is the federal official language of India, though the other tongues are endorsed as co-official by the central government. It is the mother tongue of 18% of the people, though it is said to be spoken well by about 30% of the population and understood sufficiently by perhaps an even greater number. While English, due to India's colonial past, is safely embedded in educated Indian circles and enjoys associate official status in the government system, it is not largely spoken by the vast preponderance of the country. (But it is worth mentioning that in the 1991 census, over 90 million people (about 11% of those asked) claimed that English was their first, second or third language.)

Individual states, whose borders are mostly drawn on socio-linguistic borders, are free to decide their own regional languages for internal administration and education, so there are 22 official languages spoken throughout the country. Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Kashmiri and Sindhi, are among the official languages which are widely spoken.

Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu are the largest official languages outside of Hindi. Urdu is the official language of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir while Bangla or Bengali is the official language of West Bengal (and the neighboring nation of Bangladesh). Linguistically, Hindi and Urdu are the same language (often referred as Hindustani), the difference being that Hindi is written in Devanagari script and has more words from Sanskrit and Prakrit while Urdu is written in the Arabic script and has more words from Persian and Arabic.

Sanskrit and Tamil are the classical languages of India. Though an official language, Sanskrit is not used for conversation, though spoken Sanskrit classes and youth camps are becoming more widespread. It is mainly used in rituals and ceremonies or as part of daily prayers in Hinduism. Tamil is spoken by 74 million people around the world, most of them in South India and Northern Sri Lanka.

In all, there are 24 languages which are spoken by a million or more persons, in addition to the thousands of dialects.

Alphabets of Indian languages

Indian languages have corresponding distinct alphabets. The two major families are those of the Dravidian languages and those of the Indo-Aryan languages, the former largely confined to the south and the latter to the north. With the exception of Urdu the alphabets of all these languages are native to India. There are those scholars who believe the scripts of the Northern languages (like Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindi and Punjabi) to be distant derivations of the Aramaic alphabet, though this is a disputed theory primarily because the number and grouping of sounds and letters are so radically different.

Phonetic alphabet

A remarkable feature of the alphabets of India is the manner in which they are organised. It is organised according to phonetic principle, unlike the Roman alphabet, which has a random sequence of letters.

The classification is as follows

voiceless consonants voiced consonants nasals
un-aspirated aspirated un-aspirated aspirated
guttural k kh g gh ng
palatal ch chh j jh ny
retroflex t th d dh nn
dental t th d dh n
bilabial p ph b bh m
vowel based y r l w
aspirations sh sh s h

This classification is observed in all the languages under discussion. Additionally each language has a few special letters signifying sounds specific to that language, as also a few symbols representing composite sounds.

Finally, the list of vowels is separately specified, as follows

a, aa, i, ii, u, uu, e, ai, o, au, um, (a)h

Additionally in Vedic Sanskrit, rr, rrr, lrr, lrrr

Note that the list read as pairs represents shorter and longer versions of same vowel. Here the first a is like u in bus. (a)h is special to Sanskritised words, occurring in word endings as in duhkh(a)h, meaning pain or suffering. It is impossible to say any of the consonants without the associated vowel and the default way of saying a consonant attaches the neutral a sound to it.

In languages of Eastern India like Bangla, Oriya and Assamese, a is spoken almost o.

The classification of these sounds is universal. Every language in India has a corresponding symbol, and also, with some modifications, the corresponding sound. In fact we may be tempted to think that all languages at least of the Indo-European family have the corresponding alphabets, give or take a few, and sometimes give or take a row or column.

For instance, English has t and d of the third row, but th and dh of fourth row. (In fact in English th spelt in all the articles and common nouns is actually the pronunciation of dh, the aspirated d). In French on the other hand, third row is absent, but t and d of the fourth row are used. English does not have the th and dh of the third row.

For nasals, Sanskrit imposes considerable systematics. The above scheme records that the nasal occurring in conjunction with any given row has a sound characteristic that row. For instance the nasalisation occurring in the word "Ganga" is that of the first row, while the nasalisation occurring in the words "India" or "integral" are character- istically front palatals. Speakers of any language have to necessarily speak in this manner though they never realise it.

The classification of the "vowel generated" may seem rather curious. The belief here is that y sound arises from conjunction of ii with a, w sound arises from trying to say u (as in put) or uu in conjunction with a. Old Sanskrit of the Hindu Rig Veda has two more vowels, rr and lrr, as also their corresponding longer versions. It is likely that the rr was guttural like the French r, more akin to a vowel than a consonant. The lrr remains a mystery for being classified a vowel. But this classification then explains r (as in run) and l (as in long) simply as conjunction of these vowels with the a sound.

The economy of this classification in the fact that effectively each of the five main rows is generated by one letter, the others are systmeatic modifications of the same. In modern Tamil, a great simplification of alphabet has been achieved by having only one symbol for each of the five rows, the specific hardening and aspiration understood from context while reading. Tamil script indeed spells kathai (story) and gadhai (weapon of Bhima) the same.

Urdu alphabet

Urdu is unique among Indian languages. It is derived from a proto-Hindi tongue known as Khadi Boli, whose vocabulary is Prakrit and Sanskrit-derived. Thus, most of Urdu's grammar is 'genetically' linked to that of older Prakrits. Much of Urdu's vocabulary (about 40%), on the other hand, derives its sources from Persian and Arabic. The word Urdu, in Turkish, means "camp", "tent", or "military encampment". Presumably these cantonments were where Mughal armies, mostly Muslim speakers of Persian (and hence intimately aware of Arabic), and proto-Hindi-speaking natives, mostly Hindu, interacted, soon forming a new mixed language. For this reason, the Persian script, in turn derived from Arabic script, was adopted and molded to fit with the Indian sound-system. For this reason, while the Urdu language itself has (with the exception of four sounds) phonemes identical to that of Hindi, its script has no connection to native Indian alphabets.

List of Indian Languages

There are 3,372 languages in India but only 216 are spoken by a group of 10,000 persons or more.

See also

Languages of Pakistan

External link

  • [1] (http://www.aczone.com/) Resources for typesetting Indian languages in LaTeX.
  • List of Languages of India (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_country.asp?name=India)

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