0954 GMT March 01, 2021
India’s society, culture, history and politics have continuously been shaped by the multiplicity of her languages. So, how many languages are spoken in India? The country is home to speakers of about 461 languages. Of these, 447 languages are actively used in daily communication, while 14 are extinct. Among these, 121 languages have more than 10,000 speakers and 22 of these are officially recognized in the Indian Constitution. These include Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Maithili, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. These are referred to as the ‘scheduled languages’ and according to the nationwide census conducted in 2011, 96.7 percent of Indians speak any one of these languages as their mother tongue. Hindi is spoken by a majority of the Indian population (26.6%), followed by Bangla (7.94 %), Marathi (6.84 %) and Telugu (6.68 %).
Of the scheduled languages, Hindi is recognized as the national official language; English is used at the national level as a subsidiary official language. Post-independence, several of India’s states followed the linguistic line, making the language spoken by most number of people its official communication tool: Marathi in Maharashtra, Bangla in West Bengal, Kannada in Karnataka and so on. Thus, unlike many monolingual countries that have a single official language, there is no single ‘Indian’ language.
The main language families of India are the following: Indo-Aryan – this family includes major languages such as Hindi, Punjabi, Nepali, Marathi, Oriya, Bangla and Axomiya as well as tribal languages such as Bhili and Katkari. These languages have descended from the classical language Sanskrit via the Prakrits. The Dravidian family of languages includes four major, literary languages in southern India as well as a number of tribal languages. The Daic family of languages in Arunachal Pradesh and in Assam and the Andamanese language family in the Andaman Islands are two smaller genealogical groups in the country.
Interestingly, all these Indian language groups share ancestry with languages from other parts of the world: Indo-Aryan languages are historically related to languages in Europe, which were derived from Latin and Greek. Thus, Bangla, Hindi, Persian, English, German and Dutch are all distant cousins. The Munda or Austro-Asiatic languages are genetically related to languages in Vietnam and Cambodia, while the Tibeto-Burman languages are relations of languages spoken in Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan and China.
Irrespective of their varying ancestries, the speakers of the various Indian languages do not live in isolation. Over millennia, they have intermingled for social, economic and other reasons. In the process, their languages have been enriched with words and constructions from the surrounding languages. Such processes of assimilation and convergence define the Indianness of the multitude of languages, highlighting the unity underlying the country’s linguistic diversity.
*Sonal Kulkarni-Joshi is professor in Linguistics at the Deccan College, Pune.