Who speaks Indian languages?
India hosts great linguistic fragmentation: about a thousand different languages and dialects are spoken in the subcontinent. However, official languages are limited today to the following: Hindī in India, Urdu in Pākistān, Bengālī or Bangla in Bangla Desh, Nepālī in Nepal, Tibetan in Bhutan and in Sikkim, Sri Lankan or Tamil in the island of Ceylon (Srī Lanka). Besides, it must be remembered that English was used throughout India during the British colonial domination.
Which families do the Indian languages belong to?
Languages and dialects of India belong to four major linguistic families:
1.- to the Indo-European family belong most of the languages spoken in the peninsula, with the exception of its Southernmost part;
2.- to the Dravidian family belong most of the languages spoken in the Southern part of India and the Northern part of the island of Ceylon;
3.- the Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken in some regions of the Northern and Eastern part of the country;
4.- the Munda languages are spoken in different linguistic islands, scattered in Eastern and Central regions of the peninsula, between the state of Bombay and West Bengal.
The most important family is certainly the Indo-European, both because it owns the most prestigious literary tradition and because it concerns more people. These languages descend from the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European, composed by the Iranian group (to which the only Balochi dialect spoken in the South-Western Pakistan belongs) and the Indo-Aryan group, comprising all other Indo-European languages and dialect spoken in India.
Indo-Aryan has a long written and spoken tradition, that enables us to follow the evolution from ancient times to the present day; in this tradition three successive stages are conventionally identified: an Ancient phase (Old Indian), which distinguishes a more archaic period represented by the Vedic and a more recent represented by Classical Sanskrit; a Middle phase (Medium-Indian), which the different Prakrit dialects, the Pāli and a form of Sanskrit significantly modified by the introduction of many Prakrit elements; and a Modern phase (Neo-Indian), encompassing the various languages and dialects still in use today.
What are the main linguistic features of the Indo-Arian languages of India?
The most remarkable phenomena that occurred in the long evolution of Indo-Aryan languages are the following. In phonetics:
- the evolution of the accent from musical to expiratory;
- the vocalization of the sonants l and r, which had already become a, i, u in the Medium-Indian;
- the monophthongization of the old diphthongs ei, oi, ai and eu, ou, au to respectively long e and o;
- the weakening and subsequent disappearance of final vowels;
- the simplification of many consonant nexus with the lengthening of the preceding vowel.
- the progressive disappearance of the dual number and of the neutral gender;
- the weakening of nominal inflection and the introduction of postpositions to express syntactic relations;
- the simplification of the verbal system with the adoption of periphrastic forms.
All these phenomena, as we see, are similar to those occurring in the transition from Latin to the Romance languages.
The various languages and dialects of Neo-Indian in use today can be subsumed into four groups, each of which has its internal consistency:
- a Western group, spoken in the Indus Valley and in a vast region South-East of it, up to Bombay and beyond, reaching the border area of Dravidian languages. This group includes the Western Punjābī or Lahndā, the Sindhī, the Gujarātī, the Mahratta and, further East, the Rājasthāni;
- a North-Western group, spoken in the mountain regions North of Lahore. This group includes the Kāfirī, the Kashmīrī, the Shinā and the Kohistānī;
- a Central group, including the proper Punjābī, the Pahārī, the Nepālī, and, most important of all, the Hindī, which is the official language of India since 1949 (Names in this site are basically given Hindi pronunciation);
- an Eastern group, including the Bihārī, the Assamese, the Bengālī and the Oriyā spoken in South-Western Ceylon, and the Sinhalese, spoken in the South-Western Ceylon.
Different types of writing correspond to this variety of languages; the main writing systems used in India are the Devangari, the Bengali, the Oriyā for the Indo-Aryan languages, the Kannada, the Tamil, the Telugu and the Malayālam for the Dravidian languages. The main literary languages in use today are Hindī, Urdu, Bengālī, Assamese, Oriyā, Punjābī, Gujarātī, Mahratta within the Indo-Aryan group, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Malayālam within the Dravidian family.
- Enciclopedia Grolier