India has been a melting pot of numerous languages, each with its own unique richness and historical significance.
Many of these tongues have evolved and grown over centuries, adding more complexity and diversity to India’s linguistic mosaic.
But how many languages are there in India?
Well, India has the third-highest number of languages in the world, after Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. The total number is disputed, with some sources claiming that there are 780 languages spoken in the country.
However, other sources say that there are over 19,500 languages or dialects spoken as mother tongues. Furthermore, language reports also indicate that there are 121 languages and 463 established languages.
Language Families in India
There are four main language families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austroasiatic, and Tibeto-Burman.
Indo-Aryan Language Family
Indo-Aryan languages dominate India’s northern regions, accounting for approximately 78% of the population’s speech.
Derived from Sanskrit, these languages are a sub-group of the Indo-Iranian family, which in turn belongs to the broader Indo-European language family.
Core members include Hindi (the fourth most spoken language globally), Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, and Gujarati. The rich literature and implicit familiarity to the English language are characteristic of Indo-Aryan languages.
Dravidian Language Family
Covering nearly 20% of India’s population, the Dravidian languages prevail in the southern states, which are often addressed as the Dravidian heartland.
The primary languages here are Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam. Unlike the Indo-Aryan languages, Dravidian languages have unique roots. Tamil literature, dating back to 300 BC, is one of the oldest in the world, reflecting this group’s antiquity.
Austroasiatic Language Family
The Austroasiatic family, in comparison, has a marginal presence in India, with only approximately 3% of the citizenry speaking its languages.
Predominantly spoken by tribal and indigenous communities, these languages include Khasi, Mundari, Santali, and Ho.
Concentrated in central and eastern India, these languages have historically been under-researched, but provide a rich pool of linguistic features.
Tibeto-Burman Language Family
The Tibeto-Burman languages represent the speech of India’s northeastern states. This family forms the Indian part of a much larger linguistic community, Sino-Tibetan, that extends well into China.
With over a hundred languages representing a small percentage of India’s population, it spans Bodo, Meithei, and the various dialects of Naga. Due to geographical obstructions, these languages bear a rich array of linguistic divergence.
Official Languages and Their Roles
India does not have a national language. While the Indian Constitution originally identified Hindi in the Devanagari script for the central government’s official purposes, it was later decided that English would co-own this space as an associate official language. Their use is wide ranging, from education, mass media, and administration to judiciary.
In addition, India recognizes 22 languages under the 8th Schedule, and six languages – Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Odia – are given the status of ‘classical languages’ due to their rich, historical literary tradition.
The 22 Scheduled Languages
India, in its linguistic abundance, recognizes 22 major languages under the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
These are acknowledged as scheduled languages and include Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and a few others.
The most spoken language remains Hindi, followed by Bengali, which is the second most spoken language, and Marathi and Telugu, the third and fourth, respectively.
Tribal and Lesser-Known Languages
India is also home to several tribal and lesser-known languages that color its linguistic canvas. These languages are primarily spoken by tribal communities dispersed across the country, particularly in the Northeast, Central India, and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
The Northeast, referred to as the tribal belt of India, showcases a linguistic spectrum from languages like Khasi, Garo, and Mizo to the varied Naga dialects. Each has its own unique vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, reflecting the diversity within this region.
In Central and South India, languages such as Gondi, Santhali, and Bhili exhibit linguistic richness amongst tribes. The richness is also evident in the islands of Andaman and Nicobar, where tribal languages like Onge, Jarawa, Sentinelese, and others remain, in many ways, an anthropological enigma.
These languages are not just different in their phonetics and grammar, but they also encapsulate distinct tribal histories, knowledge of the environment, social organization, and cultures.
Threats to the Survival of These Lesser-Known Languages
The survival of the lesser-known languages is under threat for several reasons:
- Economic and Cultural Globalization: The increasing integration of India’s economy and society with the world and the spread of a pan-Indian culture have put pressure on tribal communities to adapt mainstream languages, pushing native languages to the sidelines.
- Migration and Urbanization: As members of these communities migrate to cities for better opportunities, they tend to adopt the predominant languages of their new environments for integration and livelihood, leading to a gradual disuse of their mother tongues.
- Lack of Institutional Support: Without adequate institutional and educational support to promote tribal languages, there is a declining interest amongst newer generations to learn and propagate these languages.
- Social Stigmas: Certain social stigmas associated with tribal languages often act as deterrents for younger generations to learn and communicate in these languages, fearing social exclusion or marginalization.
Language Preservation Efforts in India
Language preservation efforts are also growing stronger with time, aimed at protecting the linguistic diversity of India.
From community programs encouraging the learning of tribal languages to national policies aimed at promoting regional languages, these efforts reflect the importance placed on preserving India’s linguistic heritage.
Government initiatives, like the ‘Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat’ program, aim to promote mutual understanding and cultural exchanges between people of different states, thereby preserving the multilingual character of the country.
India’s Linguistic Richness as a Global Influence
The linguistic richness of India extends beyond the country’s borders, influencing communities and cultures around the globe. Indian languages, such as Sanskrit, have birthed numerous languages outside India, creating a far-reaching linguistic legacy. For example, many Asian languages like Balinese, Javanese, Malay, and Thai have been influenced by Sanskrit.
India hosts a rich tapestry of languages, sprouting from numerous language families. Despite challenges like globalization and lack of support, various preservation efforts are protecting Indian languages and maintaining their cultural significance.