A Rundown of Indian Languages

A lot of people are becoming more aware that India has more than a single language that is spoken across the country. Even though Hindi is the official lingua franca, there are twenty-two official languages of India, which come from four different language families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, and Munda, excluding English. 


However, only six classical languages recognized by the government as such, which include Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Oriya. In 2006, Minister of Tourism & Culture Ambika Soni defined a classical language as:

“High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500–2000 years; a body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; the literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community; the classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.”

This is not to say that the other languages are rich in literature of their own. In fact, many modern works of literature from India were written in non-classical languages, as defined by Soni, including, but not limited to, Bengali and Marathi.

Some history is required to understand why there are so many different, non-mutually-intelligible languages in India. There are at least two major progenitor languages that are seen as major presences in India: Sanskrit and the Proto-Dravidian. It is hypothesized by scholars that migrants from what is modern day Turkey and Iran came to India from the northwest, through Pakistan, settling throughout the north, in around the 2nd millennium BCE. Proto-Dravidian, on the other hand, is native to the subcontinent, existing for much longer in India than Sanskrit. Proto-Dravidian was spoken primarily in the South. The origins of the Munda family are unknown, though it has been shown that they are distantly related to Khmer and Vietnamese, as well as  other minority languages through Southeast Asia. And it is important to remember that another large influence on Indian languages are the Farsi and Arabic languages, which came only much later to the subcontinent, through the Mughal empire. It is for that reason that the Arabic and Farsi heavy form of Hindi, known as Urdu, exists today.

Sanskrit is the liturgical language of Hinduism, and is used almost exclusively as such today, though it is an official language of Uttarakhand, and there are efforts to revive its usage. It is the language of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas, the core texts of the Hindu religion, though all of them have been translated into the other languages. It is also studied as a classical language in schools, in much same way Latin used to be a required subject in Western schools. Many languages, primarily in North India, borrow much of their vocabulary from Sanskrit, so it is very helpful to know. Classical Sanskrit’s formal grammar was standardized by Pāṇini, a Sanskrit grammarian, in his major work, Aṣṭādhyāyī (“Eight-Chapter Grammar”), written in 500 BCE, and is still used as the authority on the Sanskrit language today. Some of the South Indian languages, which are primarily Dravidian in origin, also borrow, to a lesser extent, from Sanskrit. Words from Sanskrit in Dravidian languages are often easily noticed by features such as the presence of aspirated consonants, and the consonant clusters dr as opposed to ḍr, and tr as opposed to ṭr.

Now, Dravidian languages are from a completely different family from the languages of the North, and share no similarities with them. Sanskrit penetrated South India as the language of the Maurya Empire, which included all of North India as well as much of South India, save for the tip of the peninsula, which largely encompasses the Tamil-speaking state of Tamil Nadu today. Tamil is not at all intelligible with any North Indian language, and influenced many Southern languages as well. The Dravidian ancestor language developed solely on the Indian subcontinent, eventually dividing into the Southern languages, such as Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, and Malayalam. Tamil remains a sort of oddity among the Indian languages, as it is a liturgical language, of the Ayyavizhi tradition, and also exhibits unique traits as a language, because it distinguishes three different forms: a classical form based on the ancient form of the language, a modern literary form, and a modern colloquial spoken form. Tamil is also spoken in other countries as an official language, including Singapore and Sri Lanka, making it more relevant than just within India.


Kuzoian, Alex. “This Animated Map Shows How European Languages Evolved.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 26 June 2015.

“Geography and India’s Language Debate.” Z Geography. 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 June 2015.

“South Asian Language Families.” 27 Oct. 2007. Web. 26 June 2015.

“South Asian Language Families” links to: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/South_Asian_Language_Families.jpg

CC BY-SA 3.0 links to: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Racism in Language: The Origins of “Black” People

After having read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, I participated in a Socratic discussion on the mimesis (the manifestation of societal or real-world perspectives in art) of racism in the novel. This got me thinking: certain words in different languages have inherently racist, exclusionary, or derogatory meanings or undertones.

Let’s consider the word, “black.” It is a common word, not really seen as offensive or rude by most people. However, as one of my classmates pointed out, the use of a color to refer to an entire people is indeed somewhat if not entirely pejorative in sentiment (historically speaking of course). This is evident in the fact that most Romance languages, those of countries that participated in slavery of some kind in the New World, do not use the actual word for “black” to refer to those of African descent, not in polite/accepted speech anyway. There is no overlap between the color and the demographic term. In Spanish, you would would say moreno/morena or prieto/prieta (though as I understand it, the latter is highly offensive in the Caribbean). Even Portuguese, the language of the country that initiated the slave trade in the first place, distinguishes negro and preto in reference to people as polite and offensive, respectively. As Dr. Molefi Kete Asante points out, this supposedly neutral term stems from a generalization for all the Africans of different ethnic groups and backgrounds.

African cultural and ethnic differences were neither recorded nor considered important in making distinctions, any African was black, and any black was a Negro, and Negroes had no cultural heritage. To recognize Africans as Asante, Yoruba, Ibo, Ibibio, Hausa, Mandingo, Fulani, Wolof, Serere, Kikongo, Fante, and so forth would have meant ascribing history, cosmologies, indeed, humanity to those who were enslaved. Without humanity, Africans could be called the worst epithets thinkable by white Americans.

Now, here’s another word: kaffir. This is widely known to be a word akin to the n-word in English in both its history and severity as a pejorative, mostly in South Africa, against Africans. This word comes from the Portuguese borrowing from Arabic for non-Muslim peoples in Africa. The original word itself simply means, “non-believer” with respect to Islam. However, you may also be familiar with the kaffir lime. This fruit’s name has similar but separate origins. Hindus and Muslims alike on the Indian subcontinent adopted the Arabic term to refer to the people of Sri Lanka, where the fruits were grown, and so they were named. As as result, this word does have racist connotations as well. However, in many places, particularly in Muslim countries and India, the word is completely innocuous, simply meaning, “disbeliever” with respect to one’s own religion, though it is not necessarily a nice thing to say.

I’m not sure I can find any other words at the moment, but I am sure they exist in every language. Feel free to share this on Facebook and Tumblr and discuss this (in a civil manner, I hope)!