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/

Secondary Languages

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how everyone says, “Hey, you should learn Arabic or Chinese!” when they’re talking about what language is best to learn. While it’s all well and good to learn those languages, but what about the poor little secondary languages, the ones that no one knows about because they’re not as useful? Simply put, these languages are learned almost exclusively for fun or other more specific reasons. In this post, I’m going to talk about which are the most useful secondary languages to learn.

1. Tamil

Tamil, the Dravidian language of South India and native to Tamil Nadu, holds official status in India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. Tamil is widely considered useful in South India, because it’s the language a lot of people are likely to know, in addition to their mother tongues and/or state language. You might argue Telugu or Kannada (the latter being my mother tongue) is more useful, but Tamil is more prevalent in South India than either. Tamil has an extensive classical literature and history as well.

2. Catalán

This language was and still is used along Spain’s eastern coast. The language is highly based off of Latin, though it has Iberian influences. Catalán is most famous for being spoken in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. It is the second most prevalent language in Spain after Castilian Spanish, and most speakers of Catalán also speak Castilian Spanish.

3. Romansh

This is one language that most people have never heard of, even among some of my fellow language geek friends. Romansh is a language spoken in Switzerland,  in a sizable portion of the country that borders Italy and Austria. If you ever decide to business in or visit that part of Switzerland, it might be handy, simply as a courtesy to the people there. Romansh holds official status in the canton of Grisons, so a lot of things will be written in Romansh.

4. Kurdish

Kurdish is a language spoken by the Kurds in parts of several countries in the Middle East. They are both an ethnic and linguistic minority, but have official status in Iraq. It would be handy to know, because the Kurds actually have semi-autonomy concessions within the Middle East. For some time now, the Kurds have been pushing for a sovereign Kurdish state.

Again, these are simply secondary languages, most of whose speakers probably speak the majority language(s) of the country in which they reside. Learning these languages is almost purely as courtesy to them, for fun, or perhaps something else if you so desire.