A Brief History
On January 26, 1965, the Constitution of India was amended to make Hindi the official language of Government in India, with English relegated to a “subsidiary official language.” Although the Indian constitution recognizes 22 “scheduled” languages, there are actually many more dialects spoken throughout the country, about 780, perhaps the second most linguistically diverse nation on Earth (after new Guinea with over 800 languages).
According to the official census of India, there are 122 “major” languages and an additional 1599 languages spoken there (presumably dialects). At least 30 of the languages are spoken by a million or more people, and another 122 that are spoken by a minimum of 10,000 people.
The source of most Indian languages is the Indo-Aryan family of languages, accounting for 74% of the languages spoken there. Another 20-24% of the languages are derived from the Dravidian language group. Both the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian language families are native to the Indian sub-continent and the surrounding areas. Other contributors to the Indian linguistic picture are the Austroasiatic (from Southeast Asia) and Sino-Tibetan (China and Tibet) languages. Of course, 200 years of British rule has left a lasting impression on language in India, with English spoken widely among the educated classes. During the Mughal period (early 16th to early 18th Centuries) Persian was the language of Court/Government. Once the British became widespread in India (1765-1820), English became the preeminent language of government until and beyond independence in 1947. Independence included the formation of Pakistan from India, and with it the large portion of Urdu speaking people.
In fact, English is also mentioned as the “official language of government” in Section 3 of the same article (343) of the Indian Constitution, creating a somewhat confusing view of what is “official” and what is not. Over 226 million Indians speak English as their first language, while over 422 million Indians speak Hindi as their primary language. Other languages with at least 50 million primary speakers include Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, and Urdu. Of course, these major languages are represented by innumerable local dialects. Basically, is you speak English or especially Hindi, you could get along in most urban areas of India, though in rural areas you may need to learn the local dialect.
Some countries, such as Canada, are notably bi-lingual, and Switzerland boasts Italian, French and German speaking areas, but few places come close to the linguistic variety of India. The former Soviet Union certainly had major language diversity, and Russia retains some of that heritage today, but certainly not like India! Question for students (and subscribers): What other language diverse places can you think of? Do you have any interesting tales of language while abroad? If so, please share those tales with us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Viharini, JD. Enjoying India: The Essential Handbook. Sara Satara Press, 2010
Wolpert, Stanley. India. University of California Press, 2009.