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The Tongues We Speak
by Dr. Sutapa Chaudhuri

India is a land of many tongues. India is a multilingual society with at least 30 different languages and around 2000 dialects. The government of India recognizes 112 mother tongues that have more than 10,000 speakers. 188 languages have been tabulated, and as many as 544 dialects identified. Hindi is the official national language of India. The Indian constitution also recognizes 18 principal state languages, along with English, which are used in schools and in official transactions. These are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Telugu, Tamil, and Urdu.

In India various language families are spoken. The vast majority of the indigenous languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent belong in either of the two great language families -- the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family, most of which are spoken in the north and central India, or the Dravidian family of languages, most of which are spoken in the south. The other major language groups are the Sino-Tibetan languages spoken along the Himalayan ridge, and the Austro-Asiatic languages of some tribal groups.

Languages belonging to the Indo-Iranian group such as Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Persian, and Punjabi, are prevalent in northern and central India. In southern India, where Dravidian languages are more common, the most widely spoken tongues are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam. In addition, English is used as lingua franca in various linguistic regions.

Indo-European languages stem originally from Sanskrit. Hindi is the main language of more than 40 percent of the population. Hindi is written in script called Devanagari and draws on Sanskrit vocabulary. Urdu uses Persian Arabic script. Bengali is spoken in West Bengal. Like Hindi, it is descended from Sanskrit. It is the language of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (1913), and has the most extensive literature of any modern Indian language. The origin of most scripts for the Indo-Aryan languages can ultimately be traced to Brahmi, which is of North Semitic derivation. Devanagari, a development of Brahmi, is used for Nepali, Marathi, and Kashmiri, as well as for Hindi, Sanskrit, and the Prakrits. Gujarati, Bengali, Assamese, and Oriya all have individual writing systems derived from Devanagari. A Persian Arabic script is used for Urdu, Sindhi (sometimes also written in Devanagari), and Punjabi. The sacred teachings of Sikhism are recorded in Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script, which was devised by a Sikh guru.

The history of the Indo-Aryan language branch is often divided into three main stages: (1) Old Indo-Aryan, comprising Vedic Sanskrit, the earliest form of Sanskrit, dating from about 1500 BC to about 200 BC and classical Sanskrit (from about 500 BC) (2) Middle Indo-Aryan (from about the 3rd century BC), which includes the vernacular dialects of Sanskrit called Prakrit (3) New Indo-Aryan (from about the 10th century AD), which comprises the modern languages of the northern and central the India.

The Middle Indo-Aryan Prakrits existed in many regional varieties, which eventually developed literatures of their own. Pali, the language of the Buddhist canonical writings, is the oldest literary Prakrit. Today, about 750 million people in India alone speak one of the Indo-Aryan languages. The number of languages is difficult to specify. Roughly 35 are of some significance, particularly Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Bihari, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Tamil, and Telugu, each of which has at least 10 million speakers. Bihari is actually the name of a group of three related languages—Bhojpuri, Maithili, and Magahi—spoken mainly in northeastern India in Bihâr. Despite its large number of speakers, Bihari is not a constitutionally recognized language of India. Even in Bihar, Hindi is the language used for educational and official transactions.

About 23 Dravidian languages are spoken by an estimated 169 million people, mainly in southern India. The 4 major Dravidian tongues are recognized as official state languages—Tamil in Tamil Nâdu, Telugu in Andhra Pradesh, Kannada in Karnataka, and Malayalam in Kerala. They have long literary histories and are written in their own scripts. Telugu is spoken by the largest number of people. Tamil is the oldest of the four main Dravidian languages, with a literary history that begins in the 1st century AD. Other Dravidian languages have fewer speakers and are, for the most part, not written. English is spoken by as many as 5 percent of Indians and various Dravidian languages are spoken by about 25 percent.

The 12 Munda languages are spoken by tribal people northeastern and central India. Of these, Santali is the most important, having the largest number of speakers and being the only Munda tongue that is written. Like the Dravidian languages, the Munda languages are known to have existed in India prior to the invasion of the Indo-Europeans. The Munda languages are related to the Mon-Khmer languages of Southeast Asia belonging to the Austro-Asiatic family. Khasi, a Mon-Khmer language, is spoken in northeastern India. A few Sino-Tibetan languages are also spoken along India’s Himalayan borders, from Tibet to Myanmar.

There is no one common language that is spoken in India and so English or Hindi are often used as languages for inter personal communication in this country where language diversity is the hallmark. Hindi and English are the main link languages of India. Hindi is the language of a large percentage of people (38 percent), while English is the preferred business language. They are spoken and widely understood in all urban centers of India. The Constitution of India has stipulated the usage of Hindi and English to be the two languages of official communication for the national government in the ‘twin language system’. English is intended to continue as an ‘associate additional official language’. No single language other than Hindi, however, can claim speakers among even 10 percent of Indians.

Thus most Indians are multilingual by habit. It is also a survival necessity because language changes from one state to another in India. Many Indians speak more than one language, especially those who live in cities or near state borders, which were redrawn in 1956 in part to conform to linguistic boundaries. The existence and use of many local languages and dialects in India have influenced to a great extent the linguistic behavior of Indians. The languages one speaks are politically and socially significant. A politician whose mother tongue is Bengali, for example, may use the local dialect when campaigning in a village, switch to the official state language when speaking in a city, then use Hindi to address the parliament and English to communicate to the global community.

Courtesy: Microsoft Encarta Reference Library.

Profile :
Born in Kolkata, India, 1970, Dr. Sutapa Chaudhuri (Email
tappa21@yahoo.co.in) graduated from Calcutta University in English literature and subsequently obtained her M.A, M. Phil & Ph. D. degrees in English from the same university. She has traveled extensively, both in India and abroad and studied at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, USA. She lives in Kolkata with her 8year old daughter and scientist husband. Her research interests include Women Studies and poetry. She also writes poetry in Bengali and English.    

3-Sep-2007
 
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