India and Its Language Empire
So perhaps you have mastered French, or are mostly fluent in Spanish, and are now looking for a new language to learn that is somehow different. Sure, you could go for Mandarin, since everyone seems to be learning Mandarin nowadays. But how about something that is completely off the language beaten track?
In other words, why not consider learning one of the many languages that are spoken in India?
Depending on which source you look at, there are thought to be somewhere between 460 and 780 languages spoken across India, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the 250 languages ‘lost’ over the past 50 years. Suddenly, it seems as though you are spoilt for choice with new languages to learn.
With so many languages to choose from, let us see if we can entice you in by talking first about the different families of languages to be found throughout India.
There are three divisions of Indo-Aryan languages: Old, Middle and New/Modern. Old Indo-Aryan includes a range of dialects and linguistic states that are collectively referred to as Sanskrit. The oldest evidence of Old Indo-Aryan dates back to texts found from 1500 BCE. Middle Indo-Aryan dates back to between the third millennium BCE and the second millennium CE, and Modern spans the rest of that time period up until the present day.
Languages that fall within the Indo-Aryan language family are spoken by approximately three quarters of the population of India. The most widely spoken languages from this family are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Urdu and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and Odia.
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According to linguistic historians, India is an important linguistic area where languages have developed convergent structures through regional and societal bilingualism. Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages differ in both phonology and grammar, but have been in contact since the second millennium BCE, with Dravidian loanwords appearing in early Sanskrit texts.
Around 20% of the Indian population speaks a language from the Dravidian language family, and these languages include Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Dravidian languages are found mostly in eastern and central India, compared with Indo-Aryan languages which are primarily found in the north.
Austro-Asiatic languages total around 150 individual languages that are spoken throughout Southeast Asia and eastern India. The family tree for this language family seems to have been drawn and redrawn multiple times throughout history, because the ranges of languages that fall within this group appear to differ so greatly – everything from monosyllabic Vietnamese to the polysyllabic toneless Muṇḍārī of India.
Austro-Asiatic language speakers in India make up around 5% of the population, with languages that fall within the Munda, Khasian and Nicobarese subdivisions.
Unsurprisingly, given the name, the Sino-Tibetan language family includes languages that are commonly found in East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia, and total more than 300 languages and major dialects. In India you will find languages that fall within the Bodish, Himalayish, Mirish and ‘other’ Tibetic language subdivisions.
Sino-Tibetan languages that are spoken in India include Karbi, Meitei and Lepcha. The languages that fall within this family can be found across the across the Himalayas in the regions of Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Nepal and Sikkim, as well as in the Indian states of, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and West Bengal.
The Tai-Kadai language family is a large group of around 50 languages, thought to have originated along the border of southeastern China and northern Vietnam. This language family is thought to date back at least two millennia.
Small Tai communities are to be found in Assam, and here you will find three languages spoken that fall within the Tai-Kadai group: Phake, Aiton and Khamyang. A fourth, Ahom, was also found in this region but is now unfortunately extinct.
This final language family group is actually a little misleading, since languages within this group are mostly extinct or endangered. They originated from the Andaman Islands and include: Önge, Jangil, Jarawa, and Sentinelese.
The only language found in India that is considered to be a language isolate is Nahali, or Nihali. It is an endangered language spoken in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, and is spoken by around 2000 people. The language has a lot of adopted or loanwords from local languages. Approximately 25% of Nahali is from Korku, with contributions from both Dravidian languages and from Marathi.
So there you have it. A brief look at the numerous language families you will find throughout India. Have we got you interested yet? Good! Next week we will be taking a look at the most spoken languages of India and where to find them. Until then…