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Languages and their Distribution

India, a country rich with different cultures, religions and beliefs, is home to not just one or two languages but to an uncountable number of different lingual families. Languages belonging to the two major language families – Indo Aryan and Dravidian – are spoken by more than 90% of the people of India.

India is considered to be home to 461 languages, out of which 14 have been reported to be extinct. But still there is not a single Indian language that is spoken across its length and breadth. Hindi is spoken by a majority of North Indians, but it is not a popular means of communication in the southern part of India. Similarly, South Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam are not understood by the people of North India.

For the convenience of people, the Constitution of India has recognised 22 languages as the official languages of India. These are known as Scheduled Languages and constitute the major languages of the country. The list of some of the Indian languages includes:

  1. Sanskrit
  2. Hindi
  3. English
  4. Gujarati – Language of Gujarat and Union Territories of Dadar and Nagar Haveli
  5. Punjabi – The official language of Punjab
  6. Bengali- The state language of West Bengal
  7. Assamese – Official language of Assam
  8. Dogri, Urdu – The language of Jammu and Kashmir
  9. Oriya – The state language of state of Odisha
  10. Marathi – Language of Maharashtra
  11. Kannada – The official language of Karnataka
  12. Tamil – The state language of Tamil Nadu
  13. Telugu – It is the official language of Andhra Pradesh.
  14. Malayalam – It is the official language of Kerala
  15. Sindhi
  16. Konkani – The state language of Goa
  17. Manipuri – The official language of Manipur
  18. Khasi – The official language of Meghalaya
  19. Mizo – The official language of Mizoram
  20. English – The official language of Nagaland

Urdu and Telugu are also the official languages of the newly formed state of Telangana.

Besides these, there are other languages, which are spoken by large masses but have still not acquired the status of Scheduled Languages of India. These languages spoken by regional people are known as regional languages of India. These include Rajasthani, Haryanvi, Bhili, Gondi and Tulu among others. Some Indian languages are not widely spoken and have been given the status of minority languages. Mahl and Portuguese languages come under this category.

Classification of Indian Languages

Indo- European Family

The Indo-European languages are a language family of several hundred related languages and dialects. There are about 445 living Indo-European languages, with over two-thirds (313) of them belonging to the Indo-Iranian branch. The most widely spoken Indo-European languages by native speakers are Spanish, English, Hindustani, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, and Punjabi, each with over 100 million speakers, with German, French and Persian also having significant numbers. Today, about 46% of the human population speaks an Indo-European language as a first language, by far the highest of any language family.

All Indo-European languages are descendants of a single prehistoric language, reconstructed as Proto-Indo-European. Although no written records remain, aspects of the culture and religion of the Proto-Indo-European people can also be reconstructed from the related cultures of ancient and modern Indo-European speakers who continue to live in areas to where the Proto-Indo-Europeans migrated from their original homeland.


This branch includes two sub-branches: Indic and Iranian. Today these languages are predominant in India, Pakistan, Iran, and its vicinity and also in areas from the Black Sea to western China.

Sanskrit, which belongs to the Indic sub-branch, is the best known among the early languages of this branch; its oldest variety, Vedic Sanskrit, is preserved in the Vedas, a collection of hymns and other religious texts of ancient India. Indic speakers entered into the Indian subcontinent, coming from central Asia around 1500 BCE.

Avestan is a language that forms part of the Iranian group. Another important language of the Iranian sub-branch is Old Persian, which is the language found in the royal inscriptions of the Achaemenid dynasty, starting in the late 6th century BCE. The earliest datable evidence of this branch dates back to about 1300 BCE.

Today, many Indic languages are spoken in India and Pakistan, such as Hindi-Urdu, Punjabi, and Bengali. Iranian languages such as Farsi (modern Persian), Pashto, and Kurdish are spoken in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

Dravidian languages

Dravidian languages are a family of some 70 languages, spoken primarily in South Asia. The Dravidian languages are spoken by more than 215 million people in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

The Dravidian languages are divided into South, South-Central, Central, and North groups; these groups are further organized into 24 subgroups. The four major literary languages—Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada—are recognized by the constitution of India. They are also the official languages of the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka (formerly Mysore), respectively.

More than a dozen Dravidian loanwords can be detected in the Sanskrit text of the Rigveda (1500). The introduction of retroflex consonants (those produced by the tongue tip raised against the middle of the hard palate) has also been credited to contact between speakers of Sanskrit and those of the Dravidian languages.

The presence of Dravidian loanwords in the Rigveda implies that Dravidian and Aryan speakers were, by the time of its composition, fused into one speech community in the great Indo-Gangetic Plain, while independent communities of Dravidian speakers had moved to the periphery of the Indo-Aryan area (Brahui in the northwest, Kurukh-Malto in the east, and Gondi-Kui in the east and central India). Notably, the most ancient forms of the Dravidian languages are found in southern India, which was not exposed to Sanskrit until the 5th century bce. This suggests that the south was populated by the speakers of the Dravidian languages even before the entry of Aryans into India.

Austric Languages

The Austric languages of India belong to the Austro-Asiatic sub-family. This category is further sub-divided into Munda and Mon-Khmer.

(i) Munda or Kol Languages:

Munda languages are the largest of the Austric group of languages. They consist of fourteen tribal languages. The Kherwari is the major group, which is current in Eastern India (Chota Nagpur, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal) and includes Santhali, Mundari, Ho, Birhor, Bhumiej, Korwa and Korku (or Kurku). Santhali, Mundari, and Ho languages have a noteworthy literature preserved orally, consisting of songs and mythological romantic stories.

(ii) Mon-Khmer Languages:

Mon-Khmer group of Austric languages has two sub-groups— Khasi and Nicobari. Khasi languages are spoken by Khasi tribal people of Meghalaya, while Nicobari languages are the languages of the tribal people of the Nicobar Islands. Khasi used to be written in Bengali-Assamese script about a century ago. Through the influence of Welsh Methodist missionaries, the Roman alphabet has been adopted for Khasi and some literature has been produced.

  1. Sino-Tibetan Languages:

The Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken by a variety of people. Depending upon the region of settlement, these languages are put into several groups and sub-groups. Sino-Tibetan languages have three major sub-divisions:

  1. The Tibeto-Himalayan.
  2. The North-Assam
  3. The Assam-Myanmari (Burmese)
  4. The Tibeto-Himalayan Languages:

The Himalayan group consists of 4 languages. They are Chamba, Lahauli, Kannauri and Lepcha. Kannauri is the most widely spoken language of the Himalayan group.

Tibetan, Balti, Ladakhi, Lahauli, Sherpa and Sikkim Bhutia are included in the Bhutia group of Sino-Tibetan languages. Ladakhi has largest number of Bhutia speakers. It is followed by Sikkim Bhutia and the Tibetan languages in that order.

The North Assam branch of languages of the Sino-Tibetan group is also called the Arunachal branch. It consists of six languages, such as Aka, Daflta, Abor, Miri, Mishnil and Mishing. Largest number of people speaks Miri language.

The Assam Myanmari Languages group of languages includes Boro or Bodo, Naga, Cochin, Kukichin and Myanmar groups. Naga is the largest speaking language of this group.

Besides these, the Sino-Tibetan group of languages has some other important languages. They are Manipuri, Garo, Tripuri, Mikir and Lusai. Lusai is also termed as Mizo.

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