India is a country rich and flourishing with diverse languages and traditional culture. The number of languages noted on the Indian subcontinent is so immense that it is the second place in the world having so many languages used all over the country. In fact, India is one of the largest countries in the world and, therefore it could not be expected to have only one official, let alone the national language. Right after Papua New Guinea with 839 spoken languages, India holds the silver medal in language varieties amounting to 780 languages. Depending on the sources, the range of languages spoken in India varies and rises a question－how many languages are spoken there?
Let’s try to tackle this problem as much as possible and start from language families and divisions. In India, there are five most widespread language families like Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austroasiatic or Mon-Khmer, Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Burman and Kra-Dai. The Great Andamanese languages are also present, but on the islands belonging to India, and they are nearly extinct. Aside from these language families, there are other languages in India, mostly isolated, not a part of any of the mentioned families, with less number of speakers and even endangered. However, of all language families listed above, the first two are spoken by the greatest majority of the Indian population. Indo-Aryan languages are spoken by a little bit more than 78% of Indian speakers, Dravidian languages by a little less than 20% of the population, while a little more than 2% speak some of the languages belonging to any of the rest either language families or rare and isolated languages.
According to the Indian Constitution, no language or dialect spoken in the country can hold a place of the national language, since India is a mixture of different languages, traditions, religions and historic and cultural influences. However, there are 23 official languages, including English. The official languages consisting the Indo-Aryan family are: Hindi, Assamese or Asamiya, Dogri, Bengali, Gujarati, Maithili, Kashmiri, Konkani, Marathi, Odia, Nepali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Sanskrit and Urdu. The official languages from the Dravidian family are Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. While Santali is one of the Austroasiatic languages spoken in India, Bodo and Meitei are Sino-Tibetan.
As you could see, it is not at all an easy task to define and organize languages in India because they are always mingle, intertwine and suffer the impact of surrounding cultures and reigns. More difficulties are woven into how is the spoken language of a certain, bigger or smaller community defined－some linguists would define it as a language, some as merely another dialect. Not only that these distinctions and varieties aggravate the language surveys, but different scripts as well, making the subject even more complicated and controversial.
In the historical sense, what we call languages today, they might have been dialects in the pact, developing from a certain proto-language, being influenced by other cultures, languages and nations and taking its own course of progress and shaped into what we recognize today as a special, distinct and even prominent language. Many of them have gone this way and the linguistic situation in India is just another example in the ocean of the development of the languages. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that some surveys have listed around 450 languages in India, while according to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, there are 780 languages in total!
The Mogul Empire and The British Crown
Appart from the official and language family divisions in India, there are others. First of all, we must mention the two so called “contact” languages－Persian and English. Persian was the official language during the Mughal or Mogul Empire on the territory of contemporary India, in the periods from 1526 to 1540 and from 1555 to 1857. For more than three centuries, this empire stretched from the outer fringes of the Indus basin in the west, northern Afghanistan in the northwest, and Kashmir in the north, to the highlands of present-day Assam and Bangladesh in the east, and the uplands of the Deccan plateau in south India.
Another language that has influenced the Indian society is English, a language widely spoken today around the world, but a language which does not belong to any of the nearby families. It is an Indo-European Germanic languages belonging to the same large family as well as Indo-Aryan subfamily. English was spoken in India during the British Empire rule of the country from 1858 until 1947. In history books, this rule is often referred to as Crown rule in India or direct rule. So, these two contact languages have influenced the Indian society and culture for centuries and kept its official function even in the following times, after the reign of their native speakers and invaders to the subcontinent. At least, English has kept its official role in the government use, a role approved by The Official Language Act from 1963 which allowed use of English alongside with Hindi. Later on, in 2001, Census of India listed 122 major languages in the country and 1599 minor languages. The majority of 122 has more than a million native speakers, which is a criterion according to which they were declared majority languages in the first place. The rest dispose of more than ten thousand speakers whose first language is one of these.
In India, there are classical languages as well. They are assessed as classical due to their rich literary heritage and independent culture. These are Kannada, Malayam, Tamil and Telugu among the Dravidian languages and Odia and Sanskrit among Indo-Aryan. Not all were recognized as classical and were given that status at the same time. Tamil was first declared a classical language in 2004, Sanskrit in 2005, Kannada in 2008, Telugu in 2008, Malayalam in 2013, whereas Odia was the last sixth language declared by the Ministry of culture in 2014.
Languages in India can be grouped into several language families of which two are the most prominent, at least by the number of speakers.
In general division among all the languages in the world, what is being related to as the Indo-Aryan family in this text and in the context of languages in India, is actually a branch of the Indo-European language family. This branch, or family, as you wish, is predominant in northern India and it makes a great majority of the languages on the subcontinent.
The main characteristic of the Indo-Aryan languages is that they are not agglutinative languages, which means their morphology is based upon agglutination, which further means that words may contain different morphemes to determine their meanings, but all of these morphemes are unchanged after their unions. For this family, tonal languages are not characteristical. Only a few of them defy this rule like Punjabi.
Furthermore, the Indo-Aryan languages have undergone the influences of Persian, and in slightlier form, Arabic and Turkic languages. The Persian language was introduced by the Delhi sultanate in the 13th century. Its privileged use stretched over centuries since then and remained during the Mughal Empire. As always, the conqueror would introduce his own native language as the official language of the Empire and hold it as the language of art, literature and diplomacy. In other words, it was the language of prestige of the time.
The languages from the Dravidian language family are typical of southern India, nearby islands and Sri Lanka. There are approximately 73 languages in this region. Since this part of the subcontinent was not so much exposed to Muslim control of the Mogul Empire, Persian influence is the less noticeable among Dravidian languages.
To be recognized as one of the most prominent language groups in the world, Dravidian languages have to thank Robert Caldwell, a scholar and a researcher, who published the Comparative Grammar of the
Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages in 1856. His research gave the Dravidian language family a deserved place among one of the major language groups of the world.
Finally, let’s try to answer this question since there are lots of them belonging to different language families, whereas some are isolated and they cannot be included in any of these. There are two official languages in the government－Hindi and English. There are many languages at the official lever according to the numerous speakers they have. There are six classical languages so far.
There are plenty of local languages like Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Magadhi or Magahi, Chhattisagarhi, Haryanvi, Marwari, Malvi, Mewari, Khorth or Khotta, Bundeli, Bagheli, Pahari, Laman or Lambadi, Awadhi, Harauti, Garhwali, Nimadi,Sadan or Sadri, Kumauni, Dhundhari, Tulu, Surgujia, Bagri Rajasthani, Banjari, Nagpuria, Surajpuri, Kangri, etc.
As seen from the above said, it is extremely hard to define how many languages are spoken in India. What is certain is Indian great linguistic diversity, where Hindi is the most spoken with almost 425 million speakers. It is their a first language and, almost 120 million people in India at least speak it as a second language. In the country of India, being bilingual is at least what a person can do, but most likely is multilingualism is a common practice.