The Languages of India belong to several language families, the major ones being the Indo-Aryan languages (a subbranch of Indo-European) spoken by 74% of Indians and the Dravidian languages spoken by 23% of Indians. Other languages spoken in India belong to the Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman, and a few minor language families and isolates. The official language of the Central Government of Republic of India is Standard Hindi, while English is the secondary official language. The constitution of India states that “The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.” Neither the Constitution of India nor Indian law specifies a national language, a position supported by a High Court ruling. However, languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian constitution are sometimes referred to, without legal standing, as the national languages of India. Individual mother tongues in India number several hundred; the 1961 census recognized 1,652 (SIL Ethnologue lists 415). According to Census of India of 2001, 30 languages are spoken by more than a million native speakers, 122 by more than 10,000.
Three millennia of language contact has led to significant mutual influence among the four language families in India and South Asia. Two contact languages have played an important role in the history of India: Persian and English. The northern Indian languages from the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family evolved from Old Indo-Aryan by way of the Middle Indo-Aryan Prakrit languages and Apabhraṃśa of the Middle Ages. There is no consensus for a specific time where the modern north Indian languages such as Hindi-Urdu, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Sindhi and Oriya emerged, but AD 1000 is commonly accepted. Each language had different influences, with Hindi-Urdu (Hindustani) being strongly influenced by Persian. The Dravidian languages of South India had a history independent of Sanskrit. The major Dravidian languages are Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Tulu.
Though Malayalam and Telugu are Dravidian in origin, over eighty percent of their lexicon is borrowed from Sanskrit. The Telugu script can reproduce the full range of Sanskrit phonetics without losing any of the text’s originality, whereas the Malayalam script includes graphemes capable of representing all the sounds of Sanskrit and all Dravidian languages. The Kannada and Tamil languages have lesser Sanskrit and Prakrit influence. The Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman languages of North-East India also have long independent histories. Dialectologists distinguish the terms “language” and “dialect” on the basis of mutual intelligibility. The Indian census uses two specific classifications in its own unique way: (1) ‘language’ and (2) ‘mother tongue’.
The ‘mother tongues’ are grouped within each ‘language’. Many ‘mother tongues’ so defined would be considered a language rather than a dialect by linguistic standards. This is especially so for many ‘mother tongues’ with tens of millions of speakers that are officially grouped under the ‘language’ Hindi. The Indian census of 1961 recognised 1,652 different languages in India (including languages not native to the subcontinent). The 1991 census recognizes 1,576 classified “mother tongues” The People of India (POI) project of Anthropological Survey of India reported 325 languages which are used for in-group communication by the Indian communities.
SIL Ethnologue lists 415 living “Languages of India” (out of 6,912 worldwide). According to the 1991 census, 22 ‘languages’ had more than a million native speakers, 50 had more than 100,000 and 114 had more than 10,000 native speakers. The remaining accounted for a total of 566,000 native speakers (out of a total of 838 million Indians in 1991). According to the most recent census of 2001, 29 ‘languages’ have more than a million native speakers, 60 have more than 100,000 and 122 have more than 10,000 native speakers. The government of India has given 22 “languages of the 8th Schedule” the status of official language.
The number of languages given this status has increased through the political process. Some languages with a large number of speakers still do not have this status, the largest of these being Bhili/Bhiladi with some 9.6 million native speakers (ranked 14th), followed by Garhwali with 2.9 million speakers, Gondi with 2.7 million speakers (ranked 18th) and Khandeshi with 2.1 million speakers (ranked 22nd). On the other hand, 2 languages with fewer than 2 million native speakers have recently been included in the 8th Schedule for mostly political reasons: Manipuri/Maithei with 1.5 million speakers (ranked 25th) and Bodo with 1.4 million speakers (ranked 26th).