The Many Tongues of India


I noticed when I came here that other foreigners like me, who do not speak German, were uncomfortable with the sensation of being surrounded by a language they do not understand. Strange, I thought. Being an Indian, I’m used to being surrounded by a language I understand nothing of, even when I’m in my own country.

India does not actually have a “national language”. The official languages are Hindi and English, and at the state level, there are 22 major languages. Yes, 22 in one country. To actually understand how this came to be, it is necessary to get into a slightly historical-political background.

India, for administrative purposes, was divided into 28 states and 7 Union Territories soon after achieving independence in 1947. This division of states was done on the basis of language. A few of the states share a common language, but by and large, each state speaks in a different tongue.

Take me, for example. I come from Mumbai (Bombay), which is in Maharashtra. My native language is Marathi, the language of my state. I had barely gotten past the point of speaking full sentences in Marathi, when I was exposed to English and Hindi. Most literate people in India are trilingual: they speak their local language, Hindi and English.

In a country with only one language, I always think how easy it is. You see someone on the street, you talk to them. There’s no awkward pause in between while you think and decide which language to talk in. Indians meeting other Indians always have a moment of urgent decision to choose the language of communication. If the other person comes from the same state as you, you talk in the local language. (Of course, you could be making a huge mistake by assuming this person comes from your state.) If they very obviously come from a different state, you speak Hindi. If you want to escape from this socio-political decision entirely, you actually speak English, at the risk of sounding like a total snob.

Even the official language, Hindi, is not the same all over the country. In the North of India, where the capital New Delhi is situated, the Hindi language has been considerably influenced by Urdu and Punjabi, because of the geographical proximity with these languages. Going lower South, the Urdu influence weakens, except in poetic usage. In Mumbai, a different mutant variation of Hindi has come into being, called Bambaiyya Hindi (Hindi from Bombay) and is generally considered inferior or vulgar by academics. (These academics cannot be too happy over this, but the fact is that Bollywood movies tend to use Bambaiyya Hindi rather a lot, since the Bollywood industry is in Mumbai.)

In metropolitan cities, the teenage mode of communication is a complex combination of the teenagers’ native language, English and Hindi. Don’t worry if this language makes no sense to you: there is no class in the world to teach it, and teachers and parents have given up trying.

India’s many languages are not even from the same language family. India being such an ancient civilization as it is, the languages have had plenty of time to evolve and revolve into each other and get hopelessly convoluted. Now the route of their development is difficult for dedicated academics to research. There are two main language families: broadly speaking, the languages from the North have evolved from Sanskrit. These are called the Indo-Aryan languages. In the South of India, the three major languages are Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu; these are called Dravidian languages, evolving from Tamil, a language dating back more than 2000 years. Sanskrit and Tamil might be called the two mothers of Indian languages.

These two language families do not share the same script. Sanskrit, and all the languages which evolved from it (including Hindi) use the Devanagari script, which looks like this: संस्कृत. The Dravidian languages use the Tamil script, which looks like this: தமிழ்

Sanskrit, the language of the ancient Indian civilization, dates back to 1500 BCE. This highly systemised language is no longer used as a mode of communication, but reserved for academic purposes. There have been many attempts at revival, but they have been generally confined to academic or literary circles. (Several Indian students, with a sort of shudder at the memory, will recall being taught Sanskrit as a fourth language in school. They were taught; whether they learnt is a completely different matter.)

The languages which evolved from Sanskrit have not changed so much as to make Sanskrit a complete mystery to, say, a Hindi speaker. Expecting a Hindi speaker to understand Sanskrit is roughly the same as asking an English speaker to read a Latin text. The script is the same; some of the words have perceptible similarities, but it’s still too much like a cipher to attract your average student’s attention. It’s sad, since much of the priceless literature which gives India its identity, is in Sanskrit.

Now you know how funny the question sounds to me: “So, how would you say that in the Indian language?” There doesn’t exist the Indian language. Hydra might have had many heads, but we might still compete with her in tongues.

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