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Ethnic groups and languages of India


India is home to a diverse linguistic landscape, encompassing a multitude of major and minor languages as well as an extensive array of recognized dialects. These languages are categorized into four primary language families: the Indo-Iranian languages, which are part of the larger Indo-European family, the Dravidian languages, the Austroasiatic languages, and the Tibeto-Burman languages, which fall under the Sino-Tibetan family. Additionally, India hosts several language isolates, including Nahali, which is confined to a limited region within the state of Madhya Pradesh. The predominant languages spoken by the Indian populace fall within the Indo-Iranian and Dravidian language families.

The delineation between what constitutes a language as opposed to a dialect in India can be somewhat subjective and is subject to change across different census reports. This complexity is further intensified by the extensive historical interactions among India’s languages, which have resulted in a significant degree of linguistic convergence, creating a composite linguistic zone, or sprachbund. This phenomenon is akin to the linguistic environment observed in the Balkans. Within this dynamic, Indian languages have integrated lexical and grammatical elements from one another, and it is commonplace for regional dialects within the same language to exhibit considerable variation.

In India’s vast Indo-Gangetic Plain, linguistic demarcations between vernaculars are often indistinct, despite the acute awareness of dialectal subtleties among local communities, which serve to distinguish one locality from another. Conversely, in the more remote mountainous peripheries, particularly in the northeastern region, the spoken dialects can differ so markedly from one valley to another that they may justifiably be recognized as distinct languages in their own right. For instance, within the Naga linguistic grouping, there were historically identified as many as 25 separate languages, none of which were spoken by a community exceeding 60,000 individuals.

The linguistic landscape of the Indian subcontinent is structured by a collection of written, or classical, languages that provide a framework for communication, each displaying significant distinctions from the colloquial dialects they correspond to. A considerable number of individuals are bilingual or multilingual, fluent in their native dialect (often referred to as their “mother tongue”), the literary form of that dialect, and potentially additional languages.

The Constitution of India has appointed Hindi as the official language of the central government, with English also sanctioned for use within government proceedings. Moreover, the constitution acknowledges 22 (initially 14) “scheduled languages” that are permitted for official use by the states in governmental matters. Among these, 15 belong to the Indo-European family (Assamese, Bengali, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, and Urdu), 4 to the Dravidian family (Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu), 2 to the Sino-Tibetan family (Bodo and Manipuri), and 1 to the Austroasiatic family (Santhali). Since India’s independence, these languages have undergone a process of increasing standardization, influenced by advancements in education and the proliferation of mass media. English, while serving as an “associate” official language, is prevalently spoken across the country.

The majority of Indian languages, including the official script for Hindi, utilize variations of the Devanagari script for written communication. However, alternative scripts are also in use; for example, Sindhi is commonly written using a Persian-adapted Arabic script, though it can also be transcribed using Devanagari or Gurmukhi scripts.

Indo-European languages

The Indo-Iranian linguistic branch constitutes the predominant segment of the Indo-European language family within the South Asian subcontinent, encompassing approximately 75% of the population who speak a language from this group as their native tongue. This branch can be categorized into three distinct subfamilies: the Indo-Aryan, Dardic, and Iranian. The foundation of these numerous languages can be traced back to Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient Aryans. Sanskrit is notable for its early standardization and sophisticated grammatical structure, setting it apart from its Indo-Aryan counterparts. Following Sanskrit, the Prakrit languages emerged from regional dialects and were later cultivated into literary languages. The contemporary languages of India have evolved from these Prakrit languages.

Hindi stands as the most extensively spoken language within the Indo-Iranian group, with approximately two-thirds of the Indian populace utilizing it in various forms. The language is characterized by a multitude of dialects that are typically grouped into Eastern and Western Hindi, with some dialects being mutually incomprehensible. Hindi enjoys a dominant position nationally and has been officially adopted by a significant number of northern states, namely Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, as well as the national capital territory of Delhi.

Furthermore, there are other Indo-European languages that hold official status in specific states, such as Assamese in Assam, Bengali in West Bengal and Tripura, Gujarati in Gujarat, Kashmiri in Jammu and Kashmir, Konkani in Goa, Marathi in Maharashtra, Nepali in certain areas of northern West Bengal, Oriya in Odisha, and Punjabi in Punjab. Urdu, recognized as the official language of Pakistan, is also widely spoken by the Muslim population in northern and peninsular India, extending as far south as Chennai (formerly Madras). Sindhi, predominantly spoken by residents of the Kachchh district in Gujarat adjacent to the Pakistani province of Sindh, is also used by immigrants and their descendants who relocated from Sindh following the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

Dravidian and other languages

Approximately 25% of the Indian population communicates using Dravidian languages, with the majority of these speakers residing in the southern region of the country. There is evidence of a historically broader dispersion of Dravidian languages, as indicated by their presence among indigenous tribal communities, such as the Gonds in central India, certain areas of eastern Bihar, and the Brahui-speaking populace in the remote province of Balochistan in Pakistan.

The Indian constitution formally recognizes four Dravidian languages, each of which holds official status within its respective state. These are Kannada in the state of Karnataka, Malayalam in Kerala, Tamil—which is acknowledged as the most ancient of the principal Dravidian languages—in Tamil Nadu, and Telugu in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Additionally, in the northeastern part of India, there are smaller linguistic groups that converse in Manipuri and other languages that belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Lingua francas

In India, the two predominant vehicular languages are Hindustani and English. Hindustani has its roots in an early variant of Hindi, recognized by scholars as Khari Boli, which emerged in the vicinity of Delhi and the surrounding Ganges-Yamuna Doab. The ascendance of Delhi as a political nexus during the Mughal era, spanning from the early 16th to the mid-18th century, saw Khari Boli incorporate a plethora of Persian lexicon, evolving into a widely used trade language throughout the empire under Mughal dominion. The British colonial administration furthered the spread of Hindustani.

The 19th century witnessed the development of two distinct literary forms from this vernacular base: Hindi, which was embraced by the Hindu population and draws heavily on Sanskrit for its lexicon and employs the Devanagari script; and Urdu, favored by the Muslim community, which, while syntactically akin to Hindi, is enriched with vocabulary from Persian and Arabic and utilizes the Perso-Arabic script. Despite the division, Hindi and Urdu retain mutual intelligibility, and their ancestral Hindustani continues to function as a common language across many regions of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the northern territories.

English, a vestige of the colonial legacy of the British Empire, stands as the most extensively employed vehicular language in India. The vast Indian populace constitutes one of the largest English-speaking groups globally, even though a negligible percentage of the population cites English as their native language, with fluent speakers accounting for less than five percent. English is instrumental in facilitating communication between the central government and the states, especially where Hindi is not prevalent. It is the dominant language in the realms of business, higher education, and elite schooling systems. English media, including newspapers, remain influential, with scholarly works, especially in the scientific domain, predominantly published in English. Moreover, a substantial segment of the Indian populace is engaged with English literature, including works by Indian authors, as well as English-language films, radio, television, popular music, and theater.

Minor languages and dialects

Despite the trend of declining usage among various tribal communities, a significant number of indigenous languages continue to persist. It is noteworthy that only a small subset of these languages is spoken by populations exceeding one million individuals. Notable exceptions include Bhili, which belongs to the Indo-European language family, and Santhali, which is part of the Munda branch of the Austroasiatic linguistic family; both languages boast upwards of five million speakers. Additional languages such as Gondi of the Dravidian family, Kurukh (also known as Oraon) from the Dravidian group, Ho from the Munda lineage, Manipuri from the Sino-Tibetan family, and Mundari, another member of the Munda group, are spoken by smaller communities.

Typically, these tribal languages have not developed their own written forms. However, there has been a gradual shift with many now employing the Roman alphabet for transcription. In rarer instances, some languages have adopted writing systems that are influenced by those used in adjacent non-tribal areas.

Ethnic groups

India is a country marked by a profound multiethnic composition, hosting an array of ethnic and tribal communities. This intricate diversity is the result of extensive migratory patterns and intermarriage over millennia. The ancient Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished along the Indus River from approximately 2500 to 1700 BCE, is believed to have been predominantly Dravidian-speaking. Following this period, Indo-Aryan groups, sharing linguistic ties with Iranian and European populations, began to settle in northwestern and subsequently north-central India from around 2000 to 1500 BCE. Their expansion continued both southwestward and eastward, integrating with indigenous populations despite the establishment of caste systems.

Throughout history, India’s ethnic landscape has been further enriched by a succession of invasions, including those by Persians, Scythians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and Afghans. The European incursion, while significantly influencing Indian culture, had a minimal effect on the ethnic composition of the country.

The ethnic connections in north-central and northwestern India predominantly align with European and Indo-European groups from southern Europe, the Caucasus, and parts of Southwest and Central Asia. In contrast, the demographic in northeastern India, West Bengal to a lesser extent, and the upper western Himalayas, including Ladakh, shows a closer resemblance to northern and eastern populations, such as Tibetans and Burmans. The indigenous communities of the Chota Nagpur Plateau in northeastern peninsular India share affinities with groups like the Mon of mainland Southeast Asia.

There are also smaller southern populations with potential ancestral links to East African origins, some of whom historically settled along India’s western coast, or to a group commonly referred to as Negrito. This latter group is now represented by small, scattered communities in regions such as the Andaman Islands, the Philippines, New Guinea, among others.

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