Tracing evolution of India's rich linguistic history

Originating from over 5,000 years ago, records of the linguistic history of India began with early pictures that transformed into pictorial scripts and engravings and eventually in to modern orthographies.

The Indian subcontinent comprises seven sovereign nations: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Maldives. But linguistically speaking, these political divisions cloud the extensive underlying chronicles of literary and sociolinguistic histories of the present states of the subcontinent.

The major language families of South Asia are Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, and Munda. The region’s diversity also manifests itself in religious pluralism, representing Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism. It is the languages of wider functions that link regional, ethnic, and linguistic populations of the pluralistic subcontinent.

These languages are used in varying degrees of functional effectiveness and communication – in administrative, commercial, and religious contexts, and in cross-linguistic situations, and often as languages of status, power, and identity construction. Throughout history the evolution of Indian languages is a constant ebb and flow of influences and reconstruction from early proto-languages to the modern Indian languages. Even in the present day, we see the influence of English, especially, within the context of South Asian languages.

Let’s focus now on modern language evolution, in particular that of Hindi. Standard Hindi and Urdu, originated during the Mughal rule, when the Persian court language exerted a strong influence on the Indic dialects of central India, creating Rekhta or “mixed” speech. It is this that came to be known as Hindustani, was elevated to a literary language, and is the basis for modern standard Hindi and Urdu. Although these official languages are distinct registers in their formal aspects, such as modern technical vocabulary, they continue to be all but indistinguishable in their vernacular forms. 

Two major varieties of Hindi are spoken – Western Hindi, which originated in the area around Delhi, includes literary Hindi and Urdu; and Eastern Hindi, spoken mainly in central Uttar Pradesh and eastern Madhya Pradesh, has its most important literary works in the Awadhi dialect (or Hindustani). The latter referred to the mixed Western Hindi-Urdu language that developed in the camps and marketplaces around Delhi, spreading throughout India from the 16th to 18th century, and functioned as a lingua franca among different language groups. The dialect that has been chosen as India's official language is Khariboli in the Devanagari script. Other dialects of Hindi are Brajbhasa, Bundeli, Awadhi, Marwari, Maithili and Bhojpuri.

Bihari is actually the name of a group of three related languages – Bhojpuri, Maithili, and Magadhi – spoken mainly in northeastern India in Bihar. Despite its large number of speakers, Bihari is not a constitutionally recognised language of India.

Bengali is spoken in West Bengal and by almost the entire population of Bangladesh. Like Hindi, it is descended from Sanskrit, and has the most extensive literature among any modern Indian language. Oriya, Bengali and Assamese all come from the same Eastern Magadhi Apabhramsa and are considered to be sister languages. Punjabi, spoken in Punjab, a region covering parts of northeastern India and western Pakistan, was the language of the gurus, the founders of the Sikh religion. The sacred teachings of Sikhism are recorded in Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script, which was devised by a Sikh guru.

In India, Punjabi is close to the Hindi language; to the west, in Pakistan, Punjabi dialects differ markedly. Sindhi is actually an offshoot of some of the dialects of Vedic Sanskrit. Sindh, on the northwest of undivided India, had always been the first to bear the onslaught of never-ending invaders, and as such absorbed Hindi, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, English and even Portuguese. Sindh is where the Persian and the Indian cultures blended.

Other significant Indic languages include Sinhalese, the official language of Sri Lanka; and Romani, the language of the Roma (Gypsies), which originated in India and spread throughout the world. The Sanskrit origin of Romani is apparent in its sounds and grammar.

Origin of scripts

The origin of most of the scripts for the Indic languages can ultimately be traced to Brahmi, which is of North Semitic derivation. Devanagari, a development of Brahmi, is used for Nepali, Marathi, and Kashmiri (by Hindus), as well as for Hindi, Sanskrit, and the Prakrits. Gujarati, Bengali, Assamese, and Oriya all have individual writing systems derived from Devanagari.

A Persian-Arabic script is used for Urdu, Sindhi (also written in Devanagari), and Punjabi. In most of the countries of South Asia – Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives – the majority of inhabitants speak an Indo-Aryan language and the homeland of this sub-family stretches over a vast area in the northern part of the region. 


With so many influences and a huge amount of change and true evolution of the Indian languages, the question arises if anything was lost, and if so were the gains outweighed? Perhaps, the complex meanings and almost sacred nature of a language like Sanskrit is lost on a language like Hindi, or Gujarati. But the accessibility of these languages to most people is an incredible asset in conducting life.

The real question, then, comes to the influence of English. How does this influence really affect the languages? Has western influence spread too far? These are by no means easy questions. Who is to say that the culture is not really being lost but rather is simply evolving to fit the times when the Western culture and language is dominant?

(The writer holds a doctorate in linguistics and teaches at Washington University in St Louis, USA)


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