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Middle Indo-Aryan languages

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The Middle Indo-Aryan (Middle Indic) languages are the early medieval dialects of the Indo-Aryan languages, the descendants of the Old Indo-Aryan dialects such as Sanskrit, and the predecessors of the late medieval languages such as Apabhramsha or Abahatta, which eventually evolved into the contemporary Indo-Aryan languages, including Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu), Oriya, Bengali, and Punjabi. The term Prakrit is also often applied to these languages (prakrita literally means "natural" as opposed to sanskrita, which literally means "constructed" or "refined"). Modern scholars such as Shapiro follow this classification by including all Middle Indo-Aryan languages under the rubric of "Prakrits", while others emphasise the independent development of these languages, often separated from the Sanskrit by social and geographic differences.


The Indo-Aryan languages are commonly assigned to three major groups - Old, Middle and New Indo-Aryan -, a linguistic and not strictly chronological classification, since Classical Sanskrit co-existed with Middle Indic vernaculars. And a number of their morphophonological and lexical features betray the fact that they are not direct continuations of gvedic Sanskrit, the main base of "Classical" Sanskrit; rather they descend from dialects which, despite many similarities, were different from gvedic and in some regards even more archaic.

The Middle Indo-Aryan stage is thought to have spanned more than a millennium between 600 BC - 1000 AD, and is often divided into three or four major subdivisions. The early stage is represented by the inscriptions of Asoka (c. 250 BC) and by Pāli (used in Buddhist scriptures) and Ardhamāgadhī (used in Jain scriptures). The middle stage is represented by the various literary Prakrits, especially Sauraseni, Maharashtri and Magadhi. The late stage is represented by the Apabhraśa dialects of the sixth century AD and later that preceded early Modern Indo-Aryan languages (e.g. Brij Bhasha).

Phonology and morphology

MIA languages, though individually distinct, share features of phonology and morphology which characterize them as parallel descendants of Old Indo-Aryan. Various sound changes are typical of the MIA phonology:

  1. The vocalic liquids '' and '' are replaced by 'a', 'i' or 'u';
  2. the diphthongs 'ai' and 'au' are monophthongized to 'e' and 'o';
  3. long vowels before two or more consonants are shortened;
  4. the three sibilants of OIA are reduced to one, either 'ś' or 's';
  5. the often complex consonant clusters of OIA are reduced to more readily pronounceable forms, either by assimilation or by splitting;
  6. single intervocalic stops are progressively weakened;
  7. dentals are palatalized by a following '-y-';
  8. all final consonants except '-' are dropped unless they are retained in 'sandhi' junctions.

The most conspicuous features of the morphological system of these languages are: loss of the dual; thematicization of consonantal stems; merger of the f. 'i-/u-' and 'ī-/ū-' in one 'ī-/ū-' inflexion, elimination of the dative, whose functions are taken over by the genitive, simultaneous use of different case-endings in one paradigm; employment of 'mahya' and 'tubhya' as genitives and 'me' and 'te' as instrumentals; gradual disappearance of the middle voice; coexistence of historical and new verbal forms based on the present stem; and use of active endings for the passive. In the vocabulary, the MIA languages are mostly dependent on Old Indo-Aryan, with addition of a few so-called 'deśī' words of (often) uncertain origin.


A Middle Indo-Aryan innovation are the serial verb constructions that have evolved into complex predicates in modern north Indian languages such as Hindi. For example भाग जा (bhāg jā) 'go run' means run away, पका ले (pakā le) 'take cook' means to cook for oneself, and पका दे (pakā de) 'give cook' means to cook for someone. The second verb restricts the meaning of the main verb or adds a shade of meaning to it. Subsequently the second verb was grammaticalised further into what is known as a light verb, mainly used to convey lexical aspect distinctions for the main verb.

Middle Indic Dialects


An apabhramsa (also: avahatta) was a language developed from Prakrits. Modern Provincial languages developed from different apabhramsas. Patanjali was the first to use apabhramsa in his Mahabhasya (200 B.C.). The term is derived from the Sanskrit word Apabhrasta, means a corrupted form of Sanskrit. Mostly Jain religious language and spiritual literature of Siddhas was composed in Apabhramsa language.

When the Romani people migrated from Rajasthan, Punjab, Sindh and Afghanistan in the first century A.D, they were speaking an apabhramsa language pertaining to the Western part of India. They spread in Western countries around the 12 century A.D.

Apabhramsa poets

Literary work in apabhramsa appeared in eighth century A.D. Poets of apabhramsa are as follows:

  1. Svayambhu - his poem is Pauma Cariu


Many texts in kharoṣṭhi script have been discovered in the area centred on the Khyber Pass in what was known in ancient times as Gandhara and the language of the texts came to be called Gāndhārī. These are largely Buddhist texts which parallel the Pāli Canon, but include Mahāyāna texts as well. The language is distinct from other MI dialects.


Known from a few inscriptions, most importantly the pillars and edicts of Asoka found in what is now Bihar.


Pali is the best attested of the MI languages because of the extensive writings of early Buddhists. These include canonical texts, canonical developments such as abhidhammma, and a thriving commentarial tradition associated with figures such as Buddhaghosa. Early Pāli texts, such as the Sutta-nipāta contain many "Magadhisms" (such as heke for eke; or masculine nominative singular in -e). Pāli continued to be a living second language until well into the present millennium. The Pali Text Society was founded in 1881 by T.W Rhys Davids to preserve, edit, and publish texts in Pāli, as well as English translations.



Published - February 2011

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