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The Languages of India belong to several language families, the major ones being the Indo-Aryan languages spoken by 74% of Indians and the Dravidian languages spoken by 23% of Indians. Other languages spoken in India belong to the Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, and a few minor language families and isolates.

India has no official national language. The official language of the Union 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.” 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.

Languages of India

Individual mother tongues in India number several hundreds; 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. More than 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 by way of the Middle Indo Prakrit languages and Apabhraṃśa of the Middle Ages. There is no consensus for a specific time where the modern north Indian languages such as Hindustani, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Sindhi and Oriya emerged, but AD 1000 is commonly accepted. Each language had different influences, with 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 language has lesser Sanskrit and Prakrit influence and the Tamil language the least. The Austroasiatic 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/Meitei with 1.5 million speakers (ranked 25th) and Bodo with 1.4 million speakers (ranked 26th).

Language families

The languages of India belong to several language families. The largest of these in terms of speakers is the Indo-European family, predominantly represented in its Indo-Iranian branch (accounting for some 700 million speakers, or 69% of the population), but also including minority languages such as Persian, Portuguese or French, and English as a lingua franca.

The Hindi-belt, including Hindi-related languages such as Rajasthani and Bihari.

The Hindi-belt, including Hindi-related languages such as Rajasthani and Bihari.

The second largest language family is the Dravidian family, accounting for some 200 million speakers, or 26%. Families with smaller numbers of speakers are Austroasiatic and numerous small Tibeto-Burman languages, with some 10 and 6 million speakers, respectively, together 5% of the population.

The Ongan languages of the southern Andaman Islands form a fifth family; the Great Andamanese languages are extinct apart from one highly endangered language with a dwindling number of speakers. There is also a known language isolate, the Nihali language. The Bantu language Sidi was spoken until the mid-20th century in Gujarat.

Most languages in the Indian republic are written in Brahmi-derived scripts, such as Devanagari, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Oriya, Eastern Nagari – Assamese/Bengali, etc., though Urdu is written in an Arabic script, and a few minor languages such as Santali use independent scripts.

The language families in India aren’t necessarily related to the various ethnic groups in India, specifically the Indo and Dravidian peoples. The languages within each family have been influenced to a large extent by both families. For example, many of the South Indian languages; specifically Malayalam and Telugu, have been highly influenced by Sanskrit (an Indo language). The current vocabulary of those languages include between 70-80% of Sanskritized content in their purest form.

Urdu has also had a significant influence on many of today’s Indian languages. Many North Indian languages have lost much of their Sanskritized base (50% current vocabulary) to a more Urdu-based form. In terms of the written script, most Indian languages, with the exception of the Tamil script nearly perfectly accommodate the Sanskrit language. South Indian languages have adopted new letters to write various Indo-Aryan based words as well, and have added new letters to their native alphabets as the languages began to mix and influence each other.

Though various Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages may seem mutually exclusive when first heard, there is a much deeper underlying influence that both language families have had on each other down to a linguistic science. There is proof of the intermixing of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages through the pockets of Dravidian based languages on remote areas of Pakistan, and interspersed areas of North India. In addition, there is a whole science regarding the tonal and cultural expression within the languages that are quite standard across India. Languages may have different vocabulary, but various hand and tonal gestures within two unrelated languages can still be common due to cultural amalgamations between invading people and the natives over time; in this case, the Indo-Aryan peoples and the native Dravidian peoples.

Official languages

The official languages of the Republic of India are Standard Hindi (41% of the country speaks Standard Hindi or another Hindi dialect) and English. According to the article 343 (1) of the Constitution of India, “The Official Language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.” The individual states can legislate their own official languages, depending on their linguistic demographics. For example, the state of Andhrapradesh has Telugu as its official language, the state of Karnataka has Kannada as its sole official language, the state of Maharashtra has Marathi as its sole official language, the state of Punjab has Punjabi as its sole official language, the state of Odisha has Oriya as its sole official language, the state of Tamil Nadu has Tamil as its sole official language, the state of Kerala has Malayalam as its sole official language, while the state of Jammu and Kashmir has Kashmiri, Urdu, and Dogri as its official languages.

Article 345 of the constitution authorizes the several states of India to adopt as “official languages” of that state — which people of that state can then use in all dealings with all branches of the local, state and federal governments — either Standard Hindi or any one or more of the languages spoken in that state. Until the Twenty-First Amendment of the Constitution in 1967, the country recognised 14 official regional languages. The Eighth Schedule and the Seventy-First Amendment provided for the inclusion of Sindhi, Konkani, Meiteilon and Nepali, thereby increasing the number of official regional languages of India to 18. At present there are 22 official languages of India. Individual states, whose borders are mostly drawn on socio-linguistic lines, are free to decide their own language for internal administration and education.

The following table lists the official languages, aside from English, set out in the eighth schedule as of May 2008:

Language Family Speakers
(in millions, 2001)
Assamese Indo-Aryan, Eastern 13 Assam, Arunachal Pradesh
Bengali Indo-Aryan, Eastern 83 West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, Andaman & Nicobar Islands
Bodo Tibeto-Burman 1.4 Assam
Dogri Indo-Aryan, Northwestern 2.3 Jammu and Kashmir
Gujarati Indo-Aryan, Western 46 Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Gujarat
Hindi Indo-Aryan, Central 258–422 Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, the National capital territory of Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand
Kannada Dravidian 38 Karnataka
Kashmiri Indo-Aryan, Dardic 5.5 Jammu and Kashmir
Konkani Indo-Aryan, Southern 2.5–7.6 Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala
Maithili Indo-Aryan, Eastern 12–32 Bihar
Malayalam Dravidian 33 Kerala, Lakshadweep, Puducherry
Manipuri (also Meitei or Meithei) Tibeto-Burman 1.5 Manipur
Marathi Indo-Aryan, Southern 72 Maharashtra, Goa, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu
Nepali Indo-Aryan, Northern 2.9 Sikkim, West Bengal
Oriya Indo-Aryan, Eastern 33 Odisha
Punjabi Indo-Aryan, Northwestern 29 Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab
Sanskrit Indo-Aryan 0.01 non-regional
Santhali Munda 6.5 Santhal tribals of the Chota Nagpur Plateau (comprising the states of Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha)
Sindhi Indo-Aryan, Northwestern 2.5 non-regional
Tamil Dravidian 61 Tamil Nadu, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Puducherry
Telugu Dravidian 74 Andhra Pradesh, Puducherry, Andaman & Nicobar Islands
Urdu Indo-Aryan, Central 52 Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh

Official classical languages

In 2004, the Government of India declared that languages that met certain requirements could be accorded the status of a “Classical Language in India”. Languages thus far declared to be Classical are Tamil (in 2004), Sanskrit (in 2005), Kannada, Telugu (in 2008), and Malayalam (in 2013).The Linguistic Experts’ Commitee, which has been constituted by the Government of India to consider demands for categorization of languages as Classical Languages, in its meeting held on 23.7.2013 has recommended Odiya to be declared as classical language.

In 2005, Sanskrit, which already had special status in Article 351 of the Constitution of India as the primary source language for the development of the official standard of Hindi, was also declared to be a classical language; this was followed by similar declarations for Kannada and Telugu in 2008 and Malayalam in 2013, based on the recommendation of a committee of linguistic experts constituted by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

In a 2006 press release, Minister of Tourism & Culture Ambika Soni told the Rajya Sabha the following criteria were laid down to determine the eligibility of languages to be considered for classification as a “Classical Language”,

High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500-2000 years; A body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; The literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community; The classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.


As per Government of India’s Resolution No. 2-16/2004-US(Akademies) dated November 1, 2004, the benefits that will accrue to a language declared as “Classical Language” are

  1. Two major international awards for scholars of eminence in Classical Indian Languages are awarded annually.
  2. A ‘Centre of Excellence for Studies in Classical Languages’ is set up.
  3. The University Grants Commission be requested to create, to start with at least in the Central Universities, a certain number of Professional Chairs for Classical Languages for scholars of eminence in Classical Indian Languages.

Other local languages and dialects

In addition, the 2001 census identified the following mother tongues (i.e. languages and dialects) having more than one million speakers. All were grouped under Hindi or Oriya.

Mother tongue No. of speakers
Bhojpuri 33,099,497
Rajasthani 18,355,613
Magadh/Magahi 13,978,565
Chhattisgarhi 13,260,186
Haryanvi 7,997,192
Marwari 7,936,183
Malvi 5,565,167
Mewari 5,091,697
Khorth/Khotta 4,725,927
Bundeli/Bundelkhan 3,072,147
Bagheli/Baghel Khan 2,865,011
Pahari 2,832,825
Laman/Lambadi 2,707,562
Awadhi 2,529,308
Harauti 2,462,867
Garhwali 2,267,314
Nimadi 2,148,146
Sadan/Sadri 2,044,776
Kumauni 2,003,783
Dhundhari 1,871,130
Surgujia 1,458,533
Bagri Rajasthani 1,434,123
Banjari 1,259,821
Nagpuria (Varhadi) 1,242,586
Surjapuri 1,217,019
Kangri 1,122,843

Regional languages

In British India, English was the sole language used for administrative purposes as well as for higher education purposes. When India became independent in 1947, the Indian legislators had the challenge of choosing a language for official communication as well as for communication between different linguistic regions across India. The choices available were:

  • Making “Hindi”, which a plurality of the people (43%) identified as their native language, the official language, though only a minority of these “Hindi” speakers spoke Hindi proper.
  • Making English, as preferred by non-Hindi speakers, particularly Kannadigas and Tamilians, and those from Mizoram and Nagaland, the official language. See also Anti-Hindi agitations.
  • Declare both Hindi and English as official languages and each state is given freedom to choose the official language of the state.

Regional languages

At a tourist site in Bangalore, most widely spoken Indian Dravidian languages are shown along with north Indian language Hindi. Top to bottom, the languages are: Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. English and many other European languages are also provided here for tourists.

The Indian constitution, in 1950, declared Hindi in Devanagari script to be the official language of the union. Unless Parliament decided otherwise, the use of English for official purposes was to cease 15 years after the constitution came into effect, i.e., on 26 January 1965. The prospect of the changeover, however, led to much alarm in the non Hindi-speaking areas of India, especially Dravidian-speaking states in South India whose languages were not related to Hindi at all (see examples at right). As a result, Parliament enacted the Official Languages Act in 1963, which provided for the continued use of English for official purposes along with Hindi, even after 1965.

Practical problems

India has hundreds of active dialects in use. Therefore, choosing any single language as an official language presents serious problems to all those whose “mother tongue” is different. However, all the boards of education across India, recognize the ‘need’ for training people to one common language. This results in many complaints: There are many complaints that in North India, non-Hindi speakers have language trouble. Similarly, there are numerous complaints that all North Indians have to undergo considerable difficulties on account of language when traveling to South India. It is common to hear of incidents that result due to friction between those who strongly believe in the chosen official language, and those who follow the thought that the chosen language(s) do not take into account everyone’s preferences. Local official language commissions have been established and various steps are being taken in a direction to reduce tensions and friction.

Language conflicts

There are some significant conflicts over linguistic rights in India.

The first major linguistic conflict, known as the Anti-Hindi agitations of Tamil Nadu took place in Tamil Nadu against the implementation of Hindi as the sole official language of India. Political analysts consider this as a major factor in bringing DMK to power and leading to the ousting and nearly total elimination of the Congress party in Tamil Nadu. Strong cultural pride based on language is also found in other Indian states such as Bengal, Maharashtra and in Karnataka. To express disapproval of the imposition of an alien language Hindi on its people as a result of the central government overstepping its constitutional authority, Maharashtra and Karnataka Governments made the state languages compulsory in educational institutions.

However, in Andhra Pradesh, in majority of the schools, students have to learn English and one chosen regional language (Telugu, Urdu or Hindi) as the main language subjects, and learn an other language (Telugu, or Hindi, or Special English) as a special language subject. So, usually they learn three in total.

Recently anti-Hindi feelings have been expressed in Mumbai by Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

The Government of India attempts to assuage these conflicts with various campaigns, coordinated by the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, a branch of the Department of Higher Education, Language Bureau, Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Writing systems

Ashoka's 6th pillar edict, 3rd century BCVarious Indian languages have corresponding scripts for them. The Hindi, Marathi and Angika languages are all written using the Devanagari script. Most languages are written using a script specific to them, such as Assamese with Assamese/Axomiya, Bengali with Bengali, Punjabi with Gurmukhi, Oriya with Utkal Lipi, Gujarati with Gujarati, etc. Urdu and sometimes Kashmiri, Saraiki and Sindhi are written in modified versions of the Perso-Arabic script. With this one exception, the scripts of Indian languages are native to India.

Published - August 2013

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