“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
There are seemingly countless numbers of languages in India and they all are part of four respective families. These families have all thrived despite the fact that they are packed into one relatively very small sub-continent. These families, in descending order of presence in the country are: Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic and Sino-Tibetan. These languages have scripts of their own, albeit similar to each other to a connoisseur. Most Indian scripts are developments on the Brahmi script.
It is important to note here that every language of every family has a long list of dialects under it. While many of are officially recognized, many more are yet to be documented. Besides, the list of languages itself runs into hundreds. But the question being asked is where the common thread lies, the answer to that is their ancestry. And so we begin.
With the Indo-Aryan branch, Sanskrit is the mother of all these languages.
The official languages of union and state under this branch are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi and Urdu.
Today, a scant knowledge of the national language, Hindi, will suffice for communication over most of the northern region and even most semi-urban to urban parts of the south. National language and official languages of many states, it is undoubtedly the most widely spoken language in the country. It is widely accepted that knowledge of Hindi will render understanding North Indian languages easy. Language is also influenced by religion. In areas of Hindu predominance, there tends to be a shift towards Sanskritisation of both the spoken and written word, this in contrast to the Persian influence in areas of Muslim predominance. This is particularly visible in cities like Hyderabad. In the northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir, Kashmiri or koshur which is a Dardic language is written in an adopted version of Arabic. Hindi uses Devanagari while Urdu uses a modified form of the Persian script, typically in the Nasta`liq style. Together, they are commonly called Hindustani.
Khari boli is accepted as the common and refined form of Hindi. There are innumerable dialects to it. To name a few: Awadhi, Braj, Angika, Bajjika, Bagheli and Bundeli, besides umpteen local dialects that do not have a formal name. Haryanvi is the northern most dialect of Hindi. Haryanvi itself has various branches. Non-Haryanvi speakers find its tone somewhat crude, harsh and raspy. Assamese and the cognate languages, Bengali and Oriya, the Bihari languages (Bhojpuri, Maithili, and Magadhi, among others) developed from Magadhi Prakrit. Maharashtri Prakrit evolved into languages like Marathi and Konkani. Sauraseni Prakrit is responsible for Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Gujarati, among others. Needless to say languages of the respective groups are even more related than the family over all. Konkani and Marathi, much related, use Devanagari script like Sanskrit. Konkani is also written in Kannada in Karnataka and in Malayalam script in some parts of Kerala. Goan Konkani is different from what is spoken in Karnataka.
Grammatically, Sanskrit has three genders (male, female, neuter), as has Marathi (like German); most modern Indic languages have two genders (much like many European counterparts like French); Bengali has none. In this particular context Bengali shares lineage with Dravidian languages. These tongues are inflected, that is to say that the verbs and nouns have different endings depending on their part in a sentence; though some have lost many of the inflections during their evolution.
Incredibly, Punjabi, Pahari, Dogri and other western pahari languages are tonal, making them exceptions in the family, since it is the Sino-Tibetan languages that are normally tonal. Mandarin is an obvious example. Tonal means having different meanings at different tones. Therefore the word kora in Punjabi means differently depending upon how it is said. Siraiki, another language spoken in the state of Punjab, is being lobbied for a distinct language.
But last but definitely not the least, the most important quirk of all to an outsider is that in all these languages, all plosives (p, t, k, b, d, g sounds), affricates, nasals, the retroflex flap(sounds made by using tongue and roof of the mouth) and the lateral approximant have aspirated or breathy voiced counterparts.
The Dravidian Branch did not share history with the Indic languages till the Aryan invasion. Sanskrit influence was great and vice-versa. There is a north-south distinction that exists because of the Aryan-Dravidian divide that has sustained itself over the years despite profuse fusion and overlapping of languages.
Official languages that fall under this branch are Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu.
The oldest of all these languages is probably Tamil. The script is derived from Grantha script, a descendant of the ancient Brahmi script of India. Malayalam is very similar to Tamil. Even the script is comparable. The main peculiarity here to the particularly nasal nature of Malayalam making it difficult to learn as a second language even for a Dravidian speaker. Tamil has the lowest number of Indo-Aryan loanwords, while in Malayalam and Telugu the percentage of loanwords is substantially higher. The most important sources of early loanwords have been Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit; sources of loanwords in modern times are Urdu, Portuguese, and English. Historically, there was very little borrowing from one Dravidian language into another. In Tamil, there is currently a movement to remove as many borrowings from Sanskrit as possible. Unlike Tamil, Malayalam has borrowed liberally from other languages such as Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English. Dravidian languages show extensive vocabulary borrowing, but very little phonological or grammatical borrowing from the Indo-Aryan languages.
Illustration: The word ‘centre’ is translated as follows: Kendriya (Hindi), Kendro (Bengali), Kendram (Tamil), Kendramu (Telugu).
Kannada, by perception, comes across as a mixture of Telugu, Tamil and Hindi, having borrowed colloquial words from them, thanks, possibly to the cosmopolitan nature of speakers. But delve deeper and it has a rich history of its own. There is a sharp distinction between the spoken and written forms of the language. The initial development of the Kannada language is similar to that of other Dravidian languages, notably Tamil and Telugu. During later centuries, Kannada and Telugu were highly influenced by Sanskrit vocabulary and literary styles. Kannada and Telugu scripts are similar. To a person literate in either language, the other is legible.
Dravidian languages do not distinguish between voiced and aspirated stops. They are characterized by a three-way distinction between dental (t, d, n, l sounds), alveolar, and retroflex places of articulation as well as large numbers of consonants. Word stress is usually on the first syllable. The distinction between the ‘inclusive we’ and ‘exclusive we’ exists. Kannada is the only one of the literary Dravidian languages that does not retain the distinction, the urban, spoken form of Kannada makes use of just namma. But certain dialects of Kannada like Sankethi retain the exclusive form, as does spoken rural Kannada. They are agglutinative. There are two numbers and four different gender systems, the “original” probably having “male: non-male” in the singular and “person: non-person” in the plural. Other languages spoken in the south are tulu, coorgi, kodava etc.
Though the Telugu consonant set lists aspirated consonants (both voiced and unvoiced), that is to say that the list is almost exactly like the Hindi consonant list, and they are reserved mostly for transcribing Sanskrit borrowings. To most native speakers, the aspirated and unaspirated consonants are practically allophonic (like in Tamil). The distinction is made however, rather strictly, in written or literary Telugu. Spoken Dravidian has many regional dialects, while the written form remains relatively constant across dialects. Colloquial Dravidian languages have three dialects based on social class: Brahmin, non-Brahmin, and Untouchable. Distasteful as it is to whisper about class differentiation, the language differences exist and are openly acknowledged and each dialect is often at the end of many a yarn.
It is interesting to note that there are no official languages from this family.
The Austro-Asiatic language group contains the Munda languages of central and eastern India, the Khasian languages of northeastern India, and the Nicobarese languages of the Nicobar Islands.
The languages of the Munda Branch are found scattered in pockets of north India. Munda languages consist of three grammatical numbers (singular, dual, and plural), two genders (animate and inanimate), a distinction between inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, and the use of either suffixes or auxiliaries to indicate tense. In Munda sound systems, consonant sequences are infrequent except in the middle of a word. Other than in Korku, where syllables show a distinction between high and low tone, accent is predictable in the Munda languages.
Santhali is a Munda language, related to Ho and Mundari. Most of its speakers live in the states of Jharkhand, Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Tripura, and West Bengal. It has its own alphabet, known as Ol Chiki, but literacy is very low, between 10 and 30%. Khasi is spoken primarily in Meghalaya. Khasi is part of the Mon-Khmer group of languages, in the past; the Khasi language had no script of its own. As it was more easily adapted to the Khasi language, the Roman script for Khasi was adopted.
Official languages are Bodo, Dogri and Manipuri.
Most Tibeto-Burman languages are agglutinative languages that use postpositions to mark grammatical relationships. Most use nominal classifiers when counting or quantifying nouns. The normal word order is Subject-Object-Verb. Bodo has borrowed words from Assamese. Garo has many Bengali loanwords.
Meitei-lon or Manipuri is lingua franca in the southeastern Himalayan state of Manipur. Meitei-lon is also spoken in Assam and Tripura. Meitei-lon has proven to be a large integrating factor among all ethnic groups in Manipur who use it to communicate among themselves.
Meithei and Mizo are tonal languages. There are two tones in kokborok or tripuri, a high and a low tone. To mark the high tone, the letter h is attached to the vowel with the high tone. It is closely related to the Bodo and the Dimasa of neighbouring state of Assam.
Kalto or Nihali is a language spoken in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The language has many words from Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, and Munda languages, and yet most of its vocabulary cannot be related to other language families. Kalto maybe related to another near-extinct remnant of the Indian linguistic sub-stratum, Kusunda, spoken in central Nepal. Strange as it may seem, that there exists an island of language right in the centre of the country, it’s not. This is because language isolates are native to the land. The other language families entered and probably pushed them in.
And it’s a wrap!
Things are always interesting especially while travelling as we watch the posters change language. It is true, in India, the spoken language and script change more often than the landscape. And to add of the chaos of home, Portuguese and French come into the fray. There are still remnants of a Portuguese linguistic past in Goa and French is one of the official languages of Pondicherry, both languages belong to the Indo-European family.
In this amazingly linguistically (of course, not just) diverse country, every single state has its own little language pool to boast of. Not to mention all the tribal languages. Over a period of time, any language left to its devices in an isolated region, develops its own colour, flavour and there begins its journey of its branching out. This is very much like English today, taking on hues as Jamaican, Australian, and South African and so on.
True to a land of divergences and convergences, Sindhi shows signs of heavy Dravidian influence. Kachchi is similar to Sindhi. Bishnupriya Manipuri, which is spoken in southern Manipur, is an Indo-Aryan language, should not be confused with Manipuri, which is Sino-Tibetan. The best way to explain the language distribution across the country and their similarities is by comparing it to the progression of colours in a rainbow. The closer in region the languages are, the closer they are to each other in every other aspect. But then again, there are always exceptions to the rule.
To even an Indian from the south, the north and east are foreign and mild cases of culture shock are definitely not unlikely. The revers de la médial also holds true. Linguistically, for example, aspiration poses a major problem to a Dravidian speaker who has never been exposed to any other branch of language. This is a point in concern especially when it comes to aspirations; the speaker is physically unable to produce them thereby giving away his weakness and identity. For example, an incapable south Indian (not to be blamed) cannot say Bhaiya, instead he would say Baiya. Similarly, a non-malayalli almost always has his bluff called; and the Tamil consonant ‘Zha’ is incomprehensible and unpronounceable in the rest of the country! Mannerisms and accents are always at the centre of a gag. The Hindi dialect one speaks is reflection of place of origin and can land you a better or worse bargain depending on where you are from!
But ask anyone, in any language, to call their mother’s sister and their father’s sister, they’ll definitely have specific, and different words for each of their standing in the family tree. Just as the Inuit tribe has more than a few words to describe different kinds of snow, so do Indians for every member of the family.
Footnote: Something must be said of English, the very language used to communicate this article. An Indo-European language, it absorbs indiscriminately from just any other language that it comes in contact with. It is the official associate language of the country and by law is required to be used in all official papers. All cases of the Supreme Court of India are conducted in English.
September, 1959: Debate in Parliament on the report of the Committee of Parliament on Official Languages. The then Prime Minister, Shri Jawahar Lal Nehru assured the House that neither will there be any hindrance of using English as an associate language nor will there be fixed any time limit for it. All the languages of India are equally respected and are our National Languages.
Of all inventions of man, language has got to be the most endearing. It weaves into itself the precision and boundaries of mathematics seamlessly with its own character. For, a language mirrors the priorities, aspirations and needs of its people. With languages come intonation, accents and dialects. In India, the ease with which the vast majority of people dive in and out of different languages is uncanny. It is not unlike watching a well oiled machine in motion. Used, perfected, and re-perfected over centuries of life and struggle, these are the truest records of their speaker’s history. “A language is but a dialect with an army and navy.” Lobby on!
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