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India - Language

The languages of India belong to four major families: Indo-Aryan (a branch of the Indo-European family), Dravidian, Austroasiatic (Austric), and Sino-Tibetan, with the overwhelming majority of the population speaking languages belonging to the first two families. (A fifth family, Andamanese, is spoken by at most a few hundred among the indigenous tribal peoples in the Andaman Islands, and has no agreed upon connections with families outside them.) The four major families are as different in their form and construction as are, for example, the Indo-European and Semitic families. A variety of scripts are employed in writing the different languages. Furthermore, most of the more widely used Indian languages exist in a number of different forms or dialects influenced by complex geographic and social patterns.

English enjoys the status of subsidiary official language but is the most important language for national, political, and commercial communication. Hindi is the most widely spoken language and primary tongue of 41% of the people. Hindustani is a popular variant of Hindi/Urdu spoken widely throughout northern India but is not an official language.

Sir George Grierson's twelve-volume Linguistic Survey of India , published between 1903 and 1923, identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. The 1921 census listed 188 languages and forty-nine dialects. The 1961 census listed 184 "mother tongues," including those with fewer than 10,000 speakers. This census also gave a list of all the names of mother tongues provided by the respondents themselves; the list totals 1,652 names. The 1981 census reported 112 mother tongues with more than 10,000 speakers and almost 1 million people speaking other languages. The encyclopedic People of India series, published by the government's Anthropological Survey of India in the 1980s and early 1990s, identified seventy-five "major languages" within a total of 325 languages used in Indian households.

The Indian constitution recognizes official languages. Articles 343 through 351 address the use of Hindi, English, and regional languages for official purposes, with the aim of a nationwide use of Hindi while guaranteeing the use of minority languages at the state and local levels. Hindi has been designated India's official language, although many impediments to its official use exist.

The constitution's Eighth Schedule, as amended by Parliament in 1992, listed eighteen official or Scheduled Languages. They are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Bodo, Dogri, Maithili and Santali have been included as Scheduled languages from 2001 Census following the 100th Amendment of the Constitution of India.

Since independence in 1947, linguistic affinity has been a basis for organizing interest groups; the "language question" itself became an increasingly sensitive political issue. Efforts to reach a consensus on a single national language that transcended the myriad linguistic regions and is acceptable to diverse language communities have been largely unsuccessful.

Many Indian nationalists originally intended that Hindi would replace English -- the language of British rule (1757-1947) -- as a medium of common communication. Both Hindi and English are extensively used, and each has its own supporters. Native speakers of Hindi, who are concentrated in North India, contend that English, as a relic from the colonial past and spoken by only a small fraction of the population, is hopelessly elitist and unsuitable as the nation's official language. Proponents of English argue, in contrast, that the use of Hindi is unfair because it is a liability for those Indians who do not speak it as their native tongue. English, they say, at least represents an equal handicap for Indians of every region.

Whether speaking in parliament, with Indian officials or foreign leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi communicated in Hindi in his first weeks in office. Modi, the son of a poor tea seller, is far more adept in Hindi than in English - the two languages recognized as the official medium for federal government communication. After witnessing the launch of a satellite in the southern Andhra Pradesh state, he surprised many by making his first speech since becoming Prime Minister in English. It was clearly an effort, but an astute move to reassure the south, from where many of the scientists hail.

English is the language of prestige. Indias upper middle class, which includes many senior bureaucrats, largely has grown up speaking English in their homes. Most studied in schools that used English for instruction, and some have gone to Western universities. Although they still speak Hindi, their written communication skills are often labored. And in an effort to cope with the language now in favor, many bureaucrats are scrambling to deepen their knowledge of Hindi, particularly words used in official communication.

Efforts to switch to Hindi or other regional tongues encounter stiff opposition both from those who know English well and whose privileged position requires proficiency in that tongue, and from those who see it as a means of upward mobility. Partisans of English also maintain it is useful and necessary as a link to the rest of the world, that India is lucky that the colonial period left a language that is now the world's predominant international language in the fields of culture, science, technology, and commerce. The English language skills of Indian engineers gave momentum to the growth of the countrys famous information technology industry. Most Indians from low-income groups are opting to send their children to English medium schools to give them an edge in the job market. Widespread knowledge of English is necessary for technological and economic progress and that reducing its role would leave India a backwater in world affairs.

Hindi is widely spoken in the north, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has won most seats. But southern and eastern states have always opted for local languages or English. Five decades ago, efforts to impose Hindi as the countrys only official language triggered violent riots in the south. In 2014 the new BJP government proposed giving Hindi primacy in official communications. Political leaders in southern states voiced loud protests when the government ordered officials to prioritize Hindi over English on official accounts on social media platforms such as Twitter and on government websites. The government quickly clarified that the diktat was meant only for northern states. Prime Minister Modi and the BJP wanted to reinforce their credentials as a Hindu nationalist party that will represent the swelling ranks of those joining the middle class, who may not be as conversant with English.

Linguistic diversity is apparent on many of levels. Major regional languages have stylized literary forms, often with extensive bodies of literature, which may date back from a few centuries to two millennia ago. These literary languages differ markedly from the spoken forms and village dialects that coexist with the plethora of caste idioms and regional lingua francas. Part of the reason for such linguistic diversity lies in the complex social realities of South Asia. India's languages reflect the intricate levels of social hierarchy and caste. Individuals have in their speech repertoire a variety of styles and dialects appropriate to various social situations. In general, the higher the speaker's status, the more speech forms there are at his or her disposal. Speech is adapted in countless ways to reflect the specific social context and the relative standing of the speakers.

Determining what should be called a language or a dialect is more a political than a linguistic question. Sometimes the word language is applied to a standardized and prestigious form, recognized as such over a large geographic area, whereas the word dialect is used for the various forms of speech that lack prestige or that are restricted to certain regions or castes but are still regarded as forms of the same language. Sometimes mutual intelligibility is the criterion: if the speakers can understand each other, even though with some difficulty, they are speaking the same language, although they may speak different dialects.

But speakers of Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi can often understand each other, yet they are regarded as speakers of different languages. Whether or not Konkani -- spoken in Goa, Karnataka, and the Konkan region of Maharashtra -- is a distinct language or a dialect of Marathi has tended to be linked with whether or not Goa ought to be merged with Maharashtra. The question was settled from the central government's point of view by making Goa a state and Konkani a Scheduled Language. Moreover, the fact that the Latin script was predominantly used for Konkani separated it further from Marathi, which uses the Devanagari script. However, Konkani is also sometimes written in Devanagari and Kannada scripts.

In the politically charged atmosphere surrounding language policy, regional languages are an issue. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, attempts were made to redraw state boundaries to coincide with linguistic usage. Such efforts have had mixed results. Linguistic affinity has often failed to overcome other social and economic differences. In addition, most states have linguistic minorities, and questions surrounding the definition and use of the official language in those regions are fraught with controversy.

Some states have been accused of failure to fulfill their obligations under the national constitution to provide for the education of linguistic minorities in their mother tongues, even when the minority language is a Scheduled Language. Although the constitution requires legal documents and petitions may be submitted in any of the Scheduled Languages to any government authority, this right is rarely exercised. Under such circumstances, members of linguistic minorities may feel they and their language are oppressed by the majority, while some people who are among linguistic majorities may feel threatened by what some might consider minor concessions. Thus, attempts to make seemingly minor accommodations for social diversity may have extensive and volatile ramifications. For example, in 1994 a proposal in Bangalore to introduce an Urdu-language television news segment (aimed primarily at Muslim viewers) led to a week of urban riots that left dozens dead and millions of dollars in property damage.

Language and its percentage to total population
1971 1981* 1991*** 2001****
Language % Language % Language % Language %
1 2 3 4
1 Hindi 36.99 1 Hindi 38.74 1 Hindi *2 39.29 1 Hindi 41.03
2 Bengali 8.17 2 Bengali 7.71 2 Bengali 8.30 2 Bengali 8.11
3 Telugu 8.16 3 Telugu 7.61 3 Telugu 7.87 3 Telugu 7.19
4 Marathi 7.61 4 Marathi 7.43 4 Marathi 7.45 4 Marathi 6.99
5 Tamil 6.88 5 Urdu 5.25 5 Tamil 6.32 5 Tamil 5.91
6 Urdu 5.22 6 Gujarati 4.97 6 Urdu 5.18 6 Urdu 5.01
7 Gujarati 4.72 7 Kannada 3.86 7 Gujarati 4.85 7 Gujarati 4.48
8 Malayalam 4.00 8 Malayalam 3.86 8 Kannada 3.91 8 Kannada 3.69
9 Kannada 3.96 9 Oriya 3.46 9 Malayalam 3.62 9 Malayalam 3.21
10 Oriya 3.62 10 Punjabi 2.95 10 Oriya 3.35 10 Oriya 3.21
11 Punjabi 2.57 11 Maithili1 1.13 11 Punjabi 2.79 11 Punjabi 2.83
12 Assamese 1.63 12 Santali1 0.65 12 Assamese 1.56 12 Assamese 1.28
13 Maithili1 1.12 13 Kashmiri 0.48 13 Maithili1 0.93 13 Maithili 1 @ 1.18
14 Santali1 0.69 14 Sindhi 0.31 14 Santali1 0.62 14 Santali 1 0.63
15 Kashmiri 0.46 15 Konkani2 0.24 15 Nepali2 0.25 15 Kashmiri (+) 0.54
16 Sindhi 0.31 16 Dogri1 0.23 16 Sindhi 0.25 16 Nepali2 0.28
17 Konkani2 0.28 17 Nepali2 0.20 17 Konkani2 0.21 17 Sindhi 0.25
18 Nepali2 0.26 18 Manipuri2 0.14 18 Bodo1 0.15 18 Konkani2 0.24
19 Dogri1 0.24 19 Sanskrit 0.00 19 Manipuri2 0.15 19 Dogri 1 (+) 0.22
20 Manipuri2 0.14 20 Assamese** ** 20 Sanskrit 0.01 20 Manipuri2 $ 0.14
21 Bodo1 0.10 21 Bodo1 ** 21 Kashmiri *** 21 Bodo 1 0.13
22 Sanskrit 0.00 22 Tamil** ** 22 Dogri (+)1 *** 22 Sanskrit 0.00

1.   Bodo, Dogri, Maithili and Santali have been included as Scheduled languages from 2001 Census following the 
     100th Amendment of the Constitution of India. 

2.   Konkani, Manipuri and Nepali are appearing as Scheduled languages since 1991 following the 73rd Amendment
     of the Consitution of India. 

3.   The change in Hindi percentage in 1991 from the published percentage in 1991 is due to exclusion of Maithili
      from Hindi. 

*    The percentage of speakers of each language for 1981 has been worked out on the total population of India
      excluding the population of Assam where the 1981 Census was not conducted due to disturbed conditions. 

**   Full figures for Tamil, Assamese and Bodo for 1981 are not available as the census records for Tamil Nadu were
       lost due to floods and the 1981 Census could not be conducted in Assam due to the disturbed conditions then
       prevailing there. Therefore, percentage to total population for Tamil and Assamese are not given. 

*** The percentage of speakers of each language for 1991 has been worked out on the total population of India 
       excluding the population for Jammu & Kashmir where the 1991 Census was not conducted due to disturbed

****The percentage of speakers of each language for 2001 has been worked out on the total population of India
        excluding the population of Mao-Maram, Paomata and Purul subdivisions of Senapati district of Manipuri due
       to cancellation of Census 

(+) Full figures for Kashmiri and Dogri language for 1991 are not available as the 1991 Census was not conducted in Jammu & Kashmir due to disturbed conditions. 

$- Excludes figures of Paomata, Mao-Maram and Purul sub-divisions of Senapati district of Manipur for 2001.

@ Maithili figure has been extracted from Hindi language since 1971 census to 1991 census because it was a mother tongue under Hindi.

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