Who Speaks Indian? (Part I)

Ask anyone what language they speak in a given major country, and it is typically not a hard question. Italians speak Italian, Swedes speak Swedish, and the Japanese speak Japanese. Most people know that Argentines speak Spanish, and it is broadly true that the language of China is Chinese.

But India, the second-largest nation on earth with big cultural influence and rapidly rising economic power, is different. Over its millennia of history, there was never a single national entity of “India.” Hundreds of empires foreign and domestic ruled fractions large and small of the subcontinent, until it was finally unified by a British merchant company. India has a complicated past, and a language landscape to reflect it.

The boundary between Indo-European and Dravidian is the northern border of Kannada and Telugu.

India is so eclectic that the top-level linguistic division is not between languages, but language families. One could argue that India is more diverse than Europe, where with few exceptions (Basque, Estonian, Finnish, Maltese, Hungarian) every language is Indo-European.

In India, most states have their own languages. The two official languages of the union as a whole are Hindi and English, but to most Indians these are foreign tongues. The refrain oft cited by patriotic Indians (including my Indian-American roommate) that “everyone in India speaks three languages” (his native one, Hindi, and English) is an exaggeration, though hundreds of millions of Indians do have some facility in at least three.

The distance of a region’s native tongue to Hindi can play a key role in economic access and cultural identity. According to official records, just under half of Indians are fluent in Hindi, and around 10% in English. An illiterate peasant from Maharashtra (a major state that includes Mumbai) could easily move to Delhi and make himself understood, even if he has never studied Hindi. For an analogous Bengali, it would be akin to a Spaniard moving to Rome. For a Tamil, it would be no less difficult from a purely linguistic perspective than moving to London. Since they are both so hard, South Indians tend to prefer to learn English instead of Hindi. People whose languages are far from Hindi generally identify more with their home state, and may be more likely to emigrate.

Indians of all stripes aspire to learn English. Of course, English was the official language of the British Raj, but during the colonial era, few outside the major cities spoke it. Since the mid 20th Century, however, it has taken off- foreigners often comment how impressed they are at the fluency of people at all levels of society. English also often serves as a neutral playing field for a country where many feel put upon by Hindi.

Mir Osman Ali Khan, the greatest prince in India and one of the richest men on earth, at his coronation in 1911. He and his courtiers spoke fluent English, but few outside the educated elite did. Young Britons who aspired to serve the Crown in India had to learn at least one Indian language as part of their grueling civil service exams.

Indians have a much stronger record learning English than citizens of other developing nations, most importantly China. Among the reasons for this are the long legacy of British rule, the distant kinship between English and the languages of North India, and the well-established culture of multilingualism across the country. Whatever the reason, English is a boon to Indians and India as a whole in industries from entertainment to tech.

Northern India, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, is dominated by the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. As their cousins headed west to settle Europe, the ancestors of today’s Northern Indians (as well as Persians) went south and conquered the rich subcontinent.

Brahmin students learn Vedic hymns to keep the language of their forebears alive.

The language of the Aryans was Sanskrit, which plays a similar role in India to that of Latin in Europe. It is the language of the glorious ancient past and Classical culture, and still looms large as a liturgical and cultural language and the mother of North India’s modern tongues. The Indo-Aryan branch is considered the most prolific in the Indo-European family in terms of number of languages, but on the ground there is a pretty organic dialect continuum. This is thanks to India’s flatter geography relative to Europe, which has facilitated movement and thus limited language drift, as well as well as high familiarity with Sanskrit. Bengali, for example, has a tradition of diglossia, with a higher literary register much closer to Sanskrit than the common version (the latter has been predominant since the 19th Century).

Even the mode of development of Indian daughter languages to some extent mirrors Romance. Modern languages simplified consonant clusters, and dropped at least one of Sanskrit’s three grammatical genders. Bengali, which as a commercial language has been learnt and butchered by a lot of linguistically clumsy adults, has none.

In the Indian subcontinent today, the politics plays a primary role in the language landscape. Hindi, the official language of India, and Urdu, that of Pakistan, were traditionally considered dialects of one language called Hindustani. Muslims preferred the Mughal official register, sprinkled generously with Persian loanwords and written in the Persian script, while Hindus strove to purify it, but speakers of either could and can understand one another. When British India was partitioned in 1947, the new governments declared that their registers were, in fact, separate languages. (There are also Urdu speakers in the Deccan region of India, heirs of the once-mighty sultanate of Hyderabad). There are analogous controversies on the state level, most significantly as to whether certain communities speak their own languages or dialects of Hindi.

This image from the Indo-Pakistani border comes from an article entitled “Digraphia in Hindustani.”

Across much of the world, people in different nations speak different languages, and people within the same nation speak the same language. In the Indian subcontinent, people in India and Pakistan speak the same language, as do Bengalis in the Indian state of West Bengal and their neighbours in the independent state of Bangladesh. But across the center of India, there is a linguistic chasm. Trying to bridge or cross it is a daily challenge for hundreds of millions of Indians.

Part II

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets