The great number of languages in India have historically created diverse cultures and traditions at both regional and national levels. 216 languages are spoken by a group of more than 10,000 people; however there are many others which are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.
If these languages were to be included, there are 415 living languages in India. The Constitution of India has stipulated the usage of Hindi and English to be the two official languages of communication for the Union Government. Individual states’ own internal communications are usually in the state’s language or English.
The two major linguistic families in India are those of the Indo-Aryan languages and those of the Dravidian languages, the former being largely confined to North India and the latter to South India. The next largest language family in India is the Austro-Asiatic language group, which contains the Munda languages of central and eastern India, the Khasian languages of northeastern India, and the Nicobarese languages of the Nicobar Islands. The fourth largest language family in India is the Tibeto-Burman languages, which are themselves a subgroup of the larger Sino-Tibetan language family.
According to Census of India of 2001, 29 languages are spoken by more than a million native speakers, 122 by more than 10,000. 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-European family evolved from Old Indo-Aryan such as Sanskrit, by way of the Middle Indo-Aryan Prakrit languages and Apabhramsha of the Middle Ages. There is no consensus for a specific time where the modern north Indian languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Bengali and Oriya emerged, but CE 1000 is commonly accepted. Each language had different influences, with Hindi/Urdu and closely related languages being strongly influenced by Persian and Arabic. The South Indian (Dravidian) languages had a history independent of Sanskrit. However in later stages all the Dravidian
languages had been heavily influenced by Sanskrit. The major Dravidian languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.
The languages of India may be grouped by major language families. The largest of these in terms of speakers is the Indo-European family, predominantly represented in its Indo-Aryan branch (accounting for some 700 million speakers), but also including minority languages such as Persian, Portuguese or French, and English as lingua franca. The second largest is the Dravidian family, accounting for some 200 million speakers. Minor linguistic families include the Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman families (with some 10 and 6 million speakers, respectively). There is also a language isolate, the Nihali language.
Classical languages of India
Two classical languages, Tamil and Sanskrit, originated in India. By a formal Declaration of the Indian government, Tamil and Sanskrit are the recognized as Classical Languages of India. In the mid-19th century, Indologists referred to Paninian Sanskrit as classical Sanskrit, distinguishing it from the older Vedic language.Robert Caldwell, the first linguist to systematically study the Dravidian languages as a family, used the term classical to distinguish the literary forms of Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Tulu from the diglossic colloquial forms.In the second half of the 20th century, academics began to suggest that the Old Tamil poems of the Sangam anthologies were also classical in the sense that they shared many features with literatures commonly accepted as classical. This point, first made by Kamil Zvelebil in the 1970s, has since been supported by a number of other scholars, and the terminology classical Tamil is commonly used in historical literature to refer to texts from that period. Martha Ann Selby argues that if classical is defined with reference to age and the value a literature has within the tradition it represents, the Tamil poetry of the Sangam anthologies and the Maharashtri poems of the Sattisai are classical, in addition to Sanskrit literature.
In 2004, a new category was created by constitutional decree under which languages that met certain requirements could be accorded the status of a ‘classical’ in India.With the creation of this category, Tamil and, a year later, Sanskrit, have been accorded the status. More languages are being considered to be added to the list. Experts consulted by the government and the Sahitya Academy of India, a literary body, recommended against awarding the tag to any language. Dr. George Hart, a Professor of Tamil at the University of California-Berkeley, supported classifying Tamil as a classical language
Article 346 of the Indian Constitution recognizes Hindi in Devanagari script as the official language of central government India. The Constitution also allows for the continuation of use of the English language for official purposes.
Indian languages have corresponding distinct alphabets. The two major families are those of the Dravidian languages and those of the Indo-Aryan languages, the former largely confined to the south and the latter to the north. Urdu and sometimes Kashmiri, Sindhi and Panjabi are written in modified versions of the Arabic script. Except for these languages, the alphabets of Indian languages are native to India. Most scholars consider these Indic scripts a distant offshoot of the Aramaic alphabet, although there are differing opinions.