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Languages in India - a detailed look

Languages in India - a detailed lookA few months ago, we pointed out that English really isn't the official language of India - even if many Westerners believe it to be. Because India is central to drug and device companies' development efforts, we thought we would take a more in-depth look at the linguistic landscape in India.

In India, language is one of the main components of a person's ethnic identity. Furthermore languages, and thus individual identities, are both numerous and expansive throughout the Indian nation. The Indian constitution currently recognizes 22 official languages. Almost each of these recognized languages includes different dialects or variations of that language.

Outside of these official languages there are several other non-official, but recognized languages, as well as numerous idioms which are not currently recognized by the central government. Most of the present state boundaries in India were created based on the density of the "primary" Indian languages as determined by the Indian constitution.

After India's independence in 1947, the central government decided that the official language of India would be Hindi. The Indian constitution declared that English could also be used for official purposes. Speakers of other languages saw in this decision an attempt to erase their linguistic cultures. While Hindi has at least 13 different dialects and is the most commonly spoken language in India, the reason Hindi was ultimately chosen to be the official language of India was because it has a connection with Indian political history before its independence.

Most Indians are religiously tied to the Hindu faith and therefore speak Hindi as their primary language. Urdu, another common Indian language, is perceived as the language of Muslims.

Before India's independence, each of these two religious groups advocated for the prevalence of their language as the official language of India. In order to secure Hindi's position as the sole official language, certain political leaders convinced northern Indians to claim their language as a dialect of Hindi. Thus different, previously unrelated, dialects were grouped together into a "Hindi" speaking category. This helped Hindi appear to be the most commonly spoken language in India.

Once Hindi was chosen as the official language of the nation, different "Hindi" language speakers began demanding official recognition of their supposedly unique languages. For example, speakers of Maithali and Punjabi demanded recognition of their languages as separate entities of Hindi. Of these two languages, only Punjabi received this recognition. Other "Hindi" languages are considered dialects of Hindi. Their status in the different states of India remains unclear and is open to interpretation.

The official Hindi language is based on the dialect spoken in the Delhi-Agra region that employs a Sanskrit vocabulary. While the Hindi spoken by the majority of Indians is based on this dialect, it is also affected by popular cultural influences such as the cinema based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and various English words.

As previously stated, many speakers of other Indian languages viewed the decision to have Hindi as the primary official language of the country as an attempt to erase their linguistic cultures. After numerous struggles - political, violent, and passive - the central government decided to allow the state governments to choose their official languages.

The central government now constitutionally recognizes 22 Indian languages. One of the advantages of constitutional recognition is the right to use any of these languages for government service examinations. In reality, however, linguistic discrimination still exists and this possibility isn't always given to the examinee.

As of right now, the following languages are officially recognized by the Indian constitution: Assamese/Axomiya, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri (also called Meitei/Meithei), Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu.

Localization: Where do these dialects fit in?
Here at ForeignExchange, we have seen a demand in localization for a handful of these official Indian languages. Please find these languages highlighted below:

Hindi vs. Urdu
Hindi is spoken in the "Hindi Belt," an area in north and central India where Hindi is either the native or primary language. Urdu is mainly spoken in Uttar Pradesh, but is also prevalent in the regions of Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, and Bihar.

Hindi and Urdu differ both in the way they are written and in their use of the Sanskrit vocabulary. Standard Hindi is written in Devanagari and expands its vocabulary using (Indo-Aryan) Sanskrit words. Urdu is written in a unique Urdu alphabet which is a variant of the (Semitic) Perso-Arabic script and draws heavily on Persian and Arabic vocabulary (Urdu is not only the official languages of certain regions of India, but also of Iran).

The colloquial languages spoken by the people of Delhi are indistinguishable by ear, whether called Hindi or Urdu by its speakers. The only important linguistic distinction is at the level of script: if written in the Perso-Arabic script, the language is generally considered to be Urdu, while if written in Devanagari it is generally considered to be Hindi.

Since India's independence the historical Hindi and Urdu used in education and the media have become increasingly divergent in their spoken vocabulary. Where there is no colloquial word for a concept, standard Urdu uses a Perso-Arabic vocabulary, while standard Hindi uses the Sanskrit vocabulary. This results in the official Hindi and Urdu languages being heavily Sanskritized and Persianized, respectively. This has caused the creation of words/phrases that are nearly unintelligible to speakers educated in the formal, more historical standards of these languages.

Marathi is spoken by the Marathi people of south western India. It is the official language of the state of Maharashtra. There are 90 million fluent Marathi speakers worldwide. Marathi is the 4th most spoken language in India and the 15th most spoken language in the world.

Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken predominantly by Tamil people of the Indian subcontinents. It has official status in India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. Tamil is also spoken in Malaysia, Mauritius, Vietnam, RĂ©union Island, as well as in several emigrant communities around the world. It is the administrative language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and the first Indian language to be declared as a classical language by the government of India in 2004.

Gujarati is an Indo-Aryan language and is part of the greater Indo-European language family. It is both native to and the chief language of the Indian state of Gujarat. It is also the primary language spoken in the adjacent union territories of Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

There are about 46.1 million speakers of Gujarati worldwide, making it the 26th most spoken language in the world. Along with Romany and Sindhi, it is among the most western of the Indo-Aryan languages.

Kannada is one of the major Dravidian languages of India and is spoken predominantly in the state of Karnataka. It is, therefore, both the official and administrative language of this state. Kannada native speakers, called Kannadigas, number roughly 35 million, making it the 27th most spoken language in the world.

There is some distinction between the spoken and written forms of this language. While spoken Kannada tends to vary from region to region, the written form is more or less consistent throughout Karnataka. There exist roughly 20 dialects of Kannada. All of these dialects are influenced by their regional and cultural background.

We are what we speak
The languages we speak play an integral role in all of our identities. This is because language is at the heart of culture and our culture defines how we live.

If anything can be derived from this brief glimpse into the languages of India and their history, let it be the importance of cultural awareness in localization. The more sensitive we are to linguistic cultures, the more accurate, appropriate, and successful our translations will be.

ForeignExchange translates clinical research for medical device and pharmaceutical companies into Indian languages - as well as dozens of other languages. Ask us for a detailed proposal on your next translation project.


  1. DawnM said...
    I believe the status of English is a little more complicated than the fact that it is not an "official" language, evidenced by the fact that you can get along in India speaking English only just fine, as long as you are in the city. My daughter boarded with an Indian family in Bangalore, for instance, that took pride in the fact that they spoke only English. Their children never learned Hindi very well and then had to struggle with it as adults. Parents who have the money to give their children a private education insist on English and will often speak English at home. The linguistic situation is something we can't even imagine in the US.
    Kirti Vashee said...
    I think you will find an interesting d much more pragmatic perspective on Indian Languages & Localization from the presentation that Biraj Rath gave at #LTBKK - less linguistically focused and more about what could drive business.

    India: Huge untapped market opportunity for MLVs was a major eye opener on the huge L10N opportunity available in India for many attendees especially the LISA folks who seem to see nothing but China in their sights.

    Tarjuma India Translations said...
    It's a wonderful article. It's really a detailed and in-depth look! Most of non-Indian readers will be enlightened by it.
    Jitendra Jaiswal said...
    Very informative article about Indic languages! Surely it would help world to understand our languages.
    Jitendra Jaiswal said...
    Besides above languages, Bengali, Telugu, and Malayalam are other very importent languages of India. If I speak about medical translation, these languages also have equal share with above ones.
    Anonymous said...
    Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, not Iran. Farsi is the official language of Iran.
    Admin said...
    You have left Bengali. With nearly 230 million total speakers, Bengali is one of the most spoken languages (ranking sixth in the world. It deserves a mention here.

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