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As any Indian will tell you, the country has a crapload of cultural diversity. Naturally, this extends to its languages as well (that's languages, not just dialects). India has hundreds of native languages spoken by different ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. At present, 22 of those languages are officially recognized by the Indian constitution, which are listed below. They span several language families including Dravidian (South), Indo-Aryan[1] (everywhere but the South), Tibeto-Burman (Northeast), and Austro-Asiatic (East). And unlike most countries, there are also several different writing systems.

Typically, each state selects its own official language and this language is spoken by the majority of the state's population. This is fairly easy for some regions, especially the South and East, where state borders sharply correlate with linguistic and ethnic divisions. It's harder for states in Western India (which tend to be more cosmopolitan) and for states in the Northeast (which tend to have dozens of small languages instead of one lingua franca). Near state borders, people will either speak the languages of both states, or dialects that are mixtures of the two languages. Those who cross state lines often, like truck drivers, will know several languages. Otherwise, either Hindi or English is used when two people from different parts of the country need to communicate.



Central and Northern Languages

  • Dogri
  • Kashmiri
  • Punjabi

Southern Languages

  • Kannada
    • Spoken mainly in the state of Karnataka (native speakers are called Kannadigas, of whom there are 35 million). It has attained the status of a classical language.
  • Malayalam
    • Spoken in the state of Kerala (33 million speakers, who are called Malayalees/"Mallus"). Since it uses a lot of consonants, it can sound very harsh to those who are not used to it. Sometimes shows up as a token in the media of other regions because of the distinctiveness of the language and the culture surrounding it. It is also said to be the hardest Indian language to learn.
  • Tamil
    • Spoken in the state of Tamil Nadu, and also in several countries (61 million Tamils worldwide). Like Malayalam, it uses harsh-sounding consonants often and sounds not unlike a pinball machine. Tamil is also said to be the Indian language with the least Sanskrit influence, and it has attained classic language status. Native Tamils are famous for their ethno-linguistic pride and are known to be protective of their linguistic rights (unfortunately, this sometimes leads to the Angry Tamil Man stereotype).
  • Telugu
    • Spoken in the state of Andhra Pradesh (74 million). The third most common Indian language. It was once called "the Italian of the east" because it is a very lyrical language and nearly all words in Telugu end in a vowel. Alongside Tamil, Sanskrit and Kannada, Telugu is also considered a classic language of India.
      • The Telugu-speaking region (Andhra Pradesh) may be divided into two, as while not denying cultural and linguistic links to other Telugu speakers, the inland region of Telangana feels it has a separate identity and history from the rest of the state on account of its long rule by the Urdu-speaking Muslim Nizams of Hyderabad, as well as different economic interests.

Eastern Languages

  • Bengali
    • Spoken mainly in the sate of West Bengal (and the country of Bangladesh). There are 83 million Banglas/Bengalis worldwide, and it is the second most-spoken native language in India. Jana Gana Mana (the national anthem) and Vande Mataram (the national song) are written in a mixture of Bengali and Sanskrit.
  • Maithili
    • Mostly spoken in the state of Bihar. About 12 million speakers.
  • Oriya
    • Spoken mainly in the state of Orissa. There are 33 million "Oriyas" worldwide.
  • Santali
    • An official language in the state of Jharkhand. 6 million speakers.

Western Languages

  • Gujarati
    • Gujarati is spoken in the state of Gujarat. There are 46 million Gujaratis/gujjus. It was also the native language of Mahatma Gandhi and Jinnah.
  • Konkani
    • Spoken in the state of Goa. 8 million speakers. Often is written in the same script used for Hindi and Sanskrit.
  • Marathi
    • Spoken in the state of Maharashtra. There are 90 million Marathi speakers in India. Ironically, the Hindi film industry is based in Mumbai, a Marathi-speaking area.
  • Sindhi
    • Mainly spoken in Gujarat, and is also a language of Pakistan (estimated 2 million speakers in India, 40 million worldwide). Also spoken throughout India by groups of people descended from Pakistani emigrants.


North-Eastern Languages

  • Assamese
  • Bodo
  • Manipuri
  • Nepali

Not Regionally affiliated

  • Hindi and Urdu
    • Hindi is the most commonly spoken and most well-known language in India. This is because at the time of independence, Hindi had the most speakers. The government at the time wanted it to become the national language, but several ethnic groups protested because they were afraid of losing employment opportunities to native Hindi speakers. In response, the government gave Hindi the status of 'Official Language of the Union' instead. Hindi was never actually made the national language, but the government does endorse its use as a lingua franca by requiring Hindi to be taught as a first or second language in most places. Urdu is an official language of Pakistan, but it is also associated with Indian Muslims. Hindi and Urdu are very similar, to the point of being mutually intelligible. For that reason, it is debatable whether they are separate languages at all. The main differences occur in the higher (literary) registers of both languages, which are nearly identical at the colloquial level. As well, Urdu is usually written in Arabic script, while Hindi is written in Devanagari.
    • Generally speaking, the farther you go from North/Central India, the less Hindi/Urdu you will find. Hindi is not as common in South India as it is in the North. This is because South Indian languages are from an entirely different language family, and also because South Indians have been politically resistant to adopting the language. However, urban South Indians will sometimes use Hindi if there is a Hindi-speaking community in the area. This is especially true in the city of Hyderabad, which has significant Muslim influence in its culture and a large Urdu-speaking minority. Also, people in the southern state of Kerala are known to have high proficiency in Hindi (probably because the state itself is very cosmopolitan and affluent). Similarly, the languages of the Northeast tend to be in the Tibeto-Burman family. This, combined with the fact that there are some rather extreme separatist movements in the region, mean that there is not much Hindi spoken there either. English on the other hand is pretty common in the NE region, with several states claiming it as their official language.
  • English
  • Sanskrit
    • A language that is not commonly spoken any more, but is historically very important and has liturgical and ceremonial use. Think of it the way the Western world thinks of Latin.
    • Speaking of Latin, Sanskrit is related to Latin and Greek as all three are descendants of the extinct Proto-Indo-European language. A study of cognates between the three will make this apparent.

Notes

  1. Aryan as in "Iranian", not that other kind of Aryan
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