Ancient Indian Languages

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Ancient Indian Languages

We do not have much information about the Ancient Indian Harrappan Languages. But the literary tradition of Ancient India clearly goes back more than 3000 years, and during this period was dominated by Sanskrit, first in its Vedic and later in its classical form. By the time Panini’s Grammar had standardised Sanskrit (about 5th century BC), language had developed another branch besides Sanskrit—the language of the masses, Prakrit or Middle Indo-Aryan (though these terms came into use much later).

Prakrits are recorded in various local dialects, based on geographical and regional factors. Middle Indo-Aryan is divided into three stages covering a period ranging from 500 BC to 1000 AD. The first stage is represented by Pali and the inscriptions of Asoka. The term Prakrit in narrow sense applies to the second stage, and it has various dialects—Maharashtri, Sauraseni, Magadhi, Ardhamagadhi. The third stage is represented by what is known as Apabhramsa.

The emergence of the modern Indo-Aryan languages dates from the period after 1000 A.D when already the division of regional languages was assuming the shape at it has today. The main group of Indo-Aryan languages stretches across north and central India. The literary development of these languages took place at various times.

Apart from the Muslim influence, the development of the modern Indo-Aryan languages followed the same lines. An important new feature in the modern languages, as opposed to the earlier Middle Indo-Aryan, was the extensive introduction of Sanskrit loanwords. After the eighteenth century, under the impact of British rule and European contact as well as the introduction of printing, the range of subjects for literature widened and was modernized. Literary output increased. The processes initiated at that time have continued till the present day.

The Dravidian languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, of which Tamil was the earliest to be developed for literary purposes. The Dravidian language came into being before the Indo-Aryan, according to scholars. It had three branches:

  1. The northern branch of Brahui spoken in Baluchistan, Kurukh and Malto spoken in Bengal and Orissa;
  2. The central branch comprising Telugu and dialects such as Kui, Khond, etc.;
  3. The southern branch comprising Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam besides dialects like Tutu, Badaga, Toda, Kodagu, etc.

Tamil developed uninhibited by the com­petition of Sanskrit or Prakrits, because the Tamil country was the furthest removed from the centre of Aryan expansion. The Tamil language was less influenced by Sanskrit than the other three Dravidian languages, and the number of Sanskrit and other Indo-Aryan loanwords in it is fewer. Kannada and Telugu were inhibited at first because their region was the dominion of the Andhra Empire whose administrative language was Prakrit But by the ninth-tenth centuries there are plenty of literary works in both languages.

Two other distinct speech families, the Nishada or Austric (the oldest and most indigenous) and Kirata or Sino-Indian, have also existed for 3000 years or more. India never really had a common language used by the masses. Even when Sanskrit grew to prominence and was widely used, it was still the language of the learned sections of the population. With independence the question of a common language came up, and it was decided—by a very narrow margin—that Hindi would be the national language of India. The Constitution lists 18 languages in the Eighth Schedule after the Seventy-First Amendment, Act 1992.

The Sahitya Akademi has approved, besides the constitutionally recognized languages, English, Dogri, Maithili and Rajasthani for its activities.

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