The Linguistic Identity of India

The Linguistic Identity of India
India is a nation where over 1.2 billion people speak 19,569 different languages or dialects as a "mother tongue.” The largest language census revealed interesting data concerning linguistics, identity..

India is a nation where over 1.2 billion people speak 19,569 different languages or dialects as a "mother tongue.” The largest language census revealed interesting data concerning linguistics, identity and nationalism.


Languages spoken in India belong to several language families, the major ones being the Indo-Aryan languages spoken by 78.05% of Indians and the Dravidian languages spoken by 19.64%. The remaining 2.31% of the population belong to the Austroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai, and other minor language families. Three millennia of political and social contact have resulted in mutual influence among the four language families in India and South Asia, alongside the noteworthy effects of Persian and English as contact languages.

Linguistic records begin with the appearance of the Brāhmī script from about the 3rd century BCE. The oldest recorded script from the Indus Valley Civilisation is yet to be deciphered.

James Princep, an archaeologist with the East India Company, deciphered the Brahmi script and, thus, unlocked a trove of knowledge regarding the history of India. Although Indologists developed historical narratives which skewed the socio-political thought of Indians for decades, their efforts to uncover the linguistic history of India cannot be undermined.

Mahatma Gandhi’s plans to make Hindi the sole official language of the Republic met with resistance, especially in South India, and was in violation of the federal nature of India. English, the language of the British Raj, was not easily accepted either. Thus, the Official Languages Act of 1963 ruled that English and Hindi would be used for official purposes, but there is no national language of the Union. Instead, 22 other languages were recognised by the Eighth Schedule, and state governments were granted the right to choose their own official language. Of the 22 scheduled languages, 15 are Indic, four are Dravidian, two are Tibeto-Burman, and one is Munda.


According to a report of the census directorate, there are 22 scheduled languages and 100 non-scheduled languages in the country which are spoken by a large number of people of one lakh or more. However, there are around 42 languages which are spoken by less than 10,000 people. These are considered endangered and may be heading towards extinction, a home ministry official said.

The languages or dialects which were considered endangered, include 11 from Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 7 from Manipur and four from Himachal Pradesh. Major states of India from Odisha, Assam, and West Bengal to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra have languages on the verge of extinction.

The Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, has been working for the protection and preservation of endangered languages of the country, under a central scheme.Grammatical descriptions, dictionaries, language primers, anthologies of folklore, encyclopaedias of all languages or dialects especially those spoken by less than 10,000 people are being prepared.

Hindi was identified as the country's most spoken language with more than 43% of the population (more than 528 million people) able to communicate in it. Since the liberalisation of the economy in the late 90’s, there has been increased migration across the states, particularly to the economically thriving southern states, where Hindi was not commonly spoken. Hindi managed to add 100 million new speakers between 2001 and 2011, a 25% increase. It can be estimated that since 2011 to 2017, there has been a further increase in Hindi speakers.

Ganesh Devy, a linguist and founder of the Bhasha Trust research organization, was not satisfied with the data saying, ”The census has subsumed many languages in Hindi. This includes Bhojpuri, which is spoken by more than 50 million people. Bhojpuri is not Hindi; it is a different language.” He further underlined that, "Many other languages spoken in the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, with millions of speakers, were also categorized as Hindi to inflate the figures.”

Owing to religious identity politics, those who speak Urdu choose Hindi as their mother tongue to avoid harassment. Furthermore, the number of Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam speakers has significantly dropped.

The census shows a sharp decline in the number of speakers of southern Indian languages, except for Kannada, which saw a marginal rise from to 3.73%. On the other hand, Janaki Nair examines Kannada nationalism on the basis that it, like all nationalisms, attempts to produce a solidarity between all Kannada speakers in order to efface the specificities of caste and class.

Language has figured prominently in politics, education, economics and post-independence conflicts over distribution of resources and territories in India.  Minority language speakers are often discriminated against, owing to their lack of fluency in the official language of the state. Nationalism and linguistics have a syncretic relationship which has the power to unite or divide a country of multiple cultures, religions and identities, not only in conversation, but also in text and prose.


Our assessment is that the data from the language consensus can be used to understand underling socio-economic issues. We believe that language, a comprehensive method of expression, has the power to influence ideas and policies, however, it ought not be used to dominate over minority communities. We feel that in the case of ineffective policies for unemployment, poverty and infrastructure, language is used as a fuel for nationalist or regionalist identities.