How many Indian languages are there?

The number of languages spoken in India is much discussed and even more disputed. Many have attempted to compute the exact figure. What we can say with authority is that it is a very large number.

Among the earliest who attempted to count were the poets Amir Khusrau in the courts of the Delhi Sultanate and Abul Fazl in Akbar’s court. Writing in CE 1317, Khusrau listed Sindhi, Dogri, Kannada, Telugu, Gujarati, Tamil, Bangla and “Hindavi” as the “languages of Hind”. More than two centuries later, Abul Fazl in his Ain-i-Akbari (late sixteenth century) recorded most of these languages and added Pashto, Marathi, Lahnda (Punjabi), Marwari, Baloch and Kashmiri to the list.

These lists are far from comprehensive but this is what these poets knew of, sitting in Delhi. Nonetheless, they establish the point that the Indian subcontinent was home to many languages, an observation that many foreign travellers also made over the next few centuries. But the actual number of languages was to remain a mystery for much longer.

British administrator Sir George Abraham Grierson undertook a “systematic survey of the languages of India”, which started in 1894. This was the Linguistic Survey of India (LSI). The LSI was published over a twenty-five-year period (1903-28) and consists of eleven volumes (in nineteen parts) of descriptions of the languages and dialects of most of British India (some parts of southern India were not surveyed). For the first time, Grierson actually came up with a number that had been comprehensively researched. The LSI listed 179 languages and 544 “dialects” a total of 723 distinct tongues

The 1951 Census of India listed 784 languages. The 1961 Census of India listed a total of 1,652 “mother tongues”, later pared down to 1,100 languages. The 2001 and 2011 censuses both listed 122 “major” languages languages with more than 10,000 speakers. Since 2013, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), spearheaded by GN Devy, has recorded the existence of 780 languages and estimates that there are about seventy or eighty more, which they could not record.

Given these estimates over the years, it would not be incorrect to say that India is home to something like a thousand languages, give or take a hundred or two.

The story of Hinglish

Hinglish is something most of us would have noticed. It is used in advertising jingles and Bollywood movie titles. This strengthens the impression that it is a recent phenomenon. But it is actually a couple of centuries old.

In 1827, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-31), India’s first English poet, in his poem “Ode From the Persian of Half’ Queez” wrote:

Without thy dreams, dear opium,
Without a single hope I am,
Spicy scent, delusive joy;
Chillum hither lao, my boy!

This was a sprinkling of Hindi in an English poem.

In 1887, Ayodhya Prasad Khatri (1857-1905), did the reverse – sprinkled English in Hindi in these lines about life under British rule:

Rent Law ka gham karen ya Bill of Income Tax ka?
Kya karen apna nahin hai sense right now-a-days.
Darkness chhaaya hua hai Hind mein chaaro taraf
Naam ki bhi hai nahin baaqi na light now-a-days

So, what is Hinglish, really? Is it English with a sprinkling of Hindi words like what Derozio did? Or is it Hindi with a few English words or phrases thrown in, in the manner of Khatri? Also, is it only this hybrid of English and Hindi that needs to be looked at closely? What about the fact that English has also made its way into the other languages of India and that other hybrids have emerged as a result: Tanglish (Tamil and English), Kanglish (Kannada and English), Bonglish/Benglish (Bangla and English), Punglish (Punjabi and English) and so on. All of these are similar to the Hinglish phenomenon. So perhaps the correct name for these tongues should be “Inglish”.

Linguists call this phenomenon of multi-lingual speakers alternating between two or more languages during a single conversation, “code-switching” or “codemixing”. Code-switching is different from “borrowing” when a word from one language is borrowed and used in another without translation. A good example of this is the words, “kindergarten” (German for children’s garden), “bazaar” (Persian for market) and “ballet” (from French). Code-mixing goes beyond borrowing. It is to actually think and articulate in two or more languages to make oneself clearly understood. This khichdi of English and a local language is not an exclusively Indian phenomenon, though. Other such tongues exist: Spanglish (Spanish and English) has been observed in many parts of the US, and Taglish (Tagalog and English) is spoken in the Philippines.

It is difficult to say when Inglish became a widely used tongue. But it is perhaps easier to identify how and why English invaded Indian language spaces. After Independence, some politicians tried to make Hindi the “national language”. This failed due to resistance from non-Hindi speakers and also because English was the language of higher education, law and trade. For a time, English and Hindi were in competition, with Hindi clearly ruling the heart, at least of some (Hindi films became popular nationally during this time) and English the head (as the language of education and “sophistication”). In time, knowing English became almost a necessity and it has become a symbol of modernity and aspiration. But forsaking Hindi (or local languages) is not an option either. Hinglish and Inglish therefore help bridge this gap.

More than anything else, Inglish is perhaps proof that English is now an Indian tongue and has found comfort and acceptance.

Excerpted with permission from 10 Indian Languages and How They Came to Be, Karthik Venkatesh, Duckbill.