The Indian Case

Annika Hohenthal, Department of English, University of Turku, Finland

National versus Official Languages

Following Platt, I would like to distinguish between national and official langages:

national language -- a language that is considered representative of a nation or nationality. The term connotates of belonging to a nation, of ethnic and/or cultural identity. Usually it is a local language spoken as native language by at least some of the population of a nation (Platt 1984: 19).

official language -- language generally used for government administration and the Higher Courts of Law, in the media and as one of the languages of education, at least of secondary and higher education on a nationwide basis (ibid, 19).

Fifteen National Languages

In the early 1950s, a serious problem of linguistic and ethnic diversity was recognized by the Indian government. As a solution to the problem, states were established along linguistic lines, so that in all but two of India's eighteen states the majority spoke a common language (Bonvillain 1993: 303).

Officially, 15 national languages are recognized by the Indian government. In many cases the State boundaries have been drawn on linguistic lines. The acknowledged languages are: Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu. India is divided linguistically into two major language families, the Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian languages (Indian Culture. 1998) (appendices 1 and 2). The most widely spoken national languages in India are (in addition to Hindi): Bengali (7,5%), Telugu (7,4%), Marathi (7,2%), Tamil (6,9%), Urdu (5,1%), Gujarati (4,2%), Malayalam (3,8%), Kannada (3,8%), Oriya (3,4%) (India 1996:18).

The Indic (or Indo-Aryan) languages are a branch of the Indo-European group of languages, and were the language of the central Asian peoples who invaded India. Most of Indian languages of the north belong to this group. The Dravidian languages, on the other hand (e.g. Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam) are native to south India (although they are influenced by Sanskrit and Hindi) (Culture on commercenetindia. 1998).

There is an ongoing fear that Indian languages will be ignored as English is becoming more and more popular in India. One should be cautious about this, since Mark Tully claims (Tully 1997:160) one can obtain a deeper knowledge of the culture only through the knowledge of the language (or one of the languages) of that culture. He quotes Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (1996), according to whom

the consequence of the current language policy is that many among the younger generations of Indians are being deprived of familiarity with their cultural heritage, and quite probably of an education that would enable them to contribute to the solution of Indian problems in the future.

Nowadays, however, something is being done to keep Indian native languages alive. Computer applications, for instance, are appearing in Indian languages, and training centres have been set up to teach them to people in Indian languages (The Bline on Indiaserver. 1997.). Motorola has also been reported to have launched pagers in three Indian languages (which was the first time a pager which can display messages in Indian languages has been launched). This means that people who do not know English very well are able to send or receive messages in their mother tongue (The Hindu on Indiaserver. 1997).

Hindi, the Official Language

Hindi descends directly from Sanskrit. More than 180 million people in India regard Hindi as their mother tongue. It belongs to the Indo-Aryan group of languages (Hindi. 1998). It is, according to the Article 343 (1) of the Constitution, the Official Language of the Union (India Constitution. 1998.)

The position of Hindi as the Official Language of the Union becomes problematic the souther in India one gets: while it is the predominant language in the north, in the south very few people speak it. The most ferocious opposition toward the adoption of Hindi comes from the south; along with the strongest support for the retention of English (Culture on Commercenetindia. 1998).

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