Language scenario of South Asia is unique in many senses. On the one hand India is easily the most plural society linguistically speaking, yet this plurality contains, and has contained historically, remarkable interconnections. To begin with, let us try and get a sense of the extent of India’s plurality.

According to the mammoth Linguistic Survey of India done in the first two decades of the 20th century (prepared by Sir George Abraham Grierson and spread over 19 thick volumes) India was a land of as many as 179 languages which covered 544 dialects. Around the same time the census of 1921 put the total number of Indian languages at 222. The census of 1961 recorded a total of 1652 mother tongues that were classified into roughly 200 languages. More recently, the census of 1991 has put the total number of languages in India at 111 and 216 mother tongues. The great variation in the number of recorded languages is the result, not of any significant change in the language scenario over the last eight decades, but of different methods of classification. This confusion speaks volumes about the enormously complex landscape of South Asian languages which has defied attempts at an accurate and scientific enumeration. Likewise, the usage of the terms like language, dialect and mother tongue should also be seen as an unsuccessful attempt to comprehend the complexities of South Asia’s linguistic profile.

The important thing about South Asia’s linguistic plurality noted by the linguists was a remarkable unity among all the languages at the level of phonetics and morphology. This unity was a result of plenty of mutual borrowing among all the major languages through ages. Moreover all the South Asian languages could be traced back to four roots or families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan and Austric. These four language families could be said to have generated all the South Asian languages.

It was pointed out that South Asia’s great linguistic diversity was the product of waves of human migration into India from very early times. Leading linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji elaborated the linguistic implications of these migrations. In a paper presented at the Oxford University in 1943, he called India “a great clearing house for various people” and languages. The following is a summary of his narration of the successive arrival of various linguistic groups. The oldest settlers in South Asia were a Negroid or Negrito race from Africa, who died out leaving very little trace, they survive with their language in the Andaman Islands. They were followed by the Proto-Australoids who came to India probably from the west and spoke dialects from which originated the languages of the Austric speech family. Following the Austrics came the Dravidian speakers sometime before 3500 B.C. who supplied the Dravidian family of languages (four cultivated languages of Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam and a number of uncultivated speeches). Then came the linguistically most important group of the speakers of Indo-European languages from the Eurasian tracts south of the Ural mountains, via northern Mesopotamia and Iran into India. These migrants developed the Indo-Aryan languages. The Aryan speech came in various waves from the west, and it spread over the Punjab and the Ganges valley, Dravidian and Austric speeches receding before it, so that gradually the whole of north India, including Assam and a good deal of the northern Deccan, became Aryan in speech.

The Aryan speech developed in three distinct stages – Old Indo-Aryan (OIA), Middle indo-Aryan (MIA) and New indo-Aryan (NIA). The Aryan speech in its earliest phase in India (OIA) is represented by the language of the Rig Ved, compiled probably in the 10th century B.C., but portions of it is much older. A younger form of this Old Indo-Aryan speech in India became established as Sanskrit, the great religious and culture-language of Hindu India, by 500 B.C. The later spoken forms of the Aryan speech, in the stage known as Middle Indo-Aryan, are represented by the various Prakrits (including Pali) and Apabhransas of the period 600 B.C. to A.D. 1000, after which these develop into the New or Modern Indo-Aryan languages of the present day. Sanskrit became the great vehicle of ancient Indian culture, and it spread into the lands of ‘Greater India’ Burma, Indo-China, Malaya and Indonesia, and Serindia or Central Asia of ancient times – and was studied in Tibet, China, Korea and Japan also. It has been the natural feeder of Indian languages, whenever new words were required, for the last 2500 years. And finally came the speakers of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages from their primitive home in north western China and settled, through Himalayas, in the north eastern terrain of India. Of the four families mentioned above, the Indo-Aryan covered the largest area and a majority of the people (around 75%) followed by the Dravidian family (around 22%). Indo-Aryan also contained speech communities that were large in size. The Sino-Tibetan (or Tibetan Burmese) by contrast have small speech communities but their number is the largest among the four.

This linguistic scenario sketched above is indicative of a remarkable linguistic continuity along with plurality. Few societies in the world can boast of such a continuous linguistic flow for the last three thousand years. Changes with continuities has been an important part of South Asia’s linguistic development. The same process has continued in the last millenium.

From about the 10th-11th centuries begins a fairly smooth and uninterrupted process of the development of NIA languages and continues till the 18th century. One major feature of this process was the development of a single composite linguistic tradition that reached out to cover a very large part of India (north, centre with parts of south India) and developed a strong literary tradition. This single language has been called by different names but Hindavi, Hindui or Hindi were the most commonly used names. Amir Khusro (1253-1325), a leading Persian poet from Delhi, probably coined the name Hindavi (meaning thereby the language of Hind). In his famous Persian epic Noor Sip-har (Nine Skies) written around 1318, Amir Khusro identified the various languages spoken in India and linked them all to Hindavi: “Sindhi, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, Gujarati, Tamil, Assamese, Bengali, Awadhi have all been known as Hindavi since ancient times…”

Sindhi-o-Lahori-o Kashmiri-o gar
Dhur Samandari Tilgi-o-Gujar
Dilli-o-Pairamkash Andar Hamaahad
Ein Hamaa Hindvist zi Aiyyam-e-kuhan
Aamma Bakaarast Bahar Guna Sukhan

Amir Khusro can actually be considered the first enumerator of the major Indian languages, many centuries before Grierson. Khusro also mentioned Sanskrit but distinguished it from Hindavi: “Apart form these there are some other languages also among which the language of Brahmins has a very special place. It is called Sanskrit since ancient times but the common people are not familiar with its intricacies.”

Lek Zabaanist Digar Kas Sukhna
Aanast Guzin Nisd Hamaan Barhamnaa
Sanskrit Naam zi Ahad-e-kuhnash
Aamma Nadaarad khabar Az Kun makunash

He also compared Hindavi with Persian and Turkish and considered it more popular because of its “pleasant sounds”.

Isbaat Guft Hind Bahujjat ki Rajehast
Bar Parsi-o-Turki Az Alfaaz-e-Khushgawaar

Hindavi, as it existed and flourished through the medieval times, was not a language in the strict sense of the term. It was more of a communication amalgam. It had a great geographical spread and accommodated various speech communities and dialects within its fold. It was a language primarily of communication, market and literature. Sanskrit continued to be a language of rituals and Persian of administration. Hindavi’s literary creations ranged from romantic to devotional to allegorical and these were written in both the Nagari and the Persian script, apart from also being circulated orally. For its vocabulary, it freely borrowed words from the classical Sanskrit and Persian in addition to a number of local speeches. At no stage however its lexical dependence on Sanskrit and Persian entail the possibility of Hindavi submerging into either of the two classical literary streams. As a language amalgam Hindavi encompassed a number of dialects some of which (Braj and Awadhi in particular) developed a rich literary tradition. Because of its distance from the classical languages of Sanskrit and Persian, it also came to be employed by the medieval Bhakti and Sufi movements. Kabir (writing simultaneously in Khari Boli, Braj, Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Rajasthani), Tulsi Das (Awadhi), Sur Das (Braj), Bandanawaz Gesu Daraz (Dakhani), Vidyapati (Maithili) and Mirabai (Marwari or Dingal) were some of the most popular poets of the Hindavi tradition who wrote in different styles. Given the absence of standardization, this language was known by different names in different areas. Apart form Hindavi, it was also known as Dehlavi (after Delhi), Dakkani or Dakhani (after Deccan, the south), Bhakha or Bhasa (literally meaning speech) and many more. Tulsi Das, in his epic Ramcharitmanas called his language Bhakha.

Given its reach across different regions and religious communities it also provided a powerful medium for syncretic literature. Poets like Kabir, Malik Mohammad Jaysi and many poets from Belgram (in eastern U.P.) wrote on themes of religious harmony. It was however with the poetry of Nazir Akbarabadi (1740-1830) that the Hindavi tradition reached its climax. Nazir, commonly known as “the great poet of common man” wrote on a whole range of themes concerning the everyday life of his city, Agra. He wrote on fairs and festivals (Eid, Holi, Krishna Leela and local fairs), gods and saints (Krishna, Ganesh, prophet Mohammad, Nanak), local sports (Kabaddi) and ordinary people (artisans, craftsmen, prostitutes, street vendors, shopkeepers etc.) as well as on universalist themes like youth, old age, death and man. Nazir imparted not only a new dimension to Hindavi literature but also vibrancy to the language.

The growth pattern of Hindavi demonstrated the uniqueness of India’s linguistic landscape very well. A single language pervaded large parts of India through the medieval times. Unlike the Hindi spoken today, the Hindavi (or old Hindi) of medieval times had its supporter and lovers spread all over including the southern parts of the country. A good example of the vibrancy of this language is 16th century poet Mian Mustafa from Gujarat who considered one Syed Mohammad Mehdi of Jaunpur (d. 1504), well over a thousand kilometers away, as his guru-saint. Mian Mustafa was apparently not very happy with the contempt with which the Persian poets looked upon Hindavi, and so wrote a poem in defence of Hindi, sometime in early 16th century:

Do not taunt one for using Hindi.
Every one explains the meanings in Hindi.
This Qur’an, the revealed word of Allah,
Is ever explained in Hindi.
Hindi was used by Mehdi [the poet’s guru-saint];
It was on the lips of Khundmir [another contemporary poet];
Several dohras, sakhis and sayings
were pronounced openly by pious saints.
Mian Mustafa [the poet himself] also uses it
What to speak of others, then?

The major strength of the poem is its language. Although written well over four centuries ago, its language can still pass off as the bazaar Hindi of the 20th century. Instances of this kind can be easily multiplied. It would not be difficult to find many literary creations from the 12th-13th centuries onwards whose language would find remarkable resemblance with the spoken Hindustani of today. Hindavi, it may be useful to point out, provided not only the linguistic unity but also contributed to much of the cultural unity and continuity of India through the centuries.

Yet another unique feature of South Asia’s language scenario is the presence and development of important minority languages in an area marked by one dominant language. South Asia has been called linguistically plural or plurilingual not only in the sense of the presence of many languages in it, but also in the sense that language zones, surrounded by the dominant languages, have remained intact over the centuries without merging into the dominant languages of the area. Such is the case of Saurashtri in Madurai, Marathi in Tanjore, Urdu in Mysore and Madras, Bengali in Benaras, Tamil in Mathura, Malayalam in Mumbai and many more. This uniquely South Asian phenomenon is completely unlike the European pattern where minority languages tended to disappear over centuries.

To sum up, South Asia’s linguistic profile is unique for its plurality, syncretism and continuity. Its composite character lies in the interconnectedness among all the languages. There has also been a remarkable continuity through the centuries in the sense that the new changes did not create any displacement. The linguistic development took place more in the form of old accommodating the new rather than new displacing the old. This unique compositeness of South Asia’s language tradition can be understood with the help of many common phrases used in bazaars that are actually borrowed from diverse linguistic roots. Common usage terms like dhan-daulat, dharam-iman, sag-sabzi represent a popular and innovatively created synthesis between Sanskrit and Persian literary traditions.