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Travel Guide > Asia > India

India Languages

  
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Languages

India has 22 official languages, namely

  • Assamese
  • Bengali
  • Bodo
  • Dogri
  • Gujarati
  • Hindi
  • Kannada
  • Kashmiri
  • Konkani
  • Maithili
  • Malayalam
  • Manipuri
  • Marathi
  • Nepali
  • Oriya
  • Punjabi
  • Sanskrit
  • Santhali
  • Sindhi
  • Tamil
  • Telugu
  • Urdu

There are also hundreds of other less prominent languages like Tulu, Bhojpuri and Ladakhi that are the main spoken language of some places.

Hindi, natively spoken by about 40% of the population, is the native tongue of the people from the "Hindi Belt"(including the capital, Delhi) in Northern India. Many more speak it as a second language. However, these figures include dialects like Bhojpuri (Bihar) and the Pahadi dialects of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand that may differ significantly from standard Hindi. However, the prestige dialect of Hindi used in media and education is generally homogeneous and is based on the dialect of the Delhi and Western UP. If you can only afford only one phrasebook, pick up the Hindi one as it will allow you to get by in most of India.

While most educated people in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, as well as most of India's larger cities, understand Hindi, it is by no means a lingua-franca for all of India. Avoid speaking Hindi in places such as Tamil Nadu and the Northeast, as Hindi is met with hostility from most of the locals there. Also do not refer to the other languages as dialects of Hindi; many of them are much older.

Code-switching between English and the native language (often in the same sentence) is very common among youngsters and is widely used in daily conversation, SMS (in Roman script), TV advertising, FM radio and Bollywood.

While fluency in English varies vastly depending on eduation levels, occupation, age and region; it is generally not a problem getting by with English. It is widely spoken in major cities and around most tourist places, as well as in most government offices, and acts as the lingua franca among educated Indians. However, if possible, you are better off picking up as many words of the local language of the place you are going to - people are proud of their state's (or regeion's) culture and language and will appreciate it if an outsider makes an attempt to communicate in it. English has been spoken by Indians long enough that it has begun evolving its own rhythm, vocabulary, and inflection, much like French in Africa. Indeed, much has recently been made of subcontinental writers such as Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, and Salman Rushdie. The English you are likely to hear in India will be heavily influenced by British English, although spoken with the lilting stress and intonation of the speaker's other native language. Indians may be able to recognize the native language of another countryman by the accent (Bengali accents are very different from the South Indian accents, for example).

Generally speaking, most official signs are bilingual in the state language and English. Signs at railway staions are generally trilingual outside the Hindi-speaking belt.

One of the most delightful quirks of Indian English is the language's adherence to Pre-1950s British English which to speakers in North America and Britain will sound oddly formal. Another source of fascination and intrigue for travelers is the ubiquitous use of English for cute quips in random places. One relatively common traffic sign reads, "Speed thrills, but kills". On the back of trucks everywhere you'll find "use dipper at night" or "Sound Horn". However, only standard British English is considered correct. Interestingly, keyboards in India are based on the US-standard, so American spelling is also used.

Indians are adopting more and more native words into their English. A lot of these are already well known to speakers elsewhere. Chai (tea), Guru (learned teacher/master), cummerbund (literally waist-tie), Nirvana (extinction of the separative ego) and avatar (God in human form) are words that have left their original subcontinental home. However, Indians are using English loan words in their native languages at an even more rapid pace. As India modernizes blazingly fast, it has taken from English words for modern objects that simply did not exist a few decades ago. However, more importantly, bilingual Indians in informal conversation will often switch unpredictably between English and their native language when speaking to similar polyglots, thus effectively communicating in a hybridized language that relies on the listener's ability to speak both languages. A bilingual speaker in Delhi, might for example, say "mera fever bahut bad hai" (my fever is very bad) which mixes English with Hindi 50-50 in spite of the fact that perfectly good words exist for both 'fever' and 'bad' in Hindi. This hybrid is sometimes referred to as 'Hinglish.'It seems that English and Hindi are indeed converging among the bilingual sections of society. While English, as a distinct language, is here to stay for now, it appears that it will eventually over hundreds of years be absorbed into the vast cultural fabric of the subcontinent.

Most Indian languages lack a word for please, just like the Scandanavian languages. Instead, verbs have many forms denoting levels of politeness and formality. As there is no such distinction in English, Indians may also seem commanding to a westerner. You may here phrases like come here which may sound commanding to Anglophones from Western cultures, but this is not meant to be rude.

There are plenty of English language TV shows that air in India (without dubbing) on Zee Cafe, FX, Star World, BBC Entertainment, AXN, Warner Bros and BIG CBS Prime. However, with the exception of BIG CBS Prime, shows are usually a season behind. Nearly all shows are American (except for the ones on BBC Entertainment). There are many other TV channels in English; in fact, there are more English TV channels than in any other Indian language.

Cartoon Network, Pogo, Nat Geo, and Discovery may be dubbed in Hindi, Telegu or Tamil in their respective areas. However, this can be changed to English by changing the audio settings.

Non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communication is also important. Much has been made of the confusing Indian head nod for yes and no, but the only important thing to understand is that Indians have different nods for yes, ok and no.

  • If they are shaking their head back and forth, they mean yes.
  • If they are nodding their head in a tilting motion from right to left, they mean okay indicating acceptance. The movement is in a figure eight, and looks identical to the western nod for "Sort of".
  • If they shake their head from left to right twisting it about the vertical axis, they mean no.
  • There are differences in the way these signs are used in northern and southern India. The back to forth is yes and a vigorous left-right shift is no in North, though latter may be construed for yes in southern states like Tamilnadu. Look for verbal cues that accompany these sounds in south (like 'aaan' for yes ) in south to get the correct meaning.




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