The Indian Constitution recognised 22 languages by giving them official status. However English and Hindi are the official languages of the government of India.
22 might seem like a lot, but according to the 2011 census, India counts no less than 122 dialects spoken by at least 10,00 people besides another 30 languages spoken by at least one million people.
It should come to no surprise that a country as vast, as populous and as rich in history as India, has been influenced by many outside factors while at the same time developing very distinct regional cultures.
The successive rule of the Muslim Mughal Empire, the Hindu Maratha Empire, and the British Raj have significantly influenced the cultures, religions, and languages of the Indian sub-continent.
You want to learn more about other language spoken in India, check out Superprof's Benagli language guide, our Telugu 101 article or our article about the Urdu dialect.
Persian and English were the two contact languages that had the most influence on the local dialects commonly spoken in India.
"India's linguistic diversity surprises many Westerners, but there are nearly thirty languages in India with at least a million native speakers. There are more native speakers of Tamil on our planet than of Italian. Likewise, more people speak Punjabi than German, Marathi than French, and Bengali than Russian. There are more Telugu speakers than Czech, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Slovak, and Swedish speakers combined."
- Bob Harris, English music presenter former host of the BBC2 music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test, and co-founder of the magazine Time Out.
The Origins and History of Marathi
Marathi is another Indo-Aryan language mainly spoken on the western coast of India.
Like many other Indian languages, Marathi co-existed alongside other and was used as a sister language with Sanskrit. Many copper plates and stones inscriptions were found with both Sanskrit and Maharashtri (the proto-form of Marathi).
Maharashtri belonged to the Prakrit languages, a group of medieval language formerly spoken in India and from which most modern Indian languages have evolved.
The earliest text written in Marathi that has been found was estimated to date from the 3rd century BCE. It was a stone inscription found in a cave near Pune which was written in Maharashtri using the Brahmic script system. A committee appointed by the Maharashtra State Government to grant Marathi the status of Classical Language of India used this stone inscription as the starting point of the Marathi language, thus claiming that it was more than 2300 years old.
Linguists suggest that Marathi evolved from Maharashtri around the 8th century CE and they have estimated the oldest Marathi-only text, which was inscribed in stone, to have been written around 1012CE.
Some inscription hinted that Marathi might have been the official language of the eastern coastal region of India by the 12th century CE but the earliest literature text found in the Marathi language date from more than a century later.
Sanskrit and Persian Influences
From the 12th to the 17th century, Marathi evolved to become a literary and religious medium. During the reign of the Yadava Kings, the language was popularised by the court in an attempt to federate the Marathi people. Later on, it was used as a preaching language by two Hindu religious sects: the Mahanubhava and Varkari panthans.
During the same period, many verses and prose texts were produced about subjects ranging from astrology to medicine and religion.
Under the reign of the Muslim Deccan Sultanates, Marathi was widely used as the lingua franca of many regions under the control of the Ahmadnagar, Bidar and Bijapur Sultans. The spoken language remained the same, but through the written language, which was utterly Persianised, many Perian and Arabic words made their way into the Marathi language, so far mainly drawing vocabulary from Sanskrit.
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The Rise of The Marathi Empire
At the end of the 17th century, using the decline of the Sultanate of Bijapur, the Indian warrior Shivaji Bhonsle conquered and secured a series of forts and laid the foundations for the Maratha Empire. The kingdom that ruled over a few districts by the end of 1680 expended to become an empire ruling over most of the former Mughal possessions in central and western India.
Because the ruling dynasty of the Maratha Empire was Hindu, as were most of the populations under their control, the Marathi language lost a great deal of its Persian vocabulary. Linguists estimated that in 1630 approximately 70% of the Marathi lexicon was drawn from Persian, this number dropped to 37% in 1677.
It is also thanks to the expansion of the Marathi Empire that the Marathi language reached beyond its regional birthplace as the border reached as far as Attock (a city in actual Pakistan) in the North, and Odisha on the eastern coast of India.
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During the British Raj in the 18th century, a lot of efforts from the British colons were made to standardise Marathi. The first books written in Marathi to be printed were translations of the Bible.
Captain James Thomas Molesworth and Major Thomas Candy both serving in the army of the British East India Company, were the main authors of an extensive English-Marathi dictionary which was first printed in 1831. The book is still published to his day, two centuries later.
After India's independence in 1947, the Indian Constitution granted the status of Scheduled language to Marathi. It is also because of the linguistic difference within the former Bombay state that this one was later divided into two states: Gujarati with a majority of Gujarat speakers and Marahashtra with a majority of Marathi speakers.
The standard form of Marathi used today as official languages correspond to the version of Marathi spoken by the Hindu Maharashtrian Chitpavan Brahmin community, mainly living in Pune, the former capital of the Marathi Empire.
“Mumbai is the sweet, sweaty smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it's the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It's the smell of Gods, demons, empires, and civilizations in resurrection and decay. Its the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the island city, and the blood metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and the waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and love that produces courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches and mosques, and of hundred bazaar devoted exclusively to perfume, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers. That smell, above all things - is that what welcomes me and tells me that I have come home."
- Gregory David Roberts, former bank robber and Australian author
Marathi and Marathi dialects in India
Marathi is mostly spoken in the states of Goa and Maharashtra (making it the official language of the city of Mumbai) and in the union territories of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
Even though it is not the official language of the state of Goa, any official business can legally be conducted in the Marathi language.
As one of the oldest Indo-Aryan languages in India and because it was the official language of the Maratha Empire, Marathi spread far beyond its birthplace and counts today more than 83 million native speakers making it the third most spoken language in India.
Indic linguists have listed 42 different Marathi dialects spoken throughout the Indian sub-continent. The main differences between each of them being mainly phonological (variation in the accents and pronunciation) with some lexical dissimilitude, all these languages remained highly mutually intelligible. Despite the standard Marathi used by scholars and in the media, three main Marathi dialects were recorded:
- Zadi Boli, spoken in the remote eastern forest region of Zadipranta, in Marahashtra, Vidarbha and Gondwana.
- The Southern Indian Marathi group mainly including Thanjavur Marathi, Namadeva Shimpi Marathi, Arey Marathi and Bhavsar Marathi. All those dialects retained the 17th-century form of Marathi which was spoken by the Maharashtra immigrants and was also influenced by the local Dravidian languages. These dialects are mostly spoken in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
- Vaidarbhi dialect which is chiefly spoken in the region Vidarbha in western Maharashtra. It mainly differs from Standard Marathi through phonetic transformations.
Despite its rich history and extensive literary culture, Marahati has yet to be listed as a Classical Language of India.
The Marathi Alphabet
The most common script system used to write in Marathi is the Baldodh script (derived from bāḷabōdha meaning "Understood by children").
This script is very closely related to the Devanagari script used to write the Hindu language. It mainly differs from the Hindu script system because of the use of two signs: the ळ or ɭ called retroflex lateral approximant, and the र् called the eyelash reph or raphar. Those two sign mainly alter the pronunciation of Marathi words.
Written from left to write, this Baldoh script contains 36 consonants and 16 vowels signs. Unlike other Indian languages that are written in the Devanagari alphabet, a Western pronunciation is used when reading Marathi. It also used a few additional signs for both vowels and consonants that are not used in other Devanagari written languages.
A classic Indian ambivalence exists for the Marathi language, wherein two different scripts for the same language are used. Baldodh which derived from the traditional Devanagari script is favoured by people who received a religious education (mainly the Brahmin caste) while the Modi script is used by clerks and business people.
The Modi script emerged around the 13th century and linguists have established that it was the official script used until the 1950's where the Baldodh took over. The Modi script is also based on the Devanagari script, but the form and shape of letters often differ as well as the orthography used.
This script written in cursive was mainly developed to minimise the need to lift the pen while writing. It contains 46 characters, ten vowels and 36 consonants.
"The thing about Mumbai is you go five yards, and all of human existence is revealed. It's an incredible cavalcade of life, and I love that."
- Julian Sands, English actor
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