Dravidian languages ​​are older than Hindi

The language world of India
by Renate Syed

India's millennia-old culture and its rich literatures are only accessible to those who try to at least fundamentally understand the linguistic diversity and linguistic history of this country, which today is home to well over a billion people who speak hundreds of languages ​​and countless dialects.

India's writing culture is over 3000 years old, and to this day India is a country with an immense literary production, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Even Sanskrit, India's scholarly language, is still published today. English - beloved but also hated language of the colonial rulers - is an important colloquial language and literary language in which numerous Indian authors publish - in the country as well as in the "diaspora" - in order to reach the largest possible readership. And the international as well as the German interest in India, a cultural and economic giant, is growing all the time.

India, whose state language has been Hindi since 1949, has around 15 main regional languages ​​as well as over a hundred other independent languages ​​and countless dialects. The Indian languages ​​are divided into two groups: the Indo-Aryan languages, which are common in the north, and the Dravidian languages ​​native to the south.

The former belong to the Indo-European language family, which also includes the Iranian, Slavic, Celtic, Italian and Germanic languages. The oldest Indo-Aryan languages ​​are Vedic, which is used in the so-called »Vedas«, religious texts from approx. 1300/1200 BC. BC, and its more recent form, which was used by ancient Indian grammarians around 500 BC. Sanskrit standardized, grammatically analyzed and described almost "scientifically". Sanskrit (literally: "the ordered") has been around since around 500 BC. The language of the Hindu cult and rite, the priests and the scholars. Sanskrit, however, was never the first language, but always a second language learned in class, i.e. it was never a "mother tongue" because women - as well as members of the castes defined as "low" - were not allowed to learn it.

From the Old Indian or, short, Old Indian, developed from about 500 BC. Central Indian, documented in inscriptions and texts, to which the folk and literary languages ​​Pali and Prakrit belong in particular. Middle Indian, in turn, was the basis for the New Indian languages ​​that emerged from around 1000 AD. The most important New Indian languages ​​are - named from west to east - Sindhi, Rajasthani, Punjabi, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu (mainly in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh), Marathi, Bihari, Bengali, Oriya and Assami. In terms of morphology (theory of forms), syntax (theory of syntax), vocabulary and semantics (theory of word meaning), all of these languages ​​are closely related to Sanskrit, whose "granddaughters" they can be regarded as.

Like Sanskrit, Hindi uses the so-called "Devanagari" script. This developed from the Gupta script of the 4th / 5th. Century AD, which in turn originated from the (Northern) Brahmi script, which has been used since the 3rd century BC. Is documented in writing. The other north Indian languages ​​mentioned have modified scripts derived from the Gupta script.

The Urdu originated from the 16./17. Century as courtly literary language in the Muslim princely states and uses the Arabic-Persian script and numerous loanwords from Arabic and Persian. Urdu is the state language of Pakistan today, but it is also spoken by millions of Indian Muslims (around 82% of Indians are Hindus, around 12% are Muslims).

The Dravidian languages, which represent an independent Southeast Asian language family, are native to the south of India; the most important representatives are Telugu (Andhra Pradesh), Tamil (Tamil Nadu), Kannada and Malayalam (Southwest India). Each of these languages ​​has its own script.

Although they belong to a completely different language family, the Dravidian languages ​​today have a strong Indo-Aryan influence in their vocabulary, because countless Sanskrit words have entered the South Indian languages; the majority of speakers of both language families share the Hindu culture and religion. Tamil has been around since the 3rd century BC. BC as the language of literature, administration and science.

The oldest ancient Indian texts, the so-called "Vedas" ("the sacred knowledge"), are from 1200 BC. In the oldest Indian language, the "Vedic". From approx. 500 BC One used the Sanskrit for the religious and philosophical, scientific and medical literature; it is also the language of ancient Indian epic, drama, poetry and fiction. Outside of India, the Upanishads in particular became known. The two epics Mahabharata and Rama-yana, which were also written in Sanskrit (they were written in the centuries around the birth of Christ) and the love textbook Kamasutra. Sanskrit has never become a "dead" language; it is the medium of the learned and the religious to this day. There are even efforts to introduce an easier form of the extremely difficult Sanskrit as the state language.
The Buddhist texts and the philosophical works of the Jainas, an important religious community, were written in the Middle Indian languages; the former in Pali (the term "Pali Canon" denotes the extensive sacred scriptures of the Buddhists), the latter in the so-called "Prakrits". The Prakrits are "vernacular" (Prakrit means "the natural") and they also appear in the dramas of the post-Christian centuries.

In all of the modern Indian languages ​​mentioned, there is of course an extensive literature production that is still alive to this day. In addition, many Indian authors use the colonial languages ​​French and Portuguese, but above all English, which is still a lingua franca. (The implementation of the state language Hindi as the lingua franca throughout India failed due to the resistance of many members of the Dravidian culture.) However, it should not be forgotten that the illiteracy rate in India is still very high: According to the last census (the Census of India 2001 ) 75.85% of the male population can read and write, but only 54.16% of girls and women. But of course the illiterate cannot live without literature either, because India's traditions of orally transmitted literatures, especially fairy tales, epics, folk poetry and folk theater, are old and alive to this day.

The development of the Indian languages ​​is by no means over. Under the influence of so-called »Hindu fundamentalism«, Hindi is sans-critically criticized, whereby the Urdu words (which come from Arabic and Persian) and the Anglicisms are removed. On the other hand, the Muslims of India and Pakistan make use of an increasingly »Arabized« Urdu that is free of Sanskrit and Hindi words.

The maintenance and public enforcement of the sans-criticized Hindi is also a concern of a growing Hindu consciousness ("Hindutva") of many conservatives. For example, the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee pushed through that the Indian delegates in the meetings of the United Nations now use Hindi instead of English. He celebrated this with a poem entitled: "Hindi rang out in the world, a dream came true!"

Dr. phil. habil Renate Syed is an indologist and private lecturer in Munich.
Lecture »The World of Languages ​​in India« by Renate Syed on March 5th.