Tuesday 29 September 2009


India is a land of many languages. The SIL Ethnologue lists 438 languages currently in use in India. They come from four distinct language families. Out of a population of over 1.1 Billion;
  • 777M people, ie 76% of the population, speak an Indo-Aryan type language
  • 217M people, 21.6% of the population, speak a Dravidian language
  • 12M, 1.2% of the population, speak a Austro-Asiatic language
  • 10M, 1% of the population, speak Tibeto-Burman language
  • 2M <1% of the population, speak some other type of language
As I understand it, Hindi and English are the official languages and then each state has their own official ones. That means another 21 official languages exist, namely, Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, Meitei, Nepali, Oriya, Eastern Panjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu. I admit some of these I had never heard of before.

In Orissa, where I shall be based, the state language is Oriya and it is spoken by over 35 million people.

Like Hindi, it belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. There are over 10 major dialects of Oriya. But cross the state line and you are in completely different linguistic territory. For example, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, on Orissa's southern border the officially recognised languages are Teluga (a Dravidian language) and Urdu; in West Bengal, across Orissa's northern-eastern border they are Bengali and Nepali; in Chhattisgarh, on Orissa's western border it is Hindi as it is in Jharkhand, across Orissa's northern border. But then even within a state there are other languages and dialects. Basically the country divides into two - mainly Indo-Aryan to the north and Dravidian to the south - gross simplification but it basically works.

From this even superficial look at Indian languages, you can easily see why most Indians are bilingual, if not multilingual. Many people will be able to speak or understand more than one language but writing it is another issue. India has a national literacy rate of 65%; (males 75%, females 54%) which masks huge variations across economic and educational conditions. The different languages have their different scripts. For example, an Urdu and a Hindi speaker may understand much of what each other says, but their writing systems are very different. Urdu, like Hindi, developed from Sanskrit. But Urdu was shaped by Persian, Arabic and Turkic influences and contains many words stemming from the Moslem religion. Its Perso-Arabic script is written right to left, whereas Hindi uses Sanskrit's Devanagari script which is written from left to right. Devangari has a very distinctive horizontal line running along the tops of the characters. Its alphabet is in fact a syllabury, with each character representing a sound.

Likewise with Oriya. Oriya script is more rounded. It looks a bit like hoops of rope lying on the ground. I read somewhere that it is thought that this roundness resulted from writing on palm leaves which tend to tear if too many straight lines are made on them. All these scripts seem to be very hard to learn. Although they are phonetic, the characters change depending on what follows what for example when two consonants come back to back they change form into a merged third shape This makes it quite difficult for not very competant linguists like me to get to grips with. I've tried to learn a bit of basic Devangari but even translating the script into sounds is very slow for me, and them of course I don't necessarily know the words to translate into English! I haven't even attempted any Oriya.

Some other amazing things I found out as I researched Indian languages was that schools in India teach more than 50 different languages, films are made in 15 languages, newspapers are produced in 90 and radio programmes broadcast in 71. Add to that India's blind and deaf populations (9M and 14M respectively) and Indian variants of sign language and braille and you can see how amazingly linguistically diverse India is. Exciting, no? Challenging, definitely! When I will be in Delhi for the first month inIndia there will be VSO volunteers there who will be going to work in Indian sign language. Some of the group will be learning Hindi, and at least Jen and I will be taught some Oriya. Quite a challenge for the organisation as well as for each of us individually.

So I thought I'd better make a start. After much consideration, I finally choose a Hindi course to try to get to grips with. I am hoping that some Hindi will help in Delhi, even if it is only basic tourist level stuff, and if I can keep it going it may help out also as I learn Oriya and in conversing elsewhere in India. An ex-work colleague lent me one course, I borrowed others from the lirbary, bought a couple and finally I have settled on Pimsleur's Hindi Course. As many of you know I have a liking for the Michel Thomas style of language teaching, having used it to kick start my French conversations with Ahmed, but unfortunately they don't do, and have no plans to do, a Hindi one. Shame! Although not as good in my opinion as the Michel Thomas methodology, the Pimsleur course is all audio. I know people who have used Rosetta Stone language software but I wanted one which wasn't dependent on a PC. I have also bought Tej Bhaktia's Colloquial Hindi which allows you to follow a thread of audio only or to also learn the script. Other courses plummet you into learning the script and having to read it far, far too early. After all we learn our native tongue for around 3-4 years without having to learnt to read and write it. So for me, October is Get Hindi Nailled Month!

I do hope you are enjoying reading about such things, and coming along for the ride as I learn more about the country that will be my home for the next 2 years. India was never a place on my travel list so I have a lot to learn. Stay with me. Namaste!


  1. Ah, I love this. I really hope you post just even a little bit about the classes and certain words you are learning. Hindi is dear to my heart and I did study Sanskrit over the years and can get by just a little with my Hindu friends or shop owners in the world. Not like when I was a teen but not bad either.

    One of the things I love about Hindi and Hinduism which is so related to each other is the words that convey such interesting concepts that we don't even have a translation for them in English. So I am really geeked for you girl!

  2. Namaste Candy, dhanyvad. I remember picking up something before about you and Sanskrit - how, why? How come you learnt Hindi? Tell me more.

  3. Good idea, most educated people in Orissa and elsewhere speak Hindi and there are lots of similarities and shared words.
    Oriya script seems to map to Hindi script - if you want to learn the script you might find this website useful

  4. Hilary, tx for the url. How's your Hindi?

  5. I found it fascinating your mention of the possibility that the script came to be because of the delicacy of the writing surface. Good stuff Sheila! You'll have to share language lessons with us - a phrase of the week perhaps?

  6. Excellent idea Molly Tx. I have a widget on the left hand side where foks can enter suggestions on topics Can you try it out?

  7. My Hindi is limited to a very few words, sadly. It's my daughter who is the Hindi expert of the family. I used that website to try to learn Oriya script - I have a book mapping Oriya characters to Hindi characters and I used the tutor to try to learn the sound for a few characters. Some of the sounds are very alien to a European and there are distinct differences - e.g. 11 vowels and sounds that you will never hear used in a European lanaguage that I have found really hard to get my tongue round. It gives me mouth-ache!

  8. Hilary, I know what you mean about the sounds - those retroflex consonants are the worse or maybe all the nasalisation. I've managed to pick up a bit and can listen to Hindi on the radio and have begun to hear words I can identify. This is good, but when it comes to speaking it that is a very different matter. Hindi follows a SVO construction rather than SOV construction of English, French etc. I think Oriya is the same. This means that I find I can't think on my feet so much. Also it is quite one thing to sit speaking back to a PC or a CD and think you are nicely mimicking the intonations and the accent, but that doesn't really tell you whether you have cracked it. Hopefullly folks will be as accomodating as I try to be when people are trying to learn my language. I don't mind being corrected as long as it is encouraging correction aimed at assisting communication. At the risk of failing miserably, it is my self imposed challenge to get to a reasonable level of conversational confidence - we'll see.

    How come your daughter knows Hindi?