Most Indians are unaware of the fact that over 1,500 total languages are in India, and more than 3,200 dialects are spoken in India. That’s nothing strange because India is a subcontinent that consists of as many as 28 states and eight Union Territories.
Each state in India has an official language while some have several dialects.
Among these large numbers, only 22 make it to the list of Scheduled Languages, under the Official Languages Act 1963. In this article, I will discuss about the top 10 official languages in India.
Status of English Language in India
Interestingly, the English language, which is commonly spoken in India, doesn’t feature on this list of the 22 Scheduled Languages in the Constitution of India. scheduled languages of India.
At the same time, English is considered as the “official language” in the North-Eastern states of India, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh due to the absence of indigenous or local languages.
Instead, there’re local dialects that various tribes of these two states use for conversation. Most of them don’t even have a script. However, since this state is on the India-China border, some tribal languages in Arunachal Pradesh are written in the Mandarin (Chinese) script.
However, English does appear on the notes of the Indian currency, the Rupee and coins of various denominations as well as postage stamps and postal stationery.
That’s because foreign tourists frequent India and cannot understand local languages that way their own unique scripts.
Is Hindi the National Language of India?
Another interesting fact that I could tell you is about Hindi. As a language, pure Hindi is spoken only in a small region of India known as the “Hindi Belt.” The language we commonly use as Hindi was actually known as “Hindustani” by the British invaders of India.
Now you might find this strange but I’ll explain the reasons why the British termed Hindi as “Hindustani.”
The Hindi language, as we speak it, consists of several words drawn from Farsi, Turkish, Arabic. Urdu and Sanskrit as well as various Indian dialects. Nowadays, English and other foreign words have crept into the language.
British invaders were quick to observe the vast difference between pure Hindi and the dialect spoken and written by a large number of Indians in northern parts of the country. Since India is known as Hindustan in Urdu, they termed the local dialect of Hindi as Hindustani.
However, Hindustani as a language doesn’t feature in the list of top 10 official languages in India with official status.
Top 10 Official Languages in India
Now to discuss the top 10 languages of India with official status in 2021, let’s start with the one that’s most widely spoken across the country. These are official figures released by the Indian government’s census portal.
The figures might vary slightly due to the migrant population as well as changes in demographics that we’re witnessing across the country over the last five years.
Hindi is known as the “Rashtra bhasha” or “national language” of India. According to recent estimates, about 529 million persons in India speak Hindi. However, Hindi isn’t always the native language of these speakers and its popularity only arises from the fact that it’s the national language.
Therefore, you will find Hindi features prominently on all government offices and infrastructure, such as railway stations and bus stands, banks and financial institutions. In such cases, the signboards will bear three languages- English, Hindi and the local language.
As such, Hindi finds its roots in India’s ancient and original official language- Sanskrit, one of the Indo-Aryan languages. Though Hindi in its purest form is spoken rarely, its most prominent use is in the northern states of Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand as well as some parts of Delhi- National Capital Region.
In most cases, though, Hindustani is spoken but passes off as Hindi. Due to the vast number of Hindi speakers, it also ranks as the fourth most widely used language in the world, ranking behind Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua), Spanish and English.
Incidentally, Hindi is also spoken in countries of the Caribbean and South America such as Guyana and Surinam as well as Oceania countries of Mauritius and Fiji, since Indian migrants who went there during the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent, continue to use this language to date.
Bangla is the second most spoken language in India with official status. There’re close to 100 million Indians who call Bangla their native tongue.
Bangla or Bengali as it’s also known is widely spoken by people from Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Jharkhand states. You’ll also come across a large population of Bangla speaking people in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are among the eight Union Territories of India.
This language also finds roots in the Indo-Aryan language, Sanskrit but is widely influenced by Arabic, Farsi and local tribal dialects from neighbouring states of Jharkhand, Tripura, Assam and Mizoram, among others. It is the official language of the eastern state of India- Bengal, which is sometimes known as West Bengal.
Bangla is often known as one of the sweetest languages in the world because it is widely used in poetry and songs. Rabindranath Tagore popularized Bangla through his works and won the Nobel award for his works in this Indian official language.
Incidentally, Bangla is also the official language of India’s neighbouring country, Bangladesh, though over the years. However, some words from Urdu have seeped into the language spoken in Bangladesh, possibly because of influence from its former rulers, Pakistan.
Marathi is the third widely spoken language of India with an official status. Official records indicate that about 90 million people speak this language, which also draws its origin from the Indo-Aryan languages, primarily Sanskrit.
In fact, over 2,000 years ago, Marathi as a language was written in the Modi script before Chattrapati Shivaji began the use of the Devanagari script for written communications.
Marathi is the official language of India’s most industrialized state, Maharashtra.
Unofficial estimates indicate that 120 million people speak Marathi. That’s because there’re several industrial cities in the state of Maharashtra, where Marathi is the official language.
These industrial cities witness a heavy influx of migrants from other states arriving for employment. Over the years, they learn Marathi, which could be the reason for the surge in the number of persons that speak this language.
Marathi is also spoken in various countries, especially Israel and Mauritius. That’s because Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and the Middle East fled to the coastal part of Maharashtra and learned the language.
And during the British occupation, sugarcane planters from the Kolhapur-Satara region were taken to Mauritius to cultivate the crop on this island nation.
With nearly 44 million persons in India speaking this language, Telugu is also one of the topmost official languages in India. You can find Telugu speakers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states as well as neighbouring Karnataka and Odisha, among other places.
Telugu also has the unique distinction of being the topmost Indo-Dravidian language on the list of official languages of India. It is written in the ancient Abugida script.
The states of Hyderabad and Telangana use Telugu as their official language, though local dialects in both these states are slightly different.
The Telugu that we hear today draws words from other languages- mainly Urdu and Turkish- possibly due to the large presence of people from various ethnicities that resided in the state during the rule of the Nizams.
Thanks to IT parks in Hyderabad and Secunderabad and the high number of IT professionals from Andhra Pradesh migrating to the US and Europe, you can find a lot of Telugu speakers in America and various European states.
Furthermore, there’s also a large population of Telugu speakers residing and working in the six countries of the Arabian Gulf region- Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman.
Tamil is perhaps the only language that sparked a civil war from 1983 to 2009. This unfortunate conflict that killed millions of people, including prominent personalities is known as the Sri Lankan Civil War.
It began when Tamil speaking sections of Sri Lanka demanded an independent state in the north of the country.
However, Tamil is also the fifth widely spoken language in India. It is also the official language of the southern state, Tamil Nadu. The language Tamil draws its origins from the Indo-Dravidian family of linguistics.
Tamil is written in the Dhamili script or what is known as the anglicized Tamil script.
Over 70 million people in India speak Tamil as their native tongue. Additionally, you will find Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka and the Middle East too.
While the Tamil speaking community of Sri Lanka is indigenous, those in the Middle East are either of Indian or Sri Lankan origin.
Back home in India, Tamil is widely spoken in several southern states, especially neighbouring Karnataka, which has a lot of influx of labourers from Tamil Nadu.
There’s also a Tamil speaking community in Kerala, which migrated from Tamil Nadu several decades ago for work or business.
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With about 66 million speakers of Gujarati, this language ranks as the sixth top on my list and that of the Indian Census. Many big business ideas were born in Gujarat. The state is known as a land of traders and businesspeople.
Therefore, Gujarati is spoken almost all over India, thanks to migrants who settled across the country for business.
In fact, Gujarati is also popular in the neighbouring country, Nepal due to the influx of several traders there from India.
As a matter of fact, the Zoroastrian community of India speaks Gujarati too. That’s because Zoroastrians fleeing the Pars region of Iran settled on the coast of Gujarat where the local rulers granted them asylum.
In recent years, Gujarati is one of the languages that you can hear being spoken in the UK, US, Canada and Australia as large numbers of migrants from Gujarat have settled there.
In cities such as Mumbai, tens of thousands of non-Gujaratis also learn the language for business and social purposes.
Gujarati is mainly written in the Saraphi style. This language draws from Sanskrit and has strong influences from Marathi, Hindi, Arabic and Farsi languages among others.
Urdu is a language of choice for writing poetry and songs. Unfortunately, its popularity seems to be dwindling now as more and more people take to Hindustani. This has pushed Urdu to the seventh position among India’s topmost official languages.
It is not clear how this Indo-Aryan language arrived in India. However, historians believe that Urdu was spoken by people living in and around Delhi in ancient days.
The language is a potpourri of Turkish, Arabic, Farsi and other Middle Eastern languages, which makes it very melodic. This language is spoken in India by an estimated 51 million people.
Urdu is also the official language of India’s neighbouring country, Pakistan.
There’re various universities in India that are trying to popularize the use of Urdu among Indian students, especially those who wish to study ancient history, poetry and stories written by some of the masters of yesteryears.
Urdu is written in the Farsi script which is similar to Arabic in several ways.
Recently, Google caused an outrage when search results showed it as the “ugliest language.” However, the Internet giant and the world’s largest search engine promptly apologized to the Kannada speaking communities of India.
Controversies apart, Kannada is the official language of the state of Karnataka. It is the eighth top language of India and has over 44 million speakers. It is one of the Indo-Dravidian languages of India. Kannada, like Telugu, is written in the Abugida script.
Kannada is also widely spoken in areas bordering the Karnataka state- mainly Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh as well as the southernmost part of Goa.
However, in coastal Karnataka, especially the Mangalore region, Kannada is often overshadowed by two local dialects, Tulu and Konkani.
With Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka emerging as the Silicon Valley of India, many migrants from other states also learn Kannada to get around locally. Kannada is also one of the most ancient languages of India that continues to flourish to date.
Ranking ninth on the list of India’s topmost languages is Odia or the official language of the state of Odisha in eastern India.
There’re an estimated 38 million Odia speakers in India. The area where modern-day Odisha now stands was once known as Kalinga and later as Utkal. The script that’s used to write Odia language is known as Utkal Lipi.
Odia is no longer confined to the borders of Odisha. Thanks to migrant workers, you can find Odia being spoken in Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and parts of Uttar Pradesh too.
This is an Indo-Aryan language that draws influence from Bangla and indigenous tribal dialects.
Additionally, Odia is also spoken in foreign countries such as the US and UK as well as the Middle East, by immigrant workers from Odisha.
Malayalam is the 10th official language of India. In fact, Kerala has the highest literacy rate among all states of India due to the very fact that Malayalam is used in primary education for all.
Other languages aren’t very popular in Kerala though, in recent years, English and Hindi have found some acceptance. Interestingly, Arabic is also widely spoken in Kerala due to the large number of migrant workers that live in the Middle East.
According to Indian government figures, there’re about 35 million speakers of the Malayalam language. It is written in the Malayala Lipi and hence the script is different. In fact, every southern state of India has different scripts for its official language.
Other than Kerala, the language Malayalam is widely spoken across India because a lot of people from Kerala venture to other states for employment.
In the six states of the Arabian Gulf, you might find Malayalam is the third most widely spoken language after Arabic and English.
Sanskrit is the most ancient language in the world as is the original language of the Aryan migrants that landed in India several thousand years ago.
Though most Indian languages draw some influence from Sanskrit, the language doesn’t make it to the top 10 list of the Indian government.
Often, Sanskrit is known as a dying language, despite its historic and cultural importance to India. That’s because very few efforts are underway to prevent this language from going extinct.
The only use of Sanskrit now occurs while reciting prayers written in the language.
You can find that Sanskrit has also contributed a lot to foreign languages such as German, Swedish, Estonian and others.
It is also known as the “Mother of All Languages” since its influence on other languages is very prominent.
It’s important to know which are the top 10 languages in India with official status because such a question often arises during Indian Administrative Services (IAS) and other entrance exams.
Now that you know which are the top 10 official languages, you could answer this question with confidence. I’ve also provided some perspective about each language to help you understand its significance to the Indian culture.