Language in its literary meaning means a system of communication through speech, a compilation of sounds that a group of people understand to have the same meaning.The combined population of India speaks over hundreds of languages. Although some Indo-European languages are also spoken and understood, most languages in India belong either to Indo-Aryan or Dravidian families.
Around three-fourth of the languages spoken by India’s population are Indo-Aryan, including Hindi, Rajasthani, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Sanskrit, Kashmiri, Sindhi and Punjabi.
The Dravidian family of Indo-European languages include the languages of South India: Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam; English is the language most used.
Language as a form of communication is one of the most interesting and fascinating aspects of society. Several of them are over 10,000 years old and have existed before any civilisations were ever founded. India itself has a broad variety of oral sounds, from sign languages to regularly spoken Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, etc.
Let’s dive into some of the oldest languages of the Indian subcontinent.
Known as the official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore and spoken by 78 million people and the official language, Tamil is the world’s oldest language. It is the only old language still used currently. Tamil, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, hails from the state of Tamil Nadu and is also one of India’s official languages. It is part of the Dravidian family, as mentioned before and incorporates some native Southern and eastern Indian languages too which makes it easier for speakers of these languages to learn Tamil.
In the inscriptions and potsherds from the 5th century BCE, the oldest of Tamil writings have been documented. It is believed that the Tamil alphabet has evolved from Brahmi, however, some experts think its origins stretch back to the Indus script. The first Tamil literature is probably from 600 BC-200 A.D during the Sangam period. Three sangams are reported to have existed in Madura, Kapatapuram and northern Madura. The compositions which relate to the first two sangams are devoted mostly to music and dance. Tolkappiyam is the only accessible work of the two sangams, unfortunately. Tolkappiyam is a work on Tamil-language grammar, which was created around 200 BC and is the earliest literature in Tamil. It has been written as noorpaa (short formulaic compositions).
2. Pali and other Prakrits
A set of languages known as Prakrits or Middle Indo-Aryan languages originated from the classical language in India much before the contemporary derivatives of Sanskrit existed. These were the early vernacular dialects and many of them, in their own right, were prominent literary vehicles. The most renowned one is Pali, which still acts as the canonical language of Buddhism in various places. Facets of literature from the Brahmanical/Hindu and Buddhist traditions are embodied in other Prakrit languages such Sauraseni, Maharashtri, Magadhi and Gandhar.
The term ‘Prakrit’ (meaning nature) can be assumed in two distinct ways: based on ordinary words by a common mass, when compared to the highly sophisticated language of the learned in Sanskrit or; as a group of languages deriving from Sanskrit, the source of language. Prakrit is a name for the collection of languages commonly used in various sections of Aryavarta from the fourth or fifth centuries BC to the eighth century AD. These languages evolved into Apabhramsa until they finally established themselves as early forms of the many present Indo-Aryan ones. Therefore, Linguists do not refer to ‘prakrit’ as a monolith, but rather of ‘prakrits.’
Pali, the language that was preached by the Buddha (about 563-486 BC)] and Ardhamagadhi which was Mahavira’s(approximately 6th century BC) are both Prakrits. Sanskrit was the deliberate choice of the seers as according to their broader concept of addressing the public they used such language for their religious discourse. Many of the religious corpora of Buddhists and Jains are in these languages. Ashoka (ruling in BC 268-231) again purposely had his edicts written in Prakrit to make sure his messages were comprehended by all. These Prakrits are one of the oldest known. It appears that Pali was brought to Sri Lanka by Buddhist bhikkhus, which later became contemporary Sinhalese.
3. Vedic Sanskrit
Sanskrit language, is an Old Indo-Aryan language wherein the most antiquated reports are the Vedas, made in what is called Vedic Sanskrit. Albeit Vedic records address the tongues then, the earliest works—including the Rigveda (“The Veda Composed in Verses”), which researchers attribute to around 1500 BCE—come from the northwestern piece of the subcontinent, the space of the ancient seven rivers (sapta sindhavaḥ).
Over its long history, Sanskrit has been composed both in Devanāgarī script and in different provincial contents, like Śāradā from the north (Kashmir), Bāṅglā (Bengali) in the east, Gujarātī in the west, and different southern contents, including the Grantha letter set, which was particularly created for Sanskrit messages. Sanskrit messages keep on being distributed in territorial contents, albeit in most occasions Devanāgarī has been utilized the most.
There is a huge collection of work in Sanskrit covering a wide scope of subjects. The earliest ones are the Vedic writings. There are significant works of dramatization and verse, but the specific dates of a large number of these works have not been absolutely decided. Significant creators and works are Bhāsa for Svapnavāsvavadatta , whose dates generally fluctuating however certainly preceding Kālidāsa, who specifies him; Kālidāsa, dated anyplace from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE, who created Śakuntalā, Vikramorvaśīya , Kumārasambhava, and Raghuvaṃśa; Śūdraka and Mṛcchakatika, potentially dating to the third century CE among numerous others. The two epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata were likewise created in Sanskrit, and the previous is regarded as the primary poetic work (ādikāvya) of India. The Pañcatantra and Hitopadeśa are significant agents of educational writing. Sanskrit was likewise utilized for making compositions out of different philosophical schools and dealt with logic, arithmetic, and astronomy.
Kannada, which is also termed as Kanarese or Kannana, from the Dravidian family, is the official language of Karnataka. Mid-21st-century census information demonstrated that somewhere in the range of 38 million people communicated in Kannada as their first language; another 9 to 10 million are assumed to use it as the secondary one. In 2008, Kannada was recognized as a classical language by the government.
Kannada is the second most established of the four major Dravidian dialects. The earliest Kannada engraving was found at the little local area of Halmidi and dates back to around 450 CE. The Kannada script developed from southern groups of the Ashokan Brahmi script. The Kannada script heavily identifies with the Telugu script; both emerging out of an ancient Kannarese script.
Kannada literature started with the Kavirajamarga of Nrupatunga (ninth century CE) and was followed by Pampa’s Bharata (941 CE). The most antiquated surviving grammar is by Nagavarma and dates to the mid-twelfth century; the language of Keshiraja (1260 CE) is as yet regarded. Kannada writing was influenced by the Lingayat (Virasaiva) and the Haridasa developments. In the sixteenth century, the Haridasa evolution of vernacular religious hymns was at its peak with Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa, the former thought of as the father of Karnatak music, the traditional style music of southern India.
Telugu is the most used language of the Dravidian family which comprises 24 dialects crossing the whole South-Asia, from Baluchistan to Sri Lanka. As for the masses, Telugu positions second to Hindi among the Indian dialects. As recorded by the 1981 Census, Telugu is spoken by more than 45 million in Andhra Pradesh. It has likewise spread to different parts of the globe. Being a resonant language, it is called, by its admirers, the ‘Italian of the East.
The language originated from the Proto-Dravidian language. It was likewise alluded to as ‘Tenugu’ in the prior occasions and came to be known as ‘Andhra’ in medieval eras. It likely split from Proto-Dravidian between 1500 BCE and 1000 BCE, which was generally a similar time the Tamil language got particular as far as an artistic movement. Composed materials in Telugu date from 633 AD. Telugu writing starts with an eleventh-century interpretation of the Sanskrit exemplary Mahabharata. With the appearance of the Muslim principle, numerous Arabic and Persian words turned out to be essential for the Telugu language. The impact of Persian and Arabic is recognizable to an impressive degree in the dialects expressed in Telangana because of its long relationship with the Muslim standard. There is likewise an extraordinary component of English words in the jargon of Coastal Andhra, as these locales were under British rule for almost a century. Telugu has a place with the Central Dravidian language subfamily, whose individuals started from the Proto-Dravidian, spoken in central Deccan. Different dialects of the central group are the rustic Gondi, Konda, Kui and Kuvi dialects, which are all etymologically nearest to Telugu.
6. Marathi, Bengali and Odia
Marathi is the language of the Indo-Aryan group from the southern regions. It is spoken primarily in the western Indian population of Maharashtra and since 1966 it is the state’s official language. Marathi was also known as Maharashtri, Marhatti, Mahratta and others, throughout prehistoric eras. Marathi had grown from Sanskrit about 1300 years old, which eventually originated with Prakrit and Apabhramsha. It is assumed to have arisen from Pali and Prakrit grammar and syntax. The Marathi we hear today is the outcome of the progressive transformation and alteration process throughout the years.
Bengali is a branch of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-Iranian language group. It is spoken as the major language by more than 200 million people. Known as Bangladesh’s main language, it is also one of the officially recognised languages of Indian Constitution. By 900-1000 AD, Bangla appeared as a new Indo-Aryan language through Apabhramsha and Abahatta of Magadhi, the additional stages of Magadhi Prakrit and the Indo-Aryan Oriya and Assamese(600 BC – 600 AD). A rival theory was provided by Bengali scholar Muhammad Shahidullah and his supporters that the language emerged in the 7th century CE and progressed into spoken and written Gauda (also, individually, a Prakrit and an Apabhramsha). The language distinction between Bangladesh and Assamese was very slight up to the 14th century.
Odia, often written as Oriya, is an Indo-Aryan language with around 50 million speakers. It is also the major official language of the Indian state of Odisha, formally recognised or “scheduled” in the Indian Constitution. Mughal Bandi (Coastal Odia) is the conventional language of instruction. It also has a number of dialects. The eldest of the Indo-Aryan family’s eastern group is Odia from the Prakrit family of Ardhamagadhi. Odia may be from the 10th century CE, but until the 11th century, it was practically imperceptible from Bengali. The first poetry classic was written in the 15th century, and in the 18th-century literary prose began to emerge.
Malayalam is a member of the Dravidian language family subgroup of the South. Malayalam is largely spoken by the State of Kerala and the union territory, Lakshadweep in India. Bilingual groups in adjacent Karnataka and Tamil Nadu also use it. More than 35 million people are known to speak Malayalam at the beginning of the 21st century.
Malayalam developed from either the western dialect of Tamil, or the Proto-Dravidian branch of modern Tamil. An inscription of around 830 CE is the first evidence of the language. The Malayalam script encouraged an early and significant infusion of Sanskrit terms. It is derived from the Grantha script, also known as Koleluttu, which derives from Brahmi in turn. The whole collection of sounds from Dravidian and Sanskrit is represented by the letters of Koleluttu. Ramacharitam, an epic poem written in the late 12th or early 13th centuries, is the earliest literary piece in Malayalam. A literature of mostly erotic poetry created in the manipravalam form, a combination of Malayalam and Sanskrit, developed in later decades with the popular pattu (song) literature.
There is no obvious answer to what the oldest language in the world is, but it is definitely a matter that gets linguists and historians both riled up. Some argue that all the languages we speak now arise from a sole human language, whose beginnings are lost in prehistory. In fact, one can perhaps analyze the idea of the “oldest” language in not one but multiple distinct ways. One thing is for sure, that language and literature gives us an insight into the past like no other.