Language, Literature, and Culture: Most Spoken Languages of South Asia

South Asia is a vast region consisting of Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The region covers around 3.3 million square miles and is home to about 2.5 billion people. In terms of population, South Asia is the third largest continent in the world.

The region is often referred to simply as “Asia”, although this name does not accurately reflect the diversity of cultures within the region. There are some languages spoken in this area. Most spoken languages are including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Nepali, and Pashto.

The language families of the languages of South Asia

  • Indo-Aryan

The Indo-Aryan family of languages is older than you think. In fact, it dates back to the first millennia B.C., when Epic Sanskrit came into existence. This ancient form of Sanskrit is preserved in grammatical works like Panini’s, the oldest work of linguistics.

Classical Sanskrit followed this, providing a highly standardized language that survived into the modern era. Zograf classifies these, as well as Vedic, as Old IA. Over time, phonology and grammar evolved to give rise to another linguistic dynasty, Middle Indian. These languages are called Prakrits and include the earliest surviving texts written in India, such as those of Buddhism, Jain, and Ashoka. Finally, the latest phase of development gave birth to the contemporary languages, known as New Indian.

  • The Dravidian Language Family

In the efforts to replace English terms with Indian ones, many people look to Sanskrit, even though there are no known connections between it and the modern day Dravidian languages. However, little research exists on the origins or history of Dravidian speech.

Fortunately, central and northern India contain pockets of Dravidian speech which preserve the traits of the original language that today’s major languages–Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, and Gujarati–do not. These areas include Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Gujarat.

Little research exists on the origins and history of the Dravidian language. There are several theories about how the Dravidians arrived in India; one theory suggests that they came from Africa, while others suggest that they originated in Southeast Asia.

There are also different theories regarding the relationship between the Dravidians and other Indo-European groups. Some linguists believe that the Dravidians descended from Proto-Indo-Europeans, while others say that the Dravidian languages evolved independently from those of neighboring Indo-Aryan groups.

However, most scholars agree that the Dravidian language family includes five main branches: Southwestern Dravidian, Central Dravidian, Northeastern Dravidian, Western Dravidian, and Eastern Dravidian.

Interestingly, the Dravidian languages do resemble New World Arawakan languages like Pirahã and Carib. Both the Dravidian and Arawakan languages consist of three-syllable roots, and both use consonant clusters and affixes.

While it seems unlikely that the Dravidian and New American languages shared a common ancestor, it is possible that the ancestors of the Dravidian and American languages diverged from a common source, perhaps in East Africa.

Language, Literature, and Culture

The sub-continent diverse cultures make defining a national language or literary canon nearly impossible. There are hundreds of regional languages spoken across the vast geography, along with several major languages such as Hindi and English. Some scholars say that the number of languages spoken in India alone exceeds the total population of the United States. And while some of those languages are written down, most remain oral.

With so many traditions and the complexity of their weave of borrowings and translation, choosing texts and finding the resources needed to study them will provide much more material than institutions in the region can handle. The fact that the prestige of writers writing in English or Hindi and Sanskrit texts tend to overshadow other traditions, including Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati, Oriya, Kannada, Assamese, Kashmiri, Manipuri and Nepalese, among others, to people in the west, further complicates matters.

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