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Useful Notes / Indian Languages

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From the ten-rupee bill. The English inscription "TEN RUPEES" is right above this column in big block letters.

As any Indian will tell you, the country has a crapload of cultural diversity. Naturally, this extends to its languages as well (and that's languages, not just dialects). India has hundreds of native languages spoken by different ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. At present, 22 of those languages are officially recognized by the Indian constitution, and they're listed on this page. Broadly speaking, they come from four big language families: Dravidian (the South), Tibeto-Burman (the Northeast, near Tibet and Burma), Austro-Asiatic (the East), and Indo-European (basically everywhere else). And unlike most countries, there are several different writing systems as well.

Each of the Indian States and Union Territories will typically select an official language, which is usually (but not always) the language spoken by the majority of the population. For some states, it's pretty easy, because their borders are defined by linguistic and ethnic divisions (more or less). For other states, it's a lot harder, particularly in the cosmopolitan West (with lots of people moving there from other parts of India) and the very diverse Northeast (where states tend to be made up of many small subgroups, all with their own language). Near state borders, people will speak the languages of both states, or even dialects that are mixtures of the two languages. Those who cross state lines often, like truck drivers, will know several languages. Otherwise, either Hindi or English is used when two people from different parts of the country need to communicate.


Central and Northern Languages
  • Dogri (Indo-European), spoken by 5 million "Dogras", mainly in western Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Kashmiri (Indo-European), spoken by 5.6 million people in the Kashmir Valley. It's the mother tongue of India's two most famous prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter Indira Gandhi.
  • Punjabi (Indo-European), spoken mainly in the state of Punjab (and in Pakistani Punjab across the border). It has 34 million speakers in India and about 120 million worldwide. It's the only Indo-European language to be fully tonal, which makes it very sing-song-y and thus a haven for composers; if popular Indian music isn't in Hindi, it's often in Punjabi.

Western Languages
  • Gujarati (Indo-European), spoken in the state of Gujarat. Worldwide, there are 46 million Gujarati speakers, or "gujjus". It's the native language of both Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.
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  • Konkani (Indo-European), spoken by 8 million people, mostly in the state of Goa. It can be written in five different scripts, based on region and religion: Hindus write in Devanagari (the same script used in Hindi and Sanskrit), except when they live in Karnataka (which uses Kannada script) or Kerala (which uses Malayalam script); Muslims write in Arabic; and Catholics (dating to Goa's time as a Portuguese colony) write in Latin. (Technically, only Devanagari is official, though.)
  • Marathi (Indo-European), spoken in the state of Maharashtra, with 70 million speakers in India. It's sometimes written in the "Modi" script, essentially a cursive Devanagari. Ironically, Maharashtra's biggest city Mumbai has so many people from elsewhere in India that you could hear a dozen languages there before you hear the local Marathi; in fact, Bollywood refers to the Hindi-language film industry in India, despite it being based in Mumbai.
  • Sindhi (Indo-European), spoken mainly in Gujarat and in neighboring Pakistan, and elsewhere in India among the descendants of Pakistani emigrants, with an estimated 2 million speakers in India and 40 million worldwide.

Eastern Languages
  • Bengali (Indo-European), spoken mainly in the states of West Bengal and Tripura, and across the border in Bangladesh. There are 83 million Bengali speakers in India and over 230 million worldwide. It is the second most-spoken native language in India. India's national anthem Jana Gana Mana was written in Bengali (by native Bengali speaker Rabindranath Tagore), but in a very Sanskritized register so that speakers of many other Indian languages will probably recognize the words (the same way French and Italian words derived from Latin look similar).
  • Maithili (Indo-European), spoken by 12 million people, mostly in the state of Bihar.
  • Oriya/Odia (Indo-European), spoken mainly in the state of Odisha, with 33 million speakers worldwide. It has attained classical language status.
  • Santali (Austro-Asiatic), spoken by 6 million people in the state of Jharkhand.

Southern Languages
  • Kannada (Dravidian), spoken by 40 million "Kannadigas" mainly in the state of Karnataka. It has attained the status of a classical language. Kannada dialects vary not only by region, but also by caste - meaning that two people in the same village may speak two different (but mutually intelligible) dialects. The state of Karnataka also has two smaller languages - Tulu and Byari - that use the Kannada script, and are closely related to Kannada.
  • Malayalam (Dravidian), spoken by 33 million Malayalees, or "Mallus", in the state of Kerala and the territory of Lakshadweep. Its grammar and vocabulary borrow mainly from Tamil and Sanskrit, with a quite large number of loanwords from Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, Danish/German and English. Varying the Tamil to Sanskrit ratio can make Malayalam either very soft and vowel/nasal heavy, or very harsh with heavy use of consonants - this is often used in music and poetry to give a sort of contrast. Its reputation as the hardest Indian language to learn is not helped by its unique sounds note . Malayalam is distinctive enough (along with the culture that speaks it) to occasionally show up in other Indian language media as a Token Minority. If a fictional Indian has an Overly Long Name, it's probably (unwittingly) a parody of Malayalam names.
  • Tamil (Dravidian), spoken by 61 million Tamils in the state of Tamil Nadu and around the world in various countries (it is one of Sri Lanka's two official languages, and one of Singapore's four official languages). One of India's oldest languages, it has 'classical language' status, and is often said to be the Indian language with the least Sanskrit influence.note  Native Tamils are famous for their ethno-linguistic pride and are known to be protective of their linguistic rights, having resisted (to various degrees of success) assimilation into the rest of India for centuries. (Unfortunately, this pride sometimes leads to the Angry Tamil Man stereotype.)
  • Telugu (Dravidian), spoken in the states of Andhra Pradesh (49 million) and Telangana (35 million),note  making it the third-most spoken Indian language. It was once called "the Italian of the East", because it is a very lyrical language and nearly all its words end in a vowel. It has attained classical language status.

North-Eastern Languages
  • Assamese (Indo-European), spoken by 13 million people mainly in the state of Assam. It is the easternmost natural member of the entire Indo-European language family.
  • Bodo (Sino-Tibetan), spoken by the Bodo minority in the state of Assam by 1.4 million speakers.
  • Manipuri (Sino-Tibetan), spoken by 1.5 million people in the state of Manipur.
  • Nepali (Indo-European), naturally the official and national language of Nepal, but also spoken in the Indian state of Sikkim, which borders Nepal. It has 2.9 million speakers in India (most of whom are ethnic Nepalis) and 17 million worldwide.

Not Regionally affiliated
  • Hindustani (Indo-European) is a term used to define two very closely related languages—both technically of the Central Zone of the Indo-Aryan languages—Hindi and Urdu. The main difference is that Hindi is spoken mostly by Hindus and Urdu is spoken mostly by Muslims. Other than that, they're basically mutually intelligible, and it's debatable whether they're separate languages at all. The main differences also trace themselves to the religious divide: Hindi is spoken in India and Urdu is spoken in Pakistan (but their partition was largely along religious lines anyway), Hindi is written in Devanagari and Urdu is written in Arabic (same as their respective religions' main languages), and Hindi's literary and technical register borrows more from Sanskrit whereas Urdu's borrows more from Arabic (and sometimes Farsi). Hindi is the most commonly spoken and best-known language in India; it's taught as a first or second language throughout India and used as a lingua franca by the government (but isn't the national language because other ethnic groups were afraid of losing employment opportunities to native Hindi speakers — it's instead the "Official Language of the Union"). That said, Hindi is less prominent the further you get away from northern central India, and the most extreme separatist movements suppress the use of Hindi, seeing it as the language of a majoritarian oppressor. There are however, many regional variations of Hindi, listed as follows
    • Braj Bhaasha - a more rural version of Hindi spoken primarily in the Braj region comprising present day Uttarkhand.
    • Khadi Boli - spoken primarily in the area around Delhi, Central and Western Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, this is the standard version of Hindi that is used in film and TV. Can be considered Hindi’s equivalent of RP English.
    • Chattisgarhi - spoken in Central India primarily in the Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh area. Note that Hindi speakers in the nearby Maharashtra and Gujarat areas as well as Southern India speak standard “Khadi boli” Hindi, since they often learn it in school or the media instead of at home.
    • Bihari - various versions spoken in Southern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, with some non-native speakers in the Orissa region. This version of Hindi has achieved notoriety due to its use by controversial politician Laloo Prasad Yadav. Maithili, a version of Bihari, has been recognised as a scheduled language in its own right.
    • Pahaadi - translates to “mountain speak”, this dialect is spoken primarily in the Himachal Pradesh region.
    • Haryaanvi - spoken in Haryana, the state on the eastern border of Delhi.
    • Rajasthani - spoken in the desert region of Rajasthan, Western Punjab and Western MP.
  • Sanskrit (Indo-European), considered the dead language of antiquity of the Indian subcontinent, serving much the same role Latin did for most of Europe. Except it's Not Quite Dead; it's still quite common for students to learn it in school (and is also the favorite of overbearing Indian Education Mamas), and you can even take college courses entirely in Sanskrit. Finally, there is a single village in the state of Karnataka which uses Sanskrit as its first language. Young Indian students don't struggle with it as much as European students do with Latin (partly because it's easier, and partly because it has some nice insults). It is also the "official language" of the state of Uttarkhand (although no one really thinks of it that way, with Braj Hindi being the actual spoken dialect).
  • English (Indo-European), an obscure West Germanic language that some Tropers may be familiar with. It's still present as a remnant of India's time as part of The British Empire, which enforced it as a language of government and higher education. Because of the above-mentioned regional tensions over the use of Hindi, English is still a prominent lingua franca, if only because no local group speaks it, and everyone is equally disadvantaged when it comes to learning it. That said, Indian English has emerged as a unique dialect with some quaint interesting phrases and idioms of its own. These are:-
    • 420 - A con man. From Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code, which covers all forms of cheating.
    • Auto - An auto rickshaw. A three wheeled light duty gasoline or natural gas fueled engine powered vehicle used as a cheaper alternative to a taxi. Equivalent to a “tuk-tuk” in Thailand.
    • Alliance - marriage arrangement.
    • Aiyo or Aiyaiyo - An expression indicating great despair. Used only in South India, although North Indians sometimes use that phrase to mock South Indians.
    • Babu - originally a Hindi honorific used for educated men who worked as low level administrators during colonial times. Now used as a derisive term for an Obstructive Bureaucrat government employee.
    • Bandh/Bundh - labor strike. From the Hindi word for “close” as most shops and businesses have no option but to shut down during these strikes for safety reasons.
    • Batchmate - college classmate. The term classmate is only used to refer to classmates in school.
    • Batman - also used in other Commonwealth countries as well as Britain, this term refers to an enlisted man assigned to a senior officer as a personal assistant or attendant aka butler. Therefore, Alfred is sometimes referred to as Batman’s batman.
    • Batta - daily travel expense allowance, usually given to chauffeurs, attendants, servants etc.
    • Boards - A common examination conducted for every student in the state, or in the federal school system. One set of board examinations are held in high school sophomore year to determine which junior college, or which “stream” in federal school boards can you qualify for admission into. The 12th boards are the high school graduation exams. They are not the same as the SAT. Colleges will have their own entrance tests.
    • Brinjal - Eggplant. Only in the Indian subcontinent is this word used to describe this vegetable.
    • Bunk - skip class.
      • Petrol bunk - Petrol Pump (UK) / Gas station (US)
    • Chappal - strapless sandal made from leather. Rubber flip flops are typically called “slippers”.
    • Chitty - a word borrowed from Hindi, meaning a handwritten note.
      • Chit fund - derived from the above word, this phrase refers to a small scale lottery typically run in poorer slum areas. The “lottery ticket” equivalents are typically small handwritten notes, hence the “chit”.
    • Convent/Convented - a Christian (usually catholic) run girls school. A graduate of such a school is stated as “convented” particularly during the seeking of matrimonial arrangements. Implies a better understanding of English and more urbane.
    • Cousin brother / cousin sister - This term is reserved only for first cousins, second cousins, third cousins and so on. Cousins removed are typically called uncles/aunts, as the implication is that they are your parents’ cousins. On the other side, cousins removed can also be considered nephews/nieces as they are your cousins’ son/daughter.
    • Crore - one hundred lakh or equivalently ten million. One hundred crore equates to one billion.
    • Curd - Yoghurt
    • Dacoit - an armed robber, particularly one involved in home invasions or highway robbery. From the Hindi word “dakoo”.
    • Diploma - it doesn’t mean “baccalaureate degree certificate” here. Rather, a Diploma refers to Vocational Training or Associates Degree level programs that one can get into after passing 10th Standard, in lieu of finishing high school. Someone who has completed a Diploma in a particular engineering major can then continue on to an undergraduate degree in the same engineering major, starting from 2nd ie sophomore year.
    • Do the needful / Please do the needful - a very formal way of requesting an action be taken.
    • Eat his/her Head - to pester someone. Transliteration of a similar phrase in local languages.
    • Eve tease - Catcalling. A guy who engages in this is derisively called a “Road Romeo”.
    • Fag - smoke a cigarette.
    • To Fire - to scold or berate, not terminate his employment.
    • Gerrymandering - Over here, this phrase does not mean census based redrawing of legislative representational districts. Here, gerrymandering means outright “booth capture” and ballot stuffing.
    • Goonda - a thug or gangster. Note that “thug” is almost never used in Indian English, as the word actually means “thief” in Hindi.
    • Good name - name (e.g. 'What is your good name?' = 'What is your name?')
    • Guest House - the equivalent of a Bed and Breakfast. Alternatively, it is a residence that is converted into a “lodge” ie an inn without any restaurant attached.
    • Gymkhana - a sporting club.
    • Has Sugar - is diabetic. If you want to state someone is in possession of sugar, the correct phrase would be “has some sugar”.
    • Head bath - Indians make a distinction between a “bath” where you wash your entire body except your hair, and a “head bath” where you wash all parts of your body and wash your hair too. This distinction is made partly due to the “head bath” sometimes having significance during certain religious rituals. Also, the climate of India sometimes makes people with wet hair susceptible to the cold or flu. Therefore, people usually restrict head baths to times when it isn’t cold.
      • Oil bath - Due to the heat in India, sometimes people will apply coconut oil to their entire body including their hair, let the oil soak for some time to moisturize the skin and scalp and then have a head bath to wash the remaining oil off. While regular soap and shampoo is used for this nowadays, the traditional oil bath involves the use of a paste made from a special herb. This paste functioned like soap.
    • Hill station - Owing to India’s tropical hot climate, certain locations in the mountains such as Nanital, Darjeeling, Mussouri, Kulu Manali or in foothills such as Kodaikanal, Udagamandalam (Ooty) etc function as summertime vacation spots due to cooler temperatures. These were common across all the old European powers' colonial empires (e.g. the French had several hill stations in North Africa, including one—Ifrane in Morocco—that was so far uphill it was also a ski resort with Swiss-style chalets). For obvious reasons, winter is the off season in these places. They are called “hill stations” due to them being designated as summer retreat locations for British colonial overlords.
    • In Duty - on the job.
    • Jawaan - soldier, or Armed Police (armed with an assault rifle and wearing combat gear, instead of the baton-weilding “khakis”). From Urdu/Persian meaning “young man”. Note that the Army never uses that phrase; the word “sipahi” or sepoy is used instead.
    • Junior College - Junior and Senior year of high school. note 
    • Khakis - Policemen. See Indian Laws.
    • KD - A con man or a thief. From the colonial era Imperial Police Service acronym KD for “Known Delinquent/Dacoit/Depredator”.
    • Lakh - one hundred thousand. Ten lakh would equate to one million.
    • Lakshman-Rekha - Actually a Hindi phrase. Means a norm whose violation is considered unthinkable. From the Ramayana where Lakshmana draws a line in the ground with his arrow around Sita and their forest dwelling, that prevented anyone except himself or Rama from encroaching. However, Sita herself stepped over that line, right before she was abducted.
    • Load shedding - scheduled brownout intended to preserve power grid capacity.
    • Loo - No, not a toilet like in Britain. In India, particularly northern and northwestern India, a loo is a hot dry dangerous wind that blows eastward during April to June.
    • Lord “god’s name” - People are often named after gods, so it would be pretty common for guys to have names such as Vishnu, Shiva, Ram, Krishna, Ganesh etc. To distinguish between the god and someone named after the god, the prefix Lord is used.
    • Masth - A state of increased agitation and aggression that elephant males go into during the mating season. This is seen as abnormal, and an elephant afflicted by this is dubbed a “mad elephant” or “in Masth”. The term is generally accepted in zoological circles for all elephants (Indian and African), though it's usually spelled musth outside India.
    • MBBS - a family physician / general practitioner aka “Internal Medicine” as it is known in ‘Murcia. This is used to distinguish them from “specialists” and surgeons.
    • Military hotel - a phrase that is slowly becoming archaic, it refers to a restaurant (often called “hotel” in here) that serves meat. This is due to a casteist stereotype that only soldiers eat meat.
      • In India, a restaurant was typically called a “hotel”. An actual hotel which rented rooms to travelers would once be characterized as either a “lodge” or “boarding and lodging”. A “lodge” would offer rooms for rent, but wouldn’t provide any food. A “lodge” with an attached restaurant would be called “boarding and lodging”.
    • Morning morning - a transliteration of a similar phrase used in other Indian languages, this phrase conveys a sense of annoyance towards unpleasant situations one might experience at the start of their day, thereby ruining it.
    • Mugging - rote memorization
    • Native place - place of your birth, or alternatively, your extended family’s ancestral home.
    • Naxal - A left wing terrorist working to establish a single party communist rule. Note that this movement has been disowned by the official Communist parties of India, which prefer to be a part of the democratic process. Derived from Naxalbari village in Bengal where the movement originated.
    • Neta - a borrowed Hindi word that means “leader”, but is used in English to refer to any elected politician.
    • OC - Obtained for free. From colonial days when postal and courier services between East India Company outposts was free, provided the letter or package was marked with an “On Company Service” or OCS stamp. Indians hired as servants or low level clerks started gaming this system to send personal items “OCS” and later “OC”. Hence anything obtained for free is OC.
    • Out of station - This phrase is derived from colonist speak. In the Company, men weren’t posted to cities or towns, they were posted to bases or stations. Only natives lived in the city/town. These stations were often special cantonments kept segregated away from the native populace. Therefore, when someone travelled away from his assigned cantonment, he was “out of station”. Since railway terminals were often located at these cantonments, Indians using them to travel, adopted the phrase “out of station”.
    • Outrage the Modesty of - A very polite term for copping a feel.
    • Paining - hurting.
    • PG or Paying Guest - Someone who sublets a room at a residence. This is often a cheaper alternative to renting an entire house for young people just starting out in their career.
    • Prepone - opposite of postpone
    • Pass Out - to graduate. You passed the final exams and you are now permanently “out” of the institution, hence “pass out”.
    • Ragging - hazing.
    • Sardar(ji) - an informal term for a Sikh gentleman. From the Hindi term for “battlefield commander”.
    • Stepney - an emergency spare tire. From the UK based company that made these tires for certain British made automobiles introduced into India.
    • Taluk and Tehsil - District or County. In India, the word County is never used, with states divided into Districts, and then into either urban 'municipalities' or rural 'Tehsils' or 'Talukas'. Tehsils / Talukas are further subdivided into Panchayaths containing 1-5 villages. There is some variation between states in the exact titles, powers and responsibilities, etc.
    • 10th Fail or 12th Fail - High School dropout. A 10th fail dropped out after sophomore year due to failing the “boards”. A 12th fail dropped out after failing to graduate senior year. 10th Pass is sometimes listed as an educational qualification for vocational training or certain low skill jobs, as requiring only the successful completion of sophomore year. 12th Pass means high school graduate.
    • Thrice - three times. A combination of “twice” and “three”, this still finds some usage in non-Indian English, but is usually seen as a little old-fashioned, but it's more common in India than elsewhere.
    • Tiffin: This word, derived from the British slang word “tiffing” for having afternoon tea has different meanings. It originally meant a mid afternoon snack, but later came to mean “breakfast” in South, West and Central India. In Mumbai, tiffin also means “boxed lunch” but in more recent times has come to mean the box that a boxed lunch is carried in. A “tiffinwallah” is one of Mumbai’s famed lunchbox delivery men.
    • Tight Slap - a hard hitting slap.
    • Topper: The student in a class who earns the highest marks in a test.
    • Tube-light - a mercury vapor fluorescent ceiling mounted light that is typically shaped like a long thin tube. Owing to it going through a process of flickering for a few seconds before turning on, this term is also used to refer to someone who is Late to the Punchline.
    • Tuition(s) - extracurricular private tutoring for remedial or competitive reasons.
    • Ultra - terrorist or insurgent.
    • Wantedly - Deliberately, with intent.