11 II-Origin And Development Of Vernacular Languages In India

II-Origin And Development Of Vernacular Languages In India

The issue of the origin of Indian Vernacular languages has long and intensely been debated among prominent linguists. A majority of them co-relate the origin with large scale tribal migratory movements to India from outside, such as the Negrito, Austrich, Kiratas, Aryans etc. The progression of Indian languages from Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, and Apbhransha to modern Indo-Aryan languages in north India, according to their opinion, was an outcome of cross-influences of specific dialects with which these tribes had migrated to India. Similarly in south India, another set of migrants viz., the Dravidians, laid the foundation of languages, such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam as major along with a host of other minor languages.

            This section is divided into three parts: part A lays down the general outline of the origin of the Indian vernacular;part B deals with roots and early development of each of the major north Indian languages; and part C accounts for the early development of south Indian vernaculars.

(A)  Origin Of The Indian Vernaculars: A General Outline

Some form of language, as a means of communication, might have existed in India in her pre-Harappan age. However, the first definite evidence of a script and writing comes from the Harappan civilization. Various seals, found at different Harappan sites, bear some syllables.  Historians believe these to be a part of a well crafted Harappan script. Unfortunately, till date, historians are not able to decipher this script inspite of plenty of scholarly time, space and energy devoted in its pursuance. The bulk of the earliest deciphered literature pertain to theVedic age (1500-600 B.C.).Commonly termed as the Vedic literature, it includes the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aryanakas and Upnisads. It was followed by an era of classical Sanskrit masterpieces- the RamayanaMahabharata and a series of the Puranic literature. Simultaneously, plenty of literature was written in other languages, as well, viz., Pali, Prakrit, Tamil etc. Thence onwards, we find continuity and proliferation of literature in various languages. Some of the prominent linguists have tried to search the roots of the north Indian vernaculars in the large scale tribal migration from West Asia from about 2500 B.C., to different parts of Asia and Europe.One of  its  branch migrated to North Asia and laid there the foundation of Semite group of languages. The other migrated to Europe and developed there languages such as Greek, German, French, English and others. Yet another branch migrated to South Asia , entered the North-Western India around 1500B.C.,.and developed Sanskrit, the oldest of known Indian languages. On the basis of common roots of origination, dialectic and phonetic similarities, these languages are put in the family of Indo-Europian languages. The North Indian vernaculars have been given a comprehensive name-the Indo-Aryan languages.                                                                                                                       India, south of the Vindhyas, has also witnessed origin and gradual development of vernacular languages. Of these Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam constitute major dialects. Others like Tulu, Kodgu, Kopta, Kurukh, Malto, Gondi, Kui, Kullami and Brahui are some of the minor dialects developed therein. Linguistically, these languages have been put under three categories viz., Dravidian, Andhra and Brahui. The Dravidian languages include Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam along with a host of minor languages on the basis of common origination i.e. Tamil. The Kannada is the principal dialect of the Andhra languages along with some minor languages. Brahui developed independent of these. Historians, however, put these languages in one category viz., the Dravidian languages.

(B)  Early Development of North Indian Vernaculars

Sanskrit, the oldest of the Indian vernacular languages, remained in circulation between the fifteenth and eighth century B.C., as Vediki. It developed three major regional variants viz., the north-eastern, middle and eastern Vediki. It was followed by an era of refined Sanskrit between the eighth and fifth century B.C. This phase continued with the three major regional variants of the previous era. Due to excessive complications and classicism, which gradually crept in this language and its literature, it no longer remained a language and medium of literary expressions of common people. The next phase of vernacular development, therefore, witnessed a bifurcation of language in classical Sanskrit, used exclusively by the contemporary elitist formation in both speech and writing formats, on one hand, and Pali, a simpler and much less complicated dialect and literary medium, used by the contemporary people in general, on the other hand.This phase remained in circulation between the fifth century B.C to the beginning of the Christian era. During this phase, another regional variant i.e. the southern, came to be added to the already existing three such variants, as mentioned above.

Pali, gradually, gave way to a modified dialect, namely the Prakrit. Its marked domination as the principal dialect continued between the first and fifth century A.D. However, between the fifth and tenth century A.D., Prakrit developed Apbhransha (corrupted form) of all its four regional variants. Therefore this era is called as the age of Apbharansha. Finally, from the tenth century onwards, the modern Indo-Aryan languages began to develop from the four regional Apbhranshas.

Let us now analyze, in brief, the beginning and early developments of each of the north Indian vernaculars along with its prototypes. The origin and development of the modern Indo-Aryan languages, In particular, may well be comprehended through the following chart.





(A.D. 500-1000 )

Modern Indo-Aryan Languages

(A.D. 1000-Till present

1. Sindh




2. Multan and adjoining region



Lehanda/Multani (Western Punjabi)

3. Modern Punjab




4. Madhya Pradesh



Gujarati, Rajasthani western (Paschimi) Hindi, Pahari

5. Awadh



Purvi (Eastern) Hindi

6. Eastern India



Bihari, Assamese, Bangla & Oriya

7. Maharashtra




Source: Bholanath Tiwari, 'Bhartiya Bhashaon Ka Udbhava Aur Vikas', in Dr. Nagendra (ed.), Bhartiya Sahitya ka Samekit Itihas, p.79, Hindi Madhyam Karyanvaya Nideshalaya, Delhi University., 1989



            Prakrit emerged as a dialect, different from Sanskrit, as early as the Vedic age. By the time of the Buddha, the masses began to speak this language, which was a much simpler language in comparison to Sanskrit. Gradually, several associated dialects developed from Prakrit, such as Pali, Magadhi, Ardha-Magadhi, Sauraseni, Maharashtri etc.. Pali is one of the important variants of the early Prakrit. Spoken probably in the region of Sanchi and Ujjaini, it became the language of the Sthaviravadin Buddhism. Magadhi was the official language of the Mauryan court. The majority of the Ashokan edicts were inscribed in this language. The Ardha-Magadhi, probably a later hybrid of Magadhi under the influence of the western Prakrit, eventually, became the sacred language of Jaina monks. Sauraseni, a dialect originally from the western Uttar Pradesh, was particularly used in drama for the speech of women and respectable people of the lower orders. Maharashtri was spoken in the north-western Deccan. It was primarily a literary language, especially, popular for lyrical songs.

1.                  Apbhransha

It was essentially a vernacular of the western India. Some of its features have been noted in the Panchatantra of Bhasa (3rd c.A.D.). Scholars believe that the beginning of the use of this speech may be traced in the drama Sariputraprakarnaof Ashvaghosha. The Mudrarakhshasa of Vishakhadatta also shows familiarity with this language.  The author calls it Dhakki. This vernacular was used by jaina writers of Gujrat and Rajasthan for the composition of their poetry.

2.                  Sindhi

The word Sindhi is connected to Sindh. Etymologists believe that it developed from its original Sid or Sit and began to be referred to the Indus river (Sindhu) and its adjoining tract. The dialect of this region, eventually, came to be referred as Sindhi. As evident from the chart, its prototype existed as Brachada during both the Prakrit and Apbhransha phases. From about  A.D 1000., it began to assume the form of modern Sindhi. Some of the early texts, such as Bharat's Natyashastra(2nd c. A.D.), Chinese travel accounts (7th c.A.D.) and the Kuvalayamala (8th c.A.D.) etc., make sporadic references to Sindhi as a language. It became a regular literary medium from the fourteenth century onwards. 

3.                  Lehanda/Multani (Western Punjabi)

Lehanda literally means west or sunset. It is also, therefore,known as 'Paschimi' (Western). It developed as the principal dialect of western Punjab (Multan, now in Pakistan). Abul Fazl, in his Ain-i-Akbari, calls this language as Multani. It may be inferred from the chart that it developed from its prototype-Kekay, through the Prakrit and Apbhransha Phases.

4.                  Punjabi

The term originated from the Persian word Punjab, meaning 'the region/land of five rivers', (viz., Sutluj, Ravi, Bias, Chenab, and Jhelum). The term Punjabi, therefore, refers to the principal language developed in this region. It is clearly demonstrated in the chart that it developed from its proto-type Takka through its Prakrit and Apbhransha phases. From 1000 A.D. onward, it began to assume its present modern form. Since, the dialect is principally spoken by the Sikh community, it is also known as 'Sikkhi', or 'Khalshi'. Further, on the basis of use of a particular script in this language,it is also known as 'Gurumukhi'. 

5.                  Gujarati

The name Gujarati developed from its original  Gujarat, which in turn, is a modified form of the term 'Gurjara',  one of the branches of the Saka tribe which came to India at about fifth century A.D. From A.D 1000 the name Gujarat began to be applied to the specific territory north and south of the Mount Abu. Surprisingly, the term Gujarati as a language is first used as late as the second half of the seventeenth century by Premanand (1649-1714) in his Dasham Skandha. As is obvious, Gujarati developed from Saurasheni through both the Prakrit and Apbhransha phases. The beginning of Gujarati literature is believed to be from the twelfth century onwards.   

6.                  Rajasthani

Like Gujarati, it also developed through the Saurasheni Prakrit and Apbhransha phases. Linguists believe that the early Rajasthani formed one of the dialect groups of modern Hindi as well. They further point out that some of the hilly dialects, such as Himachali, Kumaoni, Garhwali etc., have originally been developed by the people of Rajasthan after they migrated to these areas.

7.                  Hindi

In its present form, it is a collection of 18 dialects. Its early development is marked by two principal forms viz., the western (Gujarati & Rajasthani variants) and the eastern (in the variants of Bengali, Assamese and Oriya) Hindi. It also developed in the form of Pahari Hindi, with Nepali being the dominant language of this group.

Of the 18 dialects, three viz., the Khariboli, Brajbhasha and Awadhi are particularly notable from the perspective of commendable literature these developed and thereby immensely contributed to the growth of modern Hindi. The Khariboli originated at around A.D 100  from a local dialect called Kauravi, particularly spoken in Meerut and adjoining region. Components of other dialects, such as Bangla, Punjabi, Braj etc., may also be found in it in their original or modified forms. Some eminent literary personalities like Gorakhnath, Amir Khushrau, Ramananda, Kabir, Raidas and Namdev etc., extensively used Khariboli in their writings.

The Brajbhasha also developed from Saurasheni Apbhransha. The term 'Braja' literally means pasture land, symbolizing the western Ganga - Yamuna Doab. The language developed therein, eventually, employed the same term as its name. Some of the finest early literary specimen of this language may be seen in the writings of Surdas, Nandadas, Narottamdas, Nabhadas, Keshavadas, Raskhan, Bihari, Bhushan, Deva, Ghanananda etc.

Awadhi, also known as the eastern Hindi, originated from 'Koshali, the local dialect of Koshal (one of the Sixteen Janapadas around 6th c. B.C.). Conventionally, it is believed to have originated from Ardha-Magadhi. The earliest traces of Awadhi is found in a group of inscriptions between 200 B.C. and A.D 100, namely Sohgaura, Sarnath, Rumindei, Khairagarh etc. Hemachandra, Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Kabir, Tulsidas etc., were some of the prominent literary figures who used Awadhi in their writings.   

8.                  Bangla (Bengali)

Etymologically, the term originated from Banga, the ancient name of Bengal. It developed through the Prakrit and Apbhransha eastern Magadhi. Bengali is also variously known as 'Gaudi', 'Prakrit', 'Magadhi', 'Gaulli', etc. It is quoted as 'Gaulli' in the Kuvalayamala,the Eighth century text. The modern Bangla developed as a language from 1000 A.D. It became a literary medium from the twelfth century onwards. 

9.                  Assamese

Assamese is the principal dialect of Assam. The name Assam (previously also known as Pragjyotishpur and kamarupa) is believed to have its root in its medieval Kingdom founded by the Ahom tribe. From Ahom, developed Assam and from the latter, developed the name of the principal dialect of this region. The Assamese originated from the north-eastern Apbhransha of Magadhi. The earliest traces of writing in Assamese appear in the Prahladacharita, of Hema Saraswati.   

10.              Oriya

It developed from the southern apbhransha of Magadhi. It is the principal dialect of Orissa and certain portions of Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. It is also variously known as 'Odiya', 'Utkali', and 'Odri'. It is referred as 'Udra' in Bharat's Natyashastra (2nd c. A.D.). The first instance of its use as a modern language is found in the Urgama inscription (105 A.D.) of Anantavarman.

11.              Kashmiri

Linguists believe that along with the Aryans, another sub-branch of the Indo-European family had entered India through a place called Chitral and settled in Kashmir and the adjoining region of Gilgit and Dardistan. Kashmiri language, according to these scholars, developed from its root Darad Paishachi, the language developed in this region. Darad Paishachi developed into paishachi Prakrit, which in turn, entered the next stage of evolution as Paishachi Apbhransha. Eventually, from about the twelfth century A.D., the modern Kashmiri began to assume its present form.

12.              Marathi

The word developed from its root Maharashtri. It was the principal dialect of the present Maharashtra in its Prakrit and Apbhransha variants, between the first to tenth century A.D. The earliest reference to Marathi as a language is found in theKuvalayamala. Subsequently, it has developed nearly 39 dialects and sub-dialects. Konkani is probably one of the most important of these dialects, although it has almost assumed the status of an independent language in recent years. Marathi became a medium of literature from the twelfth century onwards.

(C) Rise and Development of South Indian Vernacular Languages

            As we have noted above, south Indian vernacular languages comprise major dialects like Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam, along with a number of minor dialects. Tamil is spoken principally in the region from Cape Comorin to Chitoor; Kannada in Mysore and parts of Hyderabad; Telugu, from Chennai northward to the border of Orissa; and Malayalam in Malabar (Kerala).

1. Tamil Tamil is the oldest of the Dravidian languages. In its literal sense, the word Tamil symbolizes sweet attribute of this language. It is also known as Urva and Malabar. The vast literature produced in south India around the beginning of the Christian era as a result of the three Sangam (assembly of Tamil poets], is the first major literary specimen of Tamil. TheTolkapiyam, (2nd c. A.D) text on grammar, refers Tamil in a definite sense of language. As it is indicated elsewhere, this langauge is not treated in this chapter in detail, for reasons already been explained.

2. Kannada It is also known as Karnat, Karnataki, Kannadi, Kanari, Kenara, etc. Some of the early texts e.g., theMahabharata,   and the Paishachi Brihatkatha of Gunadhya use some of the above-mentioned names for this language. Etymological root of the term Kannada is somewhat disputed. It has been interpreted as the region of 'black soil', 'fragrance', or 'high attitude'. The earliest specimen of Kannada is found in a prose rock inscription found at Halmidi.

3. Telugu Linguists argue that Telugu has originated from Andhra group of dialects. The term Andhra has been referred in the context of a tribe of this locality in some of the early texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The etymological root of Telugu is also disputed. Some scholars believe it originated from the word Trilinga i.e. three hills, symbolizing Kaleshwar, Shrishella and Mimeshwara which formed the boundary of Andhra Pradesh. Some other scholars believe that it is the modified form of the word Telugu which literally means southern language. The earliest use of Telugu may be noticed in some seventh century rock inscriptions of this region. Regular literature began to be produced in this medium only from the twelfth century A.D. onwards.

4. Malayalam Originally, Malayalam remained an integral part of Tamil for long. It was from the fourth century onwards that it began a gradual branching off from Tamil. The term Malayalam literally means hilly region. A good part of its vocabulary still is indistinguishable from the early Tamil roots. Of the prominent south Indian languages, it has been the last to begin literary activities. 


1.Which among the following was the official language of the Mauryan court?

(a)Sauraseni   (b) Magadhi    (c) Maharashtri    (d) Pali.

2. Which of the following has been called as Multani by Abul Fazl

  in his Ain-I Akbari ?

  (a) Sindhi     (b) Hindi         (c) Lehanda          (d) Gujarati.

3. Which one among the following is associated to Kauravi,a local dialect spoken in Meerut?

    (a) the Khariboli  (b)  Brajbhasha   (c)  Awadhi   (d)  Aadhunik Hindi.

4. Which one among the following has its roots in Darad Paishachi?

     (a) Marathi   (b) Kashmiri    (c) Oriya          (d) Bangla.

5. Which one of the following south Indian languages was the last to begin literary activities? 

a) Telugu   (b) Kannada     (c) Malayalam    (d) Tamil.