On language diversity in India – North vs South

Language remains a bone of contention within Indian discourse, and much of it surrounds the North Indian insistence on Hindi (more specifically Khariboli, the high prestige dialect of Hindi spoken traditionally in the region around Delhi) versus the Southern insistence on lingual diversity and the immense pride in regional lingual traditions (be it Tamil, Kannada or Telugu)

But the fundamental divide is this –

Lingual diversity in North India is significantly lower than in the Deccan, which creates fundamental differences in the attitudes towards lingua franca like Khariboli

Roughly 450 million people from Bikaner to Jamshedpur speak similar tongues Yet the 60 million people in Karnataka can barely follow the 70 million people in TN

The reason Khariboli in my view established itself as the primary lingua franca of the North Indian plain is because the differences across the various languages spoken from Panipat to Gaya were not as massive to start with. Clearly smaller than the differences between say Telugu and Tamil.

But why is that? One obvious proximate reason –

South had regional polities unlike North where Empires spanned the whole Indo-Gangetic plain, driving greater homogeneity in the spoken Prakrits.

But what are the underlying reasons for the greater political unity of North India?

    • The Northern terrain is more uniform, unlike South which is a plateau. Also the nature of the terrain varies a lot down south. E.g. Tamil Nadu is clearly a plain, while neighboring Kerala is hill country and Karnataka is an elevated plateau. This perhaps limited social intercourse of people in ancient times.
    • In the North we have the great Ganges river. The Ganga-Jamuna river system unites the land, linking the whole expanse of land through maritime commerce.  South has no such single river system but separate provincial rivers like Krishna, Godavari in AP, Kaveri in Karnataka and TN.
    • North India was setted earlier by the Indo-Aryans. Its proto-historical period can be conservatively dated to 1500-1000 BCE. In contrast, Southern India emerges out of pre-history much later towards the beginning of the Common era. The earlier settlement meant that the Gangetic plain is significantly denser and also uniformly dense. E.g. UP’s density is over 800 per sq. km, while Bihar is at 1100. Whereas in the South, there is greater variation in population density. Tamil Nadu is at 550 per sq.km, Kerala is 800+, while Karnataka and Andhra are significantly less dense (around 300).. The higher and more uniform density up north perhaps contributed to a more homogeneous lingual culture.

But the last hypothesis is unsatisfactory. It leaves us with the question – Why didn’t the less dense and more isolated parts of North India (Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh evolve distinct regional cultures? Having said that, it must be noted that the relatively denser parts of these two states – Malwa and Mewar are culturally closer to the Gangetic mainstream culture than other parts of these provinces where we do see greater variation in dialect (E.g. Marwar)

I feel the vastly different levels of lingual diversity between the Northern plains and Deccan impact how the discourse is conducted today on the issue of Hindi and Khariboli.

The “typical” North Indian argument underrates the diversity down south. And hence goes like this –

Hey. We are Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri speakers. We don’t mind our differences, and have chosen to embrace Khariboli as the “standard” tongue. Why can’t you southerners do so as well?

The “typical” South Indian argument overstates the lingual diversity up north.

Hey..why are you guys adopting Khariboli without resistance. Why have you guys given up on Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri? Get a spine!

Both sides in my view get it wrong. Northerners understate lingual diversity down south. Southerners overstate lingual diversity up north. This is at the root of most culture wars around language

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish

46 thoughts on “On language diversity in India – North vs South”

  1. Using Hindi is a posh thing to do in UP. People think of Bhojpuri speakers as uncouth and language only spoken by grandmothers (not even grandfathers).
    There are exceptions though, my entire family speaks in Bhojpuri. In fact the entire Bhaiyya area that I live in Mumbai speaks in Bhojpuri.
    But there are some convenience issues too – for e.g.: A Marathi and a Bhaiyya in Mumbai would speak in Hindi (as a compromise between Bhojpuri and Marathi).
    Bhojpuri cinema and songs being vulgar also doesn’t help. But Bhojpuri/Maithili/Magahi might be a fairing well as compared to Awadhi/Braj. Don’t know much about Rajasthani languages though.

    1. Rajasthanis really love Hindi. But I believe their native languages are quite hardy in rural areas, which still constitute the majority of the people. Still, it’s so easy to hybridize or water Rajasthani languages down with Hindi (really similar grammar), that I wouldn’t be surprised if in 100 years, they really do become just “dialects” or “flavors” of Hindi (plus there’s no barrier to doing this, as Rajasthani languages are already widely confused as being rustic dialects of Hindi, even by native speakers). In an alternate world, this could have been the fate of Punjabi too, which incidentally is even closer to Hindi than Marwari or Merwari by both descent as well as lexically. Politics has kept Punjabi separate, but maintained Rajasthani under Hindi’s yoke. Personally as someone of Marwari background, I’m not really going to mourn Marwari. Hindi is a close enough language, with the added clout of 100s of millions of people.

  2. “ But what are the underlying reasons for the greater political unity of North India? “

    One word. “Hindu-dom”.

  3. From Pakistan Punjab to Bengal dialectical changes are gradual and easy to coagulate around a prestige /power dialect . In the south Dialectical changes are abrupt. If you go 10 miles from the border of Tamilnadu/Andhra there will be mutual lack of comprehension. Even these border areas people understand otehr language due to trade and actual other dialect speakers who are native.
    That is why ‘dravidian unity’ is a pie in the sky. But due to social institutions and similar attitudes there is some kind of unity which people feel. I have come across people fom Andhra or Karnataka, speaking to me about ‘we south indians’
    About Srikanth’s supposed south Indian argument of ‘hy are you guys adopting Khariboli without resistance. Why have you guys given up on Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri? Get a spine! – that is completely political which has been kicked up the last few years by language agitators. Otherwise even educated people hardly know there are dialectical variations within Hindi area. This argument coming from Tamil language agitators I cosnider dissimulation , as dialectical variations within Tamil diachronically and synchronically are high and there is a huge diglossia

    It is an interesting historical phenomenon , south indian languages differentiated more sharply than IA

  4. People in Bihar can understand what a Pakistani politician is saying in their parliament , urdu not withstanding, , wheras a Kannidiga can’t understand what a Tamil pol says in TN Assembly

    1. Agree…

      That’s precisely what I was dwelling on in the blogpost.

      The discontinuity and the sharp diversity down south. What explains that…

      Regional polities historically can explain it. But what is the underlying reason for that. Suggested a few hypotheses in the post

    2. This is not totally correct. A kannadiga will understand 50% of a Tamil monologue. It’s rather close to home.

        1. Yes, if they are new born babies. Otherwise there is a very sustained engagement – tourism, movies, business links. I know people in Telangana who start understanding Tamil nuances on the basis of watching just 1 movie.

          Shouldn’t negate comprehension ability of people to pursue a narrative…

          1. That way you pick up cues on any culture in the world with exposure…

            My point is – a random guy from say Udupi if placed in Madras, won’t be able to follow a thing

      1. Tamil and Malayalam are very close like German and Dutch; I can understand many individual words , and many subparts of sentenses, even then I can’t make out a single spoken sentence esp if it is longer. True , roots of many words are the same in SI langs, but inflections, syntax, tense , stress , word order are central ingridients in a language. That is where they differ among each other vastly and make them mutually incomprehensible.
        For example, I can understand many words as they are identical to Tamil – and dialects of some Kerala tribals is closer to Tamil even in this

        1. I’ve always found that it’s easier for Malayalis to understand Tamil than for Tamils to understand Malayalam. Grew up speaking a hybrid of both at home, so now it’s hard to speak the proper versions of either, but can understand both.

      2. I wish this were true, have loads of tamil friends and I’m lost (albeit not as completely as with malayalam). As Srikant says, the bangalore/mysore people are different. Is it obvious that the languages have deep similarity? I would say yes. If tamil were transliterated into the roman alphabet then I’d agree with you more about being able to understand half a monologue. It’s sort of like reading french versus understanding spoken vernacular.

  5. \ few hypotheses in the post\
    One more . Hinduism allows more biodiversity , that includes language/dialects ( thanks Wendy) . So SI is ‘more Hindu’ as someone is fond of using the term. Centralised rule over north India , and Muslim rule added to the linguistic centralisation – which continues today.

    1. “So SI is ‘more Hindu’ as someone is fond of using the term.”

      Yeah , i mean sure, Dravidians agree with that assessment .LOL

          1. what tipped the scales in the 67 election was the anti-Hindi Imposition agitations in 1965 which was widespread and Congress was firmly in the pro-Hindi camp obeying the High Command. So for 60 years it has been ruled by dravidian parties. So many parties feel taking a stand against Hindi is a winning formula for elctions , even though Hindi has made inroads in various ways. Even Congress and Communists have sold themsleves to dravidian ideology

          2. “Even Congress and Communists have sold themsleves to dravidian ideology”

            Commie, Dravidian and Congress are all the same

          3. \Commie, Dravidian and Congress are all the same\
            They are and were not the same. I wrote ‘sold’ deliberately as CPM recived Rs 15 crores from DMK – as per DMK Returns to election commission. As the Englsih say, one who pays the piper calls the tune. Congress in Tamilnadu is pathetic. DMK grew by pouring tons of shit on Congress and congress leaders . Yet the latter make their genufluxions to DMK and it’s ideas. The loss of Congress morale is so bad. If you don’t differentiate from the political ideas of a party completely, and without compromise , you lose your credibility. When things change, you won’t be there as a credible alternative. The Tamilnadu congress is controlled by rich industrialists like Chidambaram and their main concern is to run their family businesses; they don’t have ideological committment. Chidambaram may be an able man or even able finance minister , but he can’t build/maintain a grassroots organization The Dynasty control does not help

  6. This is a question of eidology. The linguistic nationalists you see in the south are outraging over the invasion of “uncouth and illiterate ” cultures. This is one of the spillovers of the BIMARU characterization. To put it bluntly, there is no glamour in learning the languages of the poor. Just like that Eastern European languages are not considered to be aspirational. Russian maybe, the rest, no chance.

    In the past, there was no such hesitation in adopting Sanskrit. Many kings and empires regularly commissioned works in Sanskrit by South Indians. Sayana, for example.

    Fix your living standards and Hindi will sell itself. I know Hindi quite fluently.

    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavs
      Throughout their history, Slavs came into contact with non-Slavic groups. In the postulated homeland region (present-day Ukraine), they had contacts with the Iranian Sarmatians and the Germanic Goths. After their subsequent spread, the Slavs began assimilating non-Slavic peoples.

  7. Lot of it ties into geography.

    Traditionally in peninsular India the coastal regions were more densely populated (and they still are). The west coast is separated from the east coast by the Western Ghats, Deccan Plateau, and Easter Ghats. Major rivers put some hindrance on north/south connectivity.

    Like people don’t always realize that TN and Kerala, for example, are separated by a mountain range that’s 2km high. That kind of geography will lead to differences emerging as compared to a vast plain. Empires, cultures, etc. travel quick in a vast plain. But when there are geographic impediments, it’s harder.

    It’s kind of like China, I think, where Mandarin spread quickly across the Northern Plains but the South with its mountains and valleys preserved more distinct languages like Cantonese.

  8. Hinduism/India frays outside its core regions (North-India), especially in its border areas, ‘march’-lands. Punjab-Sindh-Kashmir-Bengal-North East- Deccan.

    Outside of Deccan almost all regions had another ideology (Islam/Christianity/Sikhism) which exploited this fraying , thus changing the religious/cultural demography. The South was shielded by the oceans, so saved, not entirely if u look at their coasts but still.

    Language/Dravidian-ism that ideology of the south, not potent or deep enough like Islam or Christianity, but still does the job. In Places like Bengal its both language (West) and religion(East) which would act as the wedge to separate it from India.

    1. The west coast plains in peninsular India is very diverse in terms of religion. Can’t think of a significant city from Mumbai to Thiruvananthapuram (incl Kochi, Kozhikode, Mangaluru, Goa) with a 70%+ Hindu population. Might be the most religiously diverse region of the country outside of Northeast India.

      The east coast plains on the other hand are the exact opposite; overwhelmingly identifies as Hindu for the most part from Pondicherry to Bhubaneshwar (Chennai probably lowest at ~80% Hindu, most other places high 80s low 90s).

      The Deccan Plateau seems more representative of national demographics in terms of religion.

      Not making any argument, just adding some info to the discussion.

  9. Srikant, can we consider proto-south dravidian divergence at an earlier date than shauraseni prakrit as the main reason? For the former, 500BC, if not earlier, and for the latter perhaps 800AD or so.
    As for the descendants of magadhi and maharashtri, while not as strident in asserting distinction on linguistic grounds alone, are still a degree more circumspect about hindi, and unlikely to ever let it assimilate them.
    Something you may or may not agree with, but much of what kannada, telugu, and tamil/malayalam have in common are not just dravidian cognates, but sanskrit words. Kannada, Telugu, and even Marathi employ and pronounce sanskrit vocabulary in similar ways making it possible to decipher bits of formal usage.
    Lastly, an irony in my mind, is that a south indian who knows mothertongue + hindi can probably piece together more gujarati or even bengali based on approximation than with another dravidian language. Not universally true of course, and Tamil/Malayalam have greater proximity with each other. I do think knowing one dravidian language aids in learning another, but doesn’t guarantee baseline comprehension whatsoever.

  10. Lot of it ties into geography.

    pretty obvious this is key

    as usual readers talk about india as if it exists sui generis. all over the world the more rugged the territory the more linguistic diversity, all things equal (caucasus are key, but look at dialect areas in se china or in italian mountain areas).

  11. As an ethnic Tamil/Malayalam with a penchant for history, here are some of my views:

    * South India was not a part of many North Indian kingdoms and empires. Of course, there were times that a part of the Deccan Plateau would be consumed by a ruler, but it seemed that these parts were just consumed as an after-thought. So North India kind of acted like a monolith.

    * I believe that the Delhi government, even prior to 1947, standardized Hindi/Urdu, and there was no standardization of the South Indian languages. The Lithuanians and Icelandic governments made their language more “pure” about a century ago with the Lithuanians using as many “pure” Baltic words. The Icelandic government implemented changes to make their language as conservative as possible. Because of this governmentally imposed artificial selection on their languages, Lithuanian language is the world’s most conserved PIE language and Icelandic is the most conserved Germanic language.

    * If anything, they’d probably be encouraged to diverge even more. The Soviets encouraged the fragmentation of all their Turkic speakers. Same way, the government in Delhi isn’t trying to unite the Southern Indian states.

    * There are some excellent points here that because of the topography of the North, they are able to have one linguistic continuum, but in the South, this isn’t the case. I’m amazed by this.

    Here are some ideas that I have to foster more understanding between the states: Why not the Southern States adopt one script? Maybe a modified Devanagiri Script to communicate in their own language? I’m convinced that this would help foster the understanding of SOME texts between the 5 Southern States, in much the same way that I can make sense of a Hungarian sign, even though I don’t speak Magyari.

    * Finally, I read here that South Indian languages diverged much more than did North Indian languages. I don’t know what to say about this. As a South Indian, I think that Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam are quite similar, especially Tamil and Malayalam. Tamil is also similar to Kannada as well. Telegu is recognizably Dravidian. I personally think that Tamil is MUCH more similar to Kannada than English is to German, even though Tamil and Kannada diverged from some proto-Tamil-Kannada-Malayalam language spoken about 1500 BC – 300 BC (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil%E2%80%93Kannada_languages) and English and German diverged from some proto-English-West German language around 500 AD. Keep in mind that Old English and German languages, even the Viking languages, were mutually intelligible in 800 AD, because Vikings (who spoke a Northern Germanic dialect) and the Olde Anglanders (who spoke a Western Germanic dialect) could communicate without a translator. This means that an Olde Anglander and a German could understand one another even better, perhaps even in the year 1100 AD. Today, I’m trying to learn German and I can’t understand a damn thing when they talk.

    1. I am not talking of technical similarities that may be apparent to a linguist, or someone who knows multiple SI languages and does a comparative study.

      In terms of comprehension, the four southern languages are mutually incomprehensible, if you have no prior exposure.

      Except Malayalam-Tamil to a v v limited extent

      1. @Srikanth

        You make this point again and again. It’s not true just because you want to drive a narrative.

        A Telugu speaker can read Kannada script very easily. It’s the same except for 5 consonants. Malayalees can understand Tamil totally. And Kannadigas are semi Tamil aware.

        1. Script and language are totally different things…

          I can read many European languages written in Roman script without understanding a word.

          Malayalam – Tamil I did acknowledge partly

          Kannadigas are Tamil-aware only because the Bangalore-Mysore region has a large number of tamils

          Kannadigas from small towns (let’s say Udupi or Davanagere) won’t follow a thing in Tamil

          1. This is very true. I am a tamilian from karnataka, born in AP and my wife is Telugu. I can speak Tamil and can follow kannada reasonably well, Malayalam movies are also mostly watchable, but Telugu is a significant challenge, and in spite of a lifetime of exposure – it is much harder for me to follow a telugu movie without subtitles than a bengali movie without subtitles.

      2. Have to disagree a bit. As a Tamil-speaker in Bangalore, I can sort-of get what someone is speaking in Kannada (though some of it is Greek). It’s similar to how I, as a Hindi-speaker, can comprehend Punjabi or Marathi or Bengali to some extent. I’ve noticed local Kannadigas also comprehend my Tamil to some extent (though these days, a lot of people speak some Hindi here, so that’s the langauge I normally communicate in.)

        1. “though these days, a lot of people speak some Hindi here, so that’s the langauge I normally communicate in”

          First they resist , then we win. Welcome 2 Aryavrat 🙂

          1. I speak whatever I think is the truth. Not what I would like to be.

            I am the last person to bat for ethno linguistic group. Just like no one really fights for punjabis in Pakistan. Because North India = most of India anyway. Weaker/ smaller groups fight on ethno linguistic front.

          2. \Because North India = most of India\
            Thanks for presenting an alternative reading of geography/culture/history

        2. Even though SI languages are mutually incomprehensible, they are the easiest and fastest to learn . Even if you live among the language speakers for 1 years , you can quickly learn –
          The US goverment trains it’s foreign services staff with foreign languages , and they categorise language acc to ease of learning
          Funnily , Danish, French, Spanish are in cat 1 , while German is in Cat 2 , even though English is a Germanic language.; Hindi/Tamil are in Cat3
          For S.I Lang speakers , other SI langs would be in cat1

      3. I’ve found that most Malayalis can understand conversational Tamil, but not so much the other way around except in places like Kanyakumari, Palakkad.

        1. The dialect of Tamil that we speak is heavily influenced by Malayalam. The way we count sounds identical to Malayalam. We say “wonnu” and “rendu” for “wondru” and “irrendru” like Madurai Tamils. Our diet is also more aligned with Trivandrum, I hear.

  12. They also look different. I can tell if someone is South Indian, even if they are olive/lighter skinned. Northern Indians have a different look to them. I am assuming N.Indians have higher steppe than S.Indians, which makes them look slightly different.

    Sridevi and Hema Malini look very south indian, even though they are olive/lighter complected. Lighter South Indian look is probably due to their high Iran Neolithic ancestry. If you look at Baloch/Brahvi people (who also have a lot of Iran neolithic ancestry), they don’t look that ‘foreign’.

  13. Good Article !

    I think the critical difference between the North and South is not the presence of empires.

    We have had major empires in South India in the last 1500 years – the Early Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas, the Western & Eastern Chalukyas and Vijayanagar.

    I think the critical factors are two :-

    1. The demographic heft of the Gangetic plains – starting from Haryana and ending at Bihar – this is such a massive region demographically where more than 300 million people speak Hindi. Ofcourse, MP has another 60 million odd Hindi speakers.The other language speakers are simply dwarfed in nos. Nothing comparable to this asymmetry exists in Peninsular India.

    2. Due to its demographic heft, the Gangetic plains, right from the beginning have remained the crucible for a pan-Indian and pan-North Indian empires and hence also of high culture. The last of the empires, Mughals, patronized Urdu and made it a language of high culture, something the other Indo-Aryan languages did not receive. This language of high culture therefore dominates culturally across North India today through avenues like the Hindi movies, where Urdu/Hindi poetry remains a cornerstone.

    So a massive demographic heft combined with being a language of high culture has led to the dominance of Hindi in North India.

    The lack of appeal for Hindi in South India is also due to the fact that in the last millennium and more, culturally North and South India, have drifted apart. While in previous eras, religion and the language of Sanskrit united the North and the South, in the last millennium North India was administered in the Persian language by rulers of Islamic faith. Modern Hindi is a product of that environment and therefore finds no great resonance down South. No such reservations exist for Sanskrit, an ancient North Indian language, because it is so deeply interwoven in the fabric of life in South India since millenia.

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