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 Origin of the Indo-European languages: Part III

Indo-Aryan group, evolution, dialects and kinds of writing


 Introduction: Groups

Hi, this is Andrés Muni. Before starting with this page, I apologize to Indian people if any languages or locations of theirs are incorrectly written. I will try my best. Even though Sanskrit is correct, any Prākṛta's name might not be so well written. If you detect any errors, please click here and help me improve this page.

In Asia, the Indo-European branch is mainly represented by two major groups: Indian and Iranian, which were known a long time before Christian Era. Due to their close linguistic relationships, they are often jointly designated by the name of "Indo-Iranian" or "Aryan".

The word "Arya", from which the name "Iran" is a recent form, is the one that was used by the forefathers of both Indian and Iranian people to name themselves.

Well, let's start our studies of these groups now.

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 Indo-Aryan Group

The oldest Aryan group's documents of India are the Vedic texts. These texts are written in Sanskrit and are impossible to be dated (both their contents and style show they are extremely ancient). Before their being written, they would have been transmitted through oral tradition. That's why Vedic Sanskrit is not, even though it is rigorously established as a religious language, a pure language.

The main background of Vedic Sanskrit is the dialect of the northwestern India (Punjab). It was there mixed with elements proceeding from languages spoken to the East of the region.

The most archaic of the Vedic texts is the Ṛgveda (Veda of praise) --a liturgical collection of hymns--. The Atharvaveda (Veda of Atharvā) --a collection of sorcery formulae, prayers, incantations and enchantments-- has more recent forms.

The texts in prose are much newer: Brāhmaṇa-s (commentaries on the Veda), Upaniṣad-s (philosophical treatises), as well as the great epics in verse (Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa). They all are written in Classic Sanskrit.

The use of Sanskrit as a literary language would indicate that it lost its position as special religious language. This transformation happened later on.

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 Evolution

For example, regarding Classic Sanskrit, there is an ancient inscription which was found in Girnar and dates from 150 BC. Its author was a foreigner by the name of Rudradāma, king of the Śaka-s. Since the fourth century A.D., Sanskrit became the only language of the official epigraphy.

Established as a language by the work of numerous grammarians (of course, the most celebrated of them all is Pāṇini --fourth century BC--), the Classic Sanskrit has kept its condition of literary and scientific language so far.

The most immense literature (lyrical, narrative, dramatic, philosophical, technical, etc.) is written in Sanskrit. Even now, Sanskrit is occasionally used by paṇḍita-s (brāhmaṇa-s well conversant with the religious science) of different parts of India to communicate with one another (likewise Latin language was used in medieval Europe).

Despite the rigorous pronunciation and grammatical forms, Sanskrit never stood completely aloof from the action of the living languages. These constantly supplied the vocabulary with new forms, as the use of Sanskrit spread toward East and South.

A long time before Sanskrit ceased being reserved for religious uses exclusively, common languages (which were derived from a linguistic form not very different from that one which gave rise to Sanskrit) developed in India. These common languages are known as Prākṛta-s. However, the first dated documents of the Aryan languages of India are the inscriptions of king Aśoka (third century BC). They are disseminated in various Indian regions and show, according to the places, remarkable dialectal differences.

Prākṛta-s are generally designated by using the name of a region. For example:

Śaurasenī language of Śūrasena
(region of Mathurā, commonly called Muttra)
Māgadhī language of Magadha (region of Patna)
Māhārāṣṭrī, commonly called Marāṭhī language of Mahārāṣṭra
(country of the Marāṭha-s, commonly called Mahratta-s)

Nevertheless, there are not necessarily a local dialect as a basis of every Prākṛta language. Prākṛta-s are literary languages that have been polished and established artificially by theorists (likewise the Doric in the chorus of the Greek tragedy). Their particularities are neither completely unreal nor absolutely in accordance with the reality of the spoken language.

Some of them show a mixture in which the reminiscences of Sanskrit are predominant. Thus, Paiśācī, although based on a northwestern language, only reproduces in itself some dialectal characteristics. Guṇāḍhya, the one who established it, did not lose sight of the Sanskrit rules.

Independently of the Prākṛta-s, the Deśabhāsā-s (regional languages) and Grāmyabhāsā-s (local languages) continued to develop. They gave rise to the written language called Apabhraṁśa by the grammarians. Even though this language is often mistaken for a Prākṛta, it was originally an intermediate form between the local languages and the Prākṛta-s.

At the side of the literary languages, some religious languages existed in India. The most celebrated is Pāli. The Buddhist canon preserved in Ceylon was written in Pāli (first century BC). Its origin is surely continental, but its source is difficult to be traced back because it is not homogeneous. Its essential elements proceed from the region of Mālva (northern Indore), but lots of heterogeneous elements have been added to it. Pāli has kept its position as one of the religious languages of Buddhism

In turn, language of the Jains has also attained to the position of religious language. The main language of the Jains was born in Magadha (where the Jainist canon was written). This language was transported when the center of this region moved to Deccan and Gujarat, and it adopted certain characters that bring it closer to Māharāṣṭrī.

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 Dialects

Over the vast Indo-Aryan domain several dialectal groups are to be highlighted:

Northwestern region (Himalayan dialects)
West Veron and the dialects of the Kafiristan
Middle Khowar, spoken in the valley of Chitral
East Dialects of the upper course of Ganges
Kashmir
Kashmiri This language was used as a literary language. It is steepped in Iranian and Sanskrit elements.

And the rest of the dialects belonging to the Indo-Aryan domain may be sorted as follows

Western Group: In descending the course of Indus, you face the Lahnda dialect. Then, from the confluence of Indus and Panjnad, you find the Sindhi dialect (its meridional representant, called Laru, was used as a literary language). Along the coast, you find Gujarātī (which has a literature since the fifteenth century A.D.); and afterward you face Marāṭhī, which spreads down to the southern boundaries of the Indo-Aryan domain. The oldest epigaphic documents in Marāṭhī date from the beginning of the twelfth century A.D.. There is a rich poetic literature in Marāṭhī.

From there, when you move to the East, you discover a series of dialects which are in a middle position between Gujarātī and Hindustānī: These are the Bhil dialects and the Rajasthānī dialects.

Central Group: It comprises Punjabi, Pahari (which even reaches the Tibetan-Burmese region), western Hindī, eastern Hindī and Bihari. These last three comprise numerous dialects:

Western Hindī Hindustānī is its main dialect
Eastern Hindī Awadi is its main dialect
Bihari Bhojpuri, Magahi and Maithili

The birthplace of Hindustānī is situated around Mirat, but it got a position of common language in the bazār (market place) that was dependent on Delhi's court. It spread from there toward northern India. It is a varied language and has a literary form --Urdu--, which is written by using the Arabic alphabet. Besides, Urdu uses plenty of terms that are derived of Persian language. Another literary form of Hindustānī is simply known as Hindī. Hindī is written by using the Indian alphabet and represents a reaction agains Urdu. Hindī is full of terms that are derived from Sanskrit.

Eastern Group: It comprises Bengālī, Oriya and Assamese. The three languages look very much alike, and they all have an ancient literature.

Bengālī is the richest and most beautiful one, but the literary Bengālī has tons of terms that come from Hindī and Sanskrit. The domain of Assamese is located in the valley of Brahmaputra, from eastern Kuch-Behar to Dibrughar.

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 Kinds of writings

Two kinds of writings were used, since the third century A.D, to represent the Indo-European languages. These two are probably Semitic in their origin, but how they were formed is not known exactly. They are as follows:

Brāhmī The most widely-known. It comprises various alphabets and its most usual form is known as Devanāgarī. Alphabets which are derived from Brāhmī may be found throughout Indo-Aryan domain, from North to South, and even in the ancient Indochina.
Karoṣṭhī It is to be found in the northwestern Indo-Aryan domain, and it has not survived. It is written from right to left, while Brāhmī is written from left to right.

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 Concluding remarks

The document is finished now. The subject is huge indeed. This is only the tip of the iceberg. We will keep studying the origin of the Indo-European languages in Part IV. The following is a message addressed to Indian people: My apologies again if I have written any languages and locations of yours in an incorrect way. If you detect any errors, please click here and help me improve this page. Our cultures are so different and so many miles are between us. We are trying to close this breach by using the Web, but it is still difficult to us to understand Indian culture completely. I think that we will enhance our understanding of India in the course of time. Meanwhile, be patient and help us if you wish.

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 Further Information

Andrés Muni

This document was conceived by Andrés Muni, one of the two founders of this site, and conversant with linguistics.

For further information about Sanskrit, Yoga and Indian Philosophy; or if you simply want to comment, ask a question or correct a mistake, feel free to contact us: This is our e-mail address.