The 1961 census recorded 1,652 different languages and dialects in India; one state alone, Madhya Pradesh, had 377. There are officially 211 separate, distinct languages, of which Hindi, English, and 15 regional languages are officially recognized by the constitution. There are 24 languages that are each spoken by a million or more persons.
The most important speech group, culturally and numerically, is the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European family, consisting of languages that are derived from Sanskrit. Hindi, spoken as the mother tongue by about 240 million people (30% of the total population) in 1999, is the principal language in this family. Urdu differs from Hindi in being written in the Arabic-Farsi script and containing a large mixture of Arabic and Farsi words. Western Hindi, Eastern Hindi, Bihari, and Pahari are recognized separate Hindi dialects. Other Indo-Aryan languages include Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kashmiri, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Rajasthani, and Sindhi. Languages of Dravidian stock are dominant in southern India and include Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam. A few tribal languages of eastern India, such as Ho and Santali, fit into the aboriginal Munda family, which predates the Dravidian family on the subcontinent. Smaller groups in Assam and the Himalayas speak languages of Mon-Khmer and Tibeto-Chinese origin.
English is spoken as the native tongue by an estimated 10–15 million Indians and is widely employed in government, education, science, communications, and industry; it is often a second or third language of the educated classes. Although Hindi in Devanagari script is the official language, English is also recognized for official purposes. According to government policy, Hindi is the national language; for that reason, Hindi instruction in non-Hindi areas is being rapidly increased, and large numbers of scientific and other modern words are being added to its vocabulary. However, there has been considerable resistance to the adoption of Hindi in the Dravidian-language areas of southern India, as well as in some of the Indo-Aryan-speaking areas, especially West Bengal.
The importance of regional languages was well demonstrated in 1956, when the states were reorganized along linguistic boundaries. Thus, multilingual Hyderabad state was abolished by giving its Marathi-speaking sections to Mumbai (formerly Bombay, now in Maharashtra), its Telugu sections to Andhra Pradesh, and its Kannada sections to Mysore (now Karnataka). The Malayalam-speaking areas of Madras were united with Travancore-Cochin to form a single Malayalam state, Kerala. Madhya Bharat, Bhopal, and Vindhya Pradesh, three small Hindi-speaking states, were given to Madhya Pradesh, a large Hindi state, which, at the same time, lost its southern Marathi areas to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) state. Many other boundary changes occurred in this reorganization. Mumbai state originally was to have been divided into Gujarati and Marathi linguistic sections but remained as one state largely because of disagreement over which group was to receive the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). In 1960, however, it, too, was split into two states, Gujarat and Maharashtra, on the basis of linguistic boundaries. In 1966, the government of India accepted the demand of the Punjabi-speaking people, mainly Sikhs, to divide the bilingual state of Punjab into two unilingual areas, with the Hindi-speaking area to be known as Haryana and the Punjabi-speaking area to retain the name of Punjab.
India has almost as many forms of script as it has languages. Thus, all of the Dravidian and some of the Indo-Aryan languages have their own distinctive alphabets, which differ greatly in form and appearance. Some languages, such as Hindi, may be written in either of two different scripts. Konkani, a dialect of the west coast, is written in three different scripts in different geographic areas.