What are classical languages, and what does ‘classical language’ mean in the Indian context? Read on to know more about what makes a language classical and brief intros on the six classical languages of India.
A. What Are Classical Languages?
A classical language is a verifiably ancient language that has its own rich literary tradition and is not an offshoot of another parent language.
Some well-known classical languages:
• Old Norse
Check out Wikipedia’s complete list of classical languages here.
B. What Makes a Language Classical?
a) A Brief History
This is a pretty debated topic. Because much of our media happens to be English and in a predominantly Western format, the definition of classical languages for some may still be limited to Greek or Latin – the languages of cultures that are considered the cradle of Western civilization.
Traditionally, European classical studies considered Greek and Latin classical languages. ‘Classical studies’ mean studies of the cultures of the Mediterranean region from around the 8th century B. C. to the 5th century A. D. And those cultures were Greek or Roman.
Ancient languages outside of Western origin have started being considered relatively recently. In 1921, a linguist and anthropologist named Edward Sapir stated in his book ‘Language’: “There are just five languages that have had an overwhelming significance as carriers of culture. They are classical Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek, and Latin.“
Now the above five were considered classical languages.
Interestingly, Sir William Jones in 1786, found Sanskrit’s grammar similar to Greek and Latin and put forward his belief that all three probably had “some common source that no longer exists.”
b) Criteria for Classical Languages
To be classical, a language must be ancient. No standard decides what ancient is specifically, but any language that was fully developed, in literary use before the 5th century can be called ancient.
It has to have literary sources dating back to ancient times, and a developed literature of its own.
A classical language would also have to be of independent origin, i.e. not derived from any other language. Rather, it could be the predecessor of other languages.
Some might opine that a language must be dead to be classified as classical. “Living” languages are just called ‘world languages’.
But what about the influence the language has? Sanskrit, for example, may not be the mother tongue of Indians anymore, but most North Indian languages are derived from it. Sanskrit is the original, uniting language; the yardstick by which we identify its derived languages. Sanskrit and its literature contributed to the culture of its land, even if it is no longer around to be spoken today, its undeniable influence lives on.
The same could be said for Latin or Greek. English is largely dependent on words borrowed from these, along with a significant chunk from Old Norse, which is the older language of the Scandinavian peoples.
Latin is not spoken but French or Spanish are very much alive today. Similarly to Old Norse, Germanic languages like German, Swedish or Norwegian are still spoken today. Just not in their exact original forms.
To deny the originals would be to erase history and thus, deny people their roots.
C. Indian Classical Languages
a) What Does ‘Classical Indian Languages’ Mean?
In 2004, the Government of India, then represented by Information and Broadcasting Minister Jaipal Reddy declared that a category of classical Indian languages would be created, starting with Tamil.
The Indian government has added six languages so far: Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Odia.
b) Criteria for Classical Indian Languages
The then Minister of Tourism and Culture Ambika Soni, in 2006, laid down the criteria for an Indian language to be considered classical:
• Having early texts of high antiquity or a recorded history over at least 1,500 – 2,000 years. The previously held standard of 2,000 years was later relaxed to 1,500 years;
• A body of ancient texts or literature which multiple generations value as part of their heritage;
• A literary tradition unique to that language which is original and not borrowed from another language;
• Distinction of the classical language and its literature from the modern, and a possible discontinuity between the classical language and its later versions.
c) The Six Classical Languages of India
All of these classical languages are included among the 22 official languages in the eighth schedule of the Indian Constitution.
1. Tamil (தமிழ்)
Tamil was the first to be recognized as a classical language by the Indian government in 2004.
One of the Dravidian languages, (along with Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada), Tamil is an official language in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and Singapore.
Tamil literature has been documented for over 2,000 years. The language can be divided into three phases: Old, Middle and Modern.
Old Tamil used to be written in a variation of the Brahmi script. The current script used in writing Tamil is the Vatteluttu.
Dating back to 300 B. C., the earliest period of Tamil literature is called Sangam Literature. There are inscriptions, a work on grammar and poetics, and a collection of 2,831 poems among others.
Did you know that some words that can be traced to Old Tamil were found in Biblical Hebrew?
2. Sanskrit (संस्कृतम्)
Sanskrit’s widespread influence spread not only throughout India, but all over Southeast Asia, and East Asia. This language is classical by both Indian and international standards.
It was given its place as a classical Indian language in 2005. The oldest form of Sanskrit is Vedic Sanskrit, spoken during the Vedic ages, dating back to 1500 BCE. Between 1500 BCE and 1200 BCE the Rigveda is said to have been composed.
By around 500 BCE, a refined version of Sanskrit had emerged. This form is called Classical Sanskrit, whose comprehensive grammatical system was put down by Panini.
Sanskrit, being the oldest of the classical languages in India, did not have its script and was written in various Brahmic and regional scripts, before Devanagari.
This ancient language’s decline started around the 13th century A. D., which was around the time Islamic invasions began. Whether or not Sanskrit is dead today is debated by scholars.
As a language, Sanskrit can be classified as Indo-Aryan and Indo-European. Its literature spanned subjects from spirituality to science, technical subjects, daily living, drama, poetry and music.
3. Telugu (తెలుగు)
Did you know that Telugu is the 14th most spoken native language in the world and the most widely spoken Dravidian language?
The official language in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is spoken in Karnataka, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and even in parts of Chhattisgarh. Telugu was declared classical in the year 2008.
The ASI estimates there are more than 14,000 inscriptions in Telugu, which makes it one of the most densely inscribed languages.
The Telugu script is derived from the Brahmi Script and was called “Italian of the East” because it has words that end with vowels, like Italian.
4. Kannada (ಕನ್ನಡ)
Kannada, given its classical language status in 2008, is one of India’s oldest surviving languages.
The earliest existing record of Kannada poetry is from the 7th century and the literary work of written literature Kavirajmarga is from the 8th. Kavirajmarga references even older works and an ‘Old Kannada’.
By 1 A. D., Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy mentioned names of places with Kannada names. It is said there had been an oral tradition older than the written alphabet.
The Kannada script originates from the Brahmi script and shares some similarities with the Telugu script.
Not only did ancient works on Kannada grammar and poetics exist, but dictionaries did too – as old as the 9th century!
5. Malayalam (മലയാളം)
Malayalam is the closest relative of the Tamil language and is believed to have its origins in Old Tamil before branching off. It is also a Dravidian language and the official language of Kerala.
The present-day Malayalam script is based on the Vatteluttu script like Tamil. While Malayalam used to be called Tamil until the colonial period, the distinction between the two arose somewhere around the 9th century.
Ramacharitam is the oldest existing distinctly Malayalam work, from the 12th or 13th century.
Malayalam began losing its Tamil influence and taking on a Sanskrit one, their combination used to be called Manipravalam. Modern Malayalam is credited to Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan, though its origin is debated.
It was declared a classical Indian language in 2013.
6. Odia (ଓଡ଼ିଆ)
Odia is the official language of the Indian state of Odisha and the second official language of Jharkhand. This tongue is also spoken by some in Chhattisgarh.
Odia is an Indo-Aryan language, not a Dravidian one, which may surprise a few. Odia as it is today has evolved from Prakrit. Dating back to the 9th century, Odia Prakrit words in inscriptions were found in Sanskrit. Odia was used as a regional script for Sanskrit and is also called the Kalinga script.
The distinctly curved appearance of this classical language is because palm leaves were used for writing and they’d tear if too many straight lines were used. This is also probably one reason much of Odian literature and scripture isn’t found.
The earliest Odian literature featured Buddhist and Hindu themes and evolved into a rich tradition by the 13th century, which became closely tied to Odissi music.
Odia was declared a classical language in 2014.
D. Incentives by the Government of India
The Government of India, after its announcement to deem certain languages classical, also declared the creation of two major international awards for eminent scholars in Indian classical languages.
A Centre of Excellence in Classical Language studies was set up, and Professional Chairs for scholars in these classical Indian languages were required to be set up, at least in Central Universities, by the UGC (University Grants Commission).
This initiative to embrace Indian culture and valuable heritage is laudable and essential to regaining India’s native cultural identity in the post-colonial era.
If you’re interested in learning Indian languages, or any of the above-mentioned six languages in particular, feel free to check out the Language Curry app to start learning!
Hi there! I’m a literature major with a hospitality/management background and a diverse range of interests including but not limited to food, travelling, health, lifestyle, history, philosophy and of course, books 🙂