Language Development and History, Part I

Credits: Original Post by Airavat Singh on his blog, "Horses and Swords"

The historical evolution of languages helps scholars in writing socio-political history—this is especially true for the Indian continent where the numerous literary and archaeological sources of history were destroyed in the tumultuous Islamic invasions. Additionally, language development is important in studying the migrations of tribes and warrior clans, which provide clues to the changes brought about in military tactics and technologies by these movements.

Unfortunately, the study of Indian languages so far has been dominated by the colonial historians who followed their own racist agenda in making interpretations. Their views have influenced the minds of generations of Indians for the past 200 years. (Note that this article will look only at the dominant language of the times: from ancient Vedic to modern Hindi. The detailed metrics, grammar, and lexicon of these languages are of use only to linguists and can be studied elsewhere. In any case, most of the intervening languages, like the Prakrits and the Apabhramsas, are today extinct. But beyond linguistics, their rise to prominence parallels the politico-military movements in India through the ages, as will be shown here.)

Vedic and Samskrit

There is no name given to the earliest language of India, but for the sake of convenience, it is called Vedic, since the oldest recorded examples of this language are in the ancient Vedic texts[1]. These records are not literal but oral , and it is a great achievement of the ancient Indians and the Brahman families that the exact pronunciation of the language was passed down the generations and preserved over thousands of years.

The time period of the Vedic language covers the growth of urban settlements along the Gujarat coast (3000 BCE), on the banks of great rivers like the Sindhu and the Saraswati, and up to the rise of historic kingdoms (1200 BCE) further east. In such a long period there are bound to be variations in the spoken language and these are evident even in the four books of the Vedas—the Rig Veda having the most archaic form of the language. These variations have fortunately been preserved in an oral form to this day, which means that such preservation of the Vedic language was begun in this later period. Traditional history confirms this finding—it was at the close of the Mahabharat War (fought near Delhi) that Rishi Veda Vyas compiled the Vedic hymns into texts and commanded their preservation down the generations.

After 600 BCE the administrative language in a large part of India was called Prakrit (natural or spoken), which was closely related to Vedic and was considered its spoken form—it may have emerged much earlier since regional variants were apparent even in that Magadhan age. The age of the Prakrits as administrative and literary languages lasts till 800 CE—an almost as long a period as Vedic.

In these fast-changing times, a need was felt for preserving[2] the original language of the Vedas—it was given the name Samskrit (Sanskrit[3]), which means perfect. A distinct grammar for this language was provided by the ancient grammarian Patanjali in 150 BCE—all subsequent works produced in this perfected language are denoted as Classical Sanskrit by modern linguists. This preservation through the centuries and millennia of turmoil was a monumental feat. It kept Sanskrit alive while the other spoken languages changed in form and even in the name—the provision of a scientific grammar made Sanskrit the language of literature, philosophy, science, and the arts. It continued to influence every period of Indian History through the ages.


The period of the Prakrit languages covers the Maurya, Kushan, Satvahan, and Gupta Empires. The geographical variants of this Prakrit were Magadhi (Bihar and Bengal), Ardh-Magadhi (Eastern UP, MP, and Chhatisgarh), Sauraseni (Western UP, Eastern Punjab, and Eastern Rajasthan), a Himalayan Prakrit, Saindhavi (Western Punjab and Sindh), the Maharashtri Prakrit, and a Prakrit covering Western Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The rise of the monarchies in the east of the country propelled the language of that region to the position of a literary language—this was Pali. Closely related to the Ardh-Magadhi Prakrit, Pali emerged as a literary language for the Buddhist teachers and monks of that region. In fact, the word Pali was originally just the name of the Buddhist texts —it was only after the 4th Century BCE that it became known as the name of the language in which those texts were written. With the ascendancy of Buddhism Pali acquired the status of a literary language across India and went with its faith to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Siam.

The Jain religion, which also rose to prominence in the Ardh-Magadh region, adopted that Prakrit for its religious and literary texts. In the manner of Pali, the Ardh-Magadhi of the Jain texts eventually acquired the name of Jain Prakrit and developed separately from the former.

Throughout this period Sanskrit maintained its ascendancy over the spoken and literary languages. Royal patronage was extended to Sanskrit even by avowedly Buddhist or Jain rulers and reached astronomical heights under the Gupta Empire. Its recognized status as the language of the ancient texts, its popular status as the language of the Gods, and its continued preservation and study by the Brahmans, ensured the ascendancy of Sanskrit.

Both the Jains and Buddhists felt the need to connect with the intellectual pulse of the land by studying and debating in Sanskrit—from the earliest times Sanskrit phrases were freely used in Prakrit and Pali texts. They were also compelled to render their texts into Sanskrit because in this long time the spoken languages had seen the rise of another monumental change.


For the sake of administrative uniformity and scholarly needs, the Prakrits that were once the spoken languages became conservative and unchanging. In the mouths of the masses though, the spoken language continued to evolve, by changing pronunciations and from the constant migrations of the Indian peoples.

Such changes were subtle and differed according to the province and even according to the profession of the speakers. As far back as 150 BCE, the ancient Sanskrit grammarian Patanjali in his great work Mahabhashyam, first uses Apabhramsa as a term for any corrupt pronunciations of Sanskrit. But in later periods, while the spoken languages of the upper classes (many of them Buddhists and Jains) were the Prakrits, this term Apabhramsa came to be used for the speech of the commoners.

In every age, the language of the commoners becomes the language of the saints, poets, and gurus, who move among the people. This was how the Prakrits were first adopted by the Buddhist and Jain monks of the past. A particular Apabhramsa of northern Punjab came into notice as a language increasingly being used by poets across North India. In the early centuries of the Common Era, the foreign invasions and formation of the Kushan Empire caused the movement of some Indian warrior clans to Rajasthan, which became a base for resisting the foreigners.

The roots of a new Apabhramsa were thus established here. In that period the pastoral Abhiras were noted as vassals of the Sakas in Gujarat and Sindh. The peculiarities of their Apabhramsa mingled with the local variants and ultimately with the Apabhramsa of Rajasthan—this mixed Apabhramsa language acquired the status of a literary language even as the Gupta Empire united most of the Indian continent under its rule (4th century). In the 6th Century CE, King Dharasena of Vallabhi (Gujarat) recorded an inscription where he mentions his father Guhasena’s proficiency in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Apabhramsa poetry.

Already a literary language, this particular Apabhramsa of Rajasthan-Gujarat was raised to the level of an administrative language first by the Pratihar chieftains of Gurjara province and subsequently by the other clans of the Rajput period. For the sake of convenience, this language is termed Western Apabhramsa by modern scholars. With the formation of the Pratihar Empire[4](750-1000 CE), Western Apabhramsa[5] became a pan-Indian language and its use also spread east into Bengal and south into Maharashtra.

In fact, every regional Prakrit was transformed into a regional Apabhramsa with the changed influences coming from Western Apabhramsa[6]. This change of term does not mean a change in language since the early Prakrit forms of each region were still maintained. It were these Apabhramsas that eventually gave rise to the modern North Indian languages, including Hindi.

The Jain writers rendered their texts into Apabhramsa since they flourished mostly in the western parts of India. Among the most famous of these was Hemachandra, the 11th Century grammarian, who wrote in a period when the Prakrits were no longer spoken and were even dying out as literary languages. In a later age, these Jains continued to produce works in Apabhramsa, which also received patronage from the Rajput Kings till the 16th Century. Throughout this period Sanskrit continued to exercise its dominance and every Apabhramsa work contained references to, and lengthy quotes from, that ancient language.

The Rajput period thus saw a continued cultural unification with Western Apabhramsa as a pan-Indian link language and Sanskrit as the universal language of intellectuals. In the next period, along with other calamities, this linguistic unity is broken and another pan-Indian language does not emerge till the middle of the 19th Century!


  1. The oldest of which was the Rigveda , followed by the Samveda , the Yajurveda , and the Atharvaveda . ↩︎

  2. The Vedic texts contained mantras that were chanted in sacrificial prayers and for meditation. It was believed that mispronunciation of these words would deprive the worshipper of the full benefits—this was another reason for preserving the language of the Vedic texts. ↩︎

  3. In modern English the word was written as Sa n skrit—but in fact, it is the nasal sound that is neither close to n or m of English. ↩︎

  4. Even though the Pratihars faced stiff competition from the Palas and Rashtrakutas, it was their language that succeeded in gaining a pan-Indian status. ↩︎

  5. In fact Apabhramsa of that age was like Hindi of the 19th and 20th Centuries….their rise to pan-Indian status has some interesting parallels, which will be described later. ↩︎

  6. With the fall of the Pratihars, Western Apabhramsa also sees the development of some regional variants, with the Jaipuri group joining Sauraseni Apabhramsa, while the Gujarati, Marwari, Malvi, and Mewari form their separate identities. But these changes became evident only in the next period of Indian History. ↩︎