Ancient Indian Languages

Updated on 26-06-2020

India is a multilingual country. Even during ancient times there were many languages but Sanskrit was the important and dominant language. We do not have much evidence as to the language spoken during the Indus valley civilisation. However it is believed that Indus script or the Harappan script was used during this period. The inscriptions were extremely short. It is not clear whether these inscriptions constituted a language or script.

The languages in India are widely divided into Dravidian and Indo Aryan languages.

The Indo Aryan Languages were also known as Indo languages and was a branch of Indo European language. Linguists usually divide the Indo Aryans languages into three major parts as old, Middle and New based on the period of appearance. 

In the old Indo Aryan language there were many languages from different linguistic states which were commonly known as Sanskrit. The middle Indo Aryan languages were included under Prakrit. The Prakrits were gradually transformed  into  Apabhramsas. The new Indo Aryan languages include many present day languages that are in use.

Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit in ancient Indian languages

Sanskrit is one of the old Indo Aryan languages and also one of the oldest documented members of the Indo European family of languages. Sanskrit is a language which was a means of communication in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.   The earliest language which was used is Sanskrit. 

There was Vedic Sanskrit and the classical Sanskrit. Vedic Sanskrit was used in Vedas and the classical Sanskrit is the oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar or Panini’s Astadyayi( Painini was ancient Sanskrit grammarian). Panini’s Astadyayi was composed around the 4th century BC. The vowels and consonants were classified in a very scientific way. Painini had incorporated around 4000 grammatical principles. Panini is responsible for the standardisation of the language which even to this day are in use in multiple format.

Ancient Indian Languages

Sanskrit was the language spoken by the priestly class mostly by Brahmins, however slowly it became a spoken language even for the governing body. Sanskrit was spread to different parts of the world. With the emergence of Buddhism and classical Sanskrit became more of a priestly language Prakrit and Pali language evolved.


Prakrit languages are the middle Indo Aryan languages which were used in India from 3rd century BCE to 8th century CE. It is known for inscriptions, literary works and grammarians descriptions. According to some scholars Prakrit are a set of smaller languages that were exclusively used in the literature. Literary Prakrit was one of the main languages of classical Indian culture.

During the middle Indo Aryan period people started to use the Prakrit language which was simpler than Sanskrit. It became a local language for Kings and the villagers. Many inscriptions are even composed in Prakrit language. Asoka has many inscriptions on Buddhism in Prakrit language. Gradually each variety of Prakrit became associated with a particular dynasty and a particular religion. Dramatic Prakrit was particularly used in dramas and in other literary works. Some of the prominent dramatic Prakrit was Shauraseni, Magadhi Prakrit and Maharashtri Prakrit.

A few important secular works that are reflected in  GathaSaptasati of Hala, one of the Satavahana rulers. This book consists of 700 stanzas which shows different phases in rural life. Prakrit language was also used as a spoken language of Hinayana Buddhism.


Pali was another important language during the ancient period. It was used during the middle  Indo Aryan period. Pali language is considered a sacred language in some of the religious texts of Hinduism and Theraveda Buddhism (a branch of Buddhism which uses Pali language to the teachings of Buddhism). Some of the important works in Pali literature are the Jataka stories.

Dravidian languages:

The Dravidian languages family consists of around 70 languages that are mostly spoken in the southern part of India and in some other countries in the world.  The Dravidian languages are divided into South, South, Central, Central and North groups. These groups are further organised into 24 subgroups. The four major literary languages Kannada, Tamil Telugu and Malayalam are the major languages spoken in the Southern states of India. 

The Indo Aryan and the Dravidian languages developed a systematic phonology and grammar usage in the languages. According to some scholars Dravidian language might have come to India by the migrants from the Iranian plateau around the 3rd century. The Dravidian Languages are unique and cannot be compared to any other language family

Tamil is one of the oldest Dravidian languages. It descends from proto Dravidian which was spoken in the 3rd century BCE. It was spoken in the lower Godavari river basin. Scholars divided the language into three periods. Old Tamil (300 BCE – 700 CE), Middle Tamil (700–1600) and Modern Tamil (1600–present) Now Tamil is the official language of the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. The Tamil writing system  has evolved from Brahmi script which has improved over a period of time.

Apart from Tamil other Dravidian languages include Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam. Even these Dravidian languages have the influence of Sanskrit on it. Tamil became the prominent and important language and many sacred songs and religious works are written in Tamil. Most of these Dravidian languages are spoken in the southern part of India. Many scholars have argued that the Dravidian languages were brought to India by the migrants in the 3rd and the 4th century BC but however there is no clear evidence to this argument.

The origin of other languages occurred gradually. Even these languages have roots from Sanskrit, pali and Prakrit languages.

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