Ancient Languages of India and Pakistan

Rig Veda in Sanskrit
Rig Veda in Sanskrit. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Ancient Languages of India and Pakistan

While there are no official criteria for defining a language as ancient, convention holds that those languages that existed prior to the fifth century can and are considered ancient languages. Others, including famous linguist Roger Woodward, have mused that what might make an ancient language different from non-ancient languages might simply be the fact that it survived those people and culture for whom it was a familiar piece of their daily existence.

While a fascinating notion, it does not lend itself to a clear definition. Despite this, many of us have an instinctive sense of what an ancient language is, and have sought knowledge. Here we will direct the discussion to the languages of the people of ancient India and Pakistan, which consist of an ancient language family for which no narrow definition is needed.

Indo-Aryan Languages 

The languages of ancient India and Pakistan are usually called Indo-Aryan (or Indic). Indo-Aryan languages are considered to be a branch of the Indo-Iranian language family, which is itself a branch of the Indo-European family of languages.  Due to the negative connotations surrounding the term Aryan, Indic often replaces Indo-Aryan when referring to this group of languages. As a result, in researching these languages, one might see Indic, rather than Indo-Aryan, listed as a branch of the Indo-Iranian language family.

Indo-European --> Indo-Iranian --> Indo-Aryan (Indic)

There are numerous languages – ancient and modern – that fall into the Indo-Aryan or Indic language classification. Today, Indo-Aryan language speakers make up approximately half of all Indo-European speakers. But today’s modern Indo-Aryan languages are far removed from their lingual origins in the ancient India subcontinent.

In fact, the Indo-Aryan languages can be classified into one of three historically significant categories or periods: Old Indic, Middle Indo-Aryan, or Early Modern Indic.

Old Indic Languages
The earliest language to be considered part of the Indo-Aryan language family is Vedic Sanskrit, which is the spoken predecessor to literary Sanskrit. Vedic Sanskrit is considered a proto-language, or a language in historical linguistics from which others have been evolved. In simplest terms, proto-languages are similar to biology’s concept of the most recent common ancestor. As such, Vedic Sanskrit is oldest confirmed language of the Indo-Aryan branch native to Bronze Age and Iron Age India.

Middle Indo-Aryan

From Vedic Sanskrit came the evolution of several vernacular dialects called Prakrits. The oldest of these Prakrits were religious languages reserved for Buddhist and Jainism called Pali and Ardha Magadhi. These Prakrits included one of the most important predecessors to modern Indic languages, Apabhramsa.

Additionally, by the fourth century BC, the was the standardization of Vedic Sanskrit gave way to classical Sanskrit, a primarily written language. Sanskrit became the liturgical (holy) language of Hinduism, philosophical language of Buddhism, and an otherwise literary language for the region.


Hypothetical Indo-Iranian Language Tree

  1. Vedic (Indic
    • Sanskrit
      • Hindustani
    • Prakit
      • Marathi
      • Bengali
      • Romany
  2. Old Iranian
    • Middle Iranian
      • Persian
      • Kurdish
      • Afghan
      • Ossetic

Sources and References:

  • Indo-Iranian Family, by Vijay John and Jonathan Slocum
  • Archaeology and Language The Indo-Iranians, by C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky;  Current Anthropology 2002, pp. 63-88.