Telugu is recognised by the Indian Constitution as one of the 23 Scheduled languages.
The Constitution was written and ratified in 1950, almost three years after the British Crown relinquished all its possessions in the Indian sub-continent and left the natives to self-govern. On January the 26th 1950, English and Hindi became the official languages of the Indian government.
However, each state and territory of the Union was given the liberty to choose its own official language or languages, amongst the ones recognised by the Eight Schedule of the Constitution.
This made sense, as there are more than 122 languages spoken by at least 10,000 people in India and 30 languages spoken by at least 1 million people. States could decide, according to their demographics, what language would serve the interests of their population for the best. Many Indian states and territories recognised more than one language as official simply because of the diversity of their population.
As recently as 2014, the Indian Constitution changed and created the 29th states of the Union of India. The partition of this state, called Telangana, from Andhra Pradesh, was partly due to the division of the population in the state over their native language. Telugu became the official language of Telangana.
"India's linguistic diversity surprises many Westerners, but there are nearly thirty languages in India with at least a million native speakers. There are more native speakers of Tamil on our planet than of Italian. Likewise, more people speak Punjabi than German, Marathi than French, and Bengali than Russian. There are more Telugu speakers than Czech, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Slovak, and Swedish speakers combined."
- Bob Harris, English music presenter former host of the BBC2 music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test, and co-founder of the magazine Time Out.
The Origins and History of Telugu
Contrary to Hindi, Telugu belongs to the Dravidian language family, for which linguists have struggled to identify a birthplace. Some think that the Dravidian languages may have been born in India while others believe that it was brought by migrations three to four thousands years ago.
Wherever it came from, the Dravidian languages, including Telugu, are mainly spoken in South and Southeast India.
The first apparitions of Telugu words were found to be written along the more common vernacular Sanskrit language. Nagabu was the earliest occurrence of a Telugu word to have been found, and archaeologists have estimated that the inscription it was written on date from the 1st century BCE.
Telugu was for a long time used as a side language of Sanskrit, but reverse coin legends were often written in Telugu or Tamil, while the main face of the coin was minted in Prakrit (a group of medieval dialects formerly used throughout India).
The first apparitions of Telugu being used as a written language on its own were found in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. It is believed that the local ruling dynasty, the Renati Cholas, decided to use Telugu for official purposes instead of the usual Sanskrit.
The rise and rule of the Karnata Empire in the south of India from the 14th to 17th allowed Telugu to flourish. Telugu was the prefered language of the court even though Kanada was also used by through the Empire. Under the influence and patronage of King Krishnadevaraya, Telugu became a prominent and popular literary language.
Alas, the Karnata Empire succumbed to the repeated invasion of the Deccan Sultanates in the North, and the decline was complete when most of the former Imperial regions declared their independence and formed princely states.
The Telugu language survived nonetheless. During the zenith of the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526), Telugu started to be influenced by Persian and Arabic language due to their prominent place in the Muslim Empire. Later on, that influence grew stronger under the Mughal Empire.
During the colonisation era, Nicolo di Conti, an Italian merchant and explorer, came to note the similarities of his native language and Telugu as both ends most of their words with vowels. He was the first one to coin Telugu as the "Italian of the East", though history and Telugu speakers, would probably find that Italian being the "Telugu of the West" is more accurate.
Throughout the 19th and 20th century, under the British rule, Telugu was also influenced by the English language.
During the 1930's, Telugu still presented a diglossia, by which a literary and elitist form of the language differed significantly from it's more colloquial version. However, unlike Bengali, the more elitist version of the language became to be the only one to be taught in schools and eventually the single version of written and spoken Telugu.
As Telugu is one of the oldest languages in India, with historical proof of Telugu being used going as far as 400BCE, the language has been listed by the Indian government, besides five other Indian languages, as a Classical Language of India.
The Telugu Dialects in India
Telugu is the fourth most spoken native language after Hindi and Bengali. It counts more than 70 million native speakers in India only.
Telugu is the official language of the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and the union territory of Puducherry but due to historical migrations, Telugu is also spoken in some other regions: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, parts of Jharkhand and the Kharagpur region of West Bengal. It is also commonly used in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands territory.
Linguists classify Telugu in 3 main dialects:
- Andhra Telugu is mainly spoken in the coastal region of the Andhra Pradesh state.
- Rayalaseema Telugu is spoken in the four districts which compose the eponymous region of the Andhra Pradesh state.
- Telangana Telugu, spoken in the state of Telangana.
The state of Telangana was created in 2014 after more than four decades of political unrests and parliamentary negotiation. It was then official separated from the state of Andhra Pradesh but Hyderabad will remain the joint capital until 2025. One of the main difference between the two states is their language, and the Telangana Telugu was much more influenced by Urdu that the Andhra Telugu.
Besides these three main Telugu dialects, many more are spoken through India including Berad, Dasari, Dommara, Golari, Kamathi, Komtao, Konda-Reddi, Salewari, Vadaga, Srikakula, Vishakhapatnam, East Godavari, Rayalseema, Nellore, Guntur, Vadari and Yanadi.
Some Adivasi, or indigenous tribes of the Indian sub-continent, also speak dialects closely related to Telugu: the Chenchu people, a hunter-gatherer tribe scattered through the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Odisha, speak Chenchukulam.
In Karnakatta, the 4 million Telugu native speakers are speaking a version of the language which has been more influenced by the Kanada language and is slightly different to the Andhra version.
In the state of Tamil Nadu where 3.5 million Telugu speakers live, linguists have identified no less than five different Telugu dialects: Hosur, Salem, Coimbatore, Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Madras Telugu.
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The Telugu Alphabet
The Telugu script evolved from the Brahmic writing system approximately 1500 years ago. This script is formed by an alphasyllabary made of 18 vowels (short and long) and 35 consonants signs.
Each vowel has two forms; the first one is used when the vowel is at the beginning of the word if a word in only composed of vowels.
The second form is used when the vowel is added to a consonant to form a consonant/vowel syllable.
On top of the 53 vowel and consonant signs, Telugu also uses four more characters which will change the way a syllable is pronounced or where the tonic accent on a word will be placed.
అం / అఁ / అః / క్
The numbers in Telugu
0 is ౦ = sunna
1 is ౧ = okaṭi
2 is ౨ = renḍu
3 is౩ = mūḍu
4 is ౪ = nālugu
5 is ౫ = aidu
6 is ౬ = āru
7 is ౭ = ēḍu
8 is ౮ = enimidi
9 is ౯ = tommidi
The Telugu Language Outside India
Small communities speaking Telugu-related languages live in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Telugu is also it is also the language of the Sri Lankan Gypsy people known as the Ahikuntakas.
Telugu speakers are found as well in Australia, New Zealand, Bahrain, Canada (Toronto), Fiji, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Myanmar, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Arab Emirates, but the most significant Telugu community living outside of India can be found in the United States which counts more than 800,000 Telugu speakers. In New Jersey and the capital of Jersey City, the high concentration of Telugu speakers birthed a little India neighbourhood that some refer to as Little Andhra.
In the UK, the last census only counted about 14,000 Telugu native speaker.