subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages, spoken by more than a billion people, chiefly in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (see The Indo-European Family of Languages, table). The Indo-Iranian subfamily consists of three groups of languages: the Dardic (or Pisacha), the Indic (or Indo-Aryan), and the Iranian. Some scholars, however, include the Dardic tongues under the Indic classification.
Among the Dardic, or Pisacha, languages are Kafiri, spoken in Afghanistan; Khowar, current in Pakistan; Shina, Kohistani, and Kashmiri, prevalent in Pakistan and N India; and Romani, the language of the Romani (Gypsies), spoken mainly in Europe. These languages share certain distinctive phonetic characteristics, feature the use of pronominal suffixes with various verb forms, and include in their vocabularies a number of words that among the languages of India are usually encountered only in Vedic Sanskrit. Kashmiri is the sole Dardic language that both has a literature and is recognized in the Indian constitution of 1950. The native tongue of about 4 million people, it has been heavily influenced by Sanskrit, so that it is now partly Indic in character. Kashmiri is written in Persian letters by Muslims, whereas Hindus use a script similar to the Devanagari alphabet.
The Indic, or Indo-Aryan, languages form the largest group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily. The oldest written form of the Indic group is Vedic (or Vedic Sanskrit), in which the Veda were composed. Although the Veda appear to have first been written down in the 3d cent. B.C., they were transmitted orally long before this time—possibly before the 15th cent. B.C. Vedic has been described as the parent language of Sanskrit, which by the 4th cent. B.C. had become the sacred and literary language of the Hindus of India, and its classical form was in use (at least for literature) until c.A.D. 1100. This tongue was called Sanskrit (that is, “polished”) to distinguish it from the many vernacular dialects to which the label Prakrit (or “natural”) was attached. Sanskrit, the most important source for all modern Indic languages, has survived to this day as a liturgical language in India. It is written in Devanagari, a development of the Brahmi script, believed to be derived from a form of ancient Semitic writing that may go back to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Most Indic languages are written in some modified form of the Devanagari alphabet.
Extensive changes have taken place in the evolution of the Indic languages, and many languages show marked differences between the current speech form and the written form, which reflects older literary patterns. While the vocabulary of many Indic languages derives primarily from Sanskrit, Muslim influence over the centuries has added loan words from Arabic and Persian to such Indic tongues as Urdu and Sindhi. Aside from phonemic and vocabulary changes, the inflection of nouns and verbs has been considerably simplified. Prepositions are now often used in place of the earlier cases of the nouns, which have been reduced from eight to two.
The principal modern Indic tongues include the Northwest Indic languages Punjabi and Sindhi; the central Indic languages Hindi and Urdu; the East Indic tongues Assamese, Bengali (or Bangla), and Oriya; the West Indic language Gujarati; the South Indic tongues Marathi and Singhalese; and the northern or Pahari dialects or languages. Hindi, now the national language of India, is understood by about 400 million persons and is the primary tongue of some 300 million, the majority of them in central India. Very similar to Hindi (but recorded in a form of the Arabic alphabet) is Urdu, the language of about 100 million persons in Pakistan and India. Punjabi, or Panjabi, is spoken by about 95 million people in NW India and Pakistan. It is close to the Western Hindi dialect and to Urdu and is written in an alphabet based on the Devanagari script. Its vocabulary for the most part evolved from Sanskrit. Sindhi, the native tongue of about 18 million persons in SE Pakistan and W India, is recorded in a modification of a Persian script by Muslims, although a variety of the Devanagari alphabet is employed by Hindus using Sindhi.
Of the East Indic languages, Assamese is the tongue of 22 million people in Assam, and has a literature dating back to the 15th cent. Assamese has been influenced by Tibeto-Burman idioms and recalls Sanskrit in vocabulary, but is allied grammatically to Bengali, the language of 122 million inhabitants of Bangladesh, where it is known as Bangla, and 66 million Indians living in and around the Kolkata region. Bengali is rich in literature; the greatest modern author who wrote in the language was Rabindranath Tagore. Oriya, or Odia, the language of about 32 million persons, chiefly in the Indian state of Odisha (Orissa), is closer to Sanskrit phonetically and lexically than any other modern Indic tongue. The leading West Indic language is Gujarati, with over 40 million speakers, chiefly in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in India. Gujarati was the native language of Mohandas Gandhi and has an important literature dating from the 15th cent.
Of the South Indic languages, Marathi, with approximately 75 million speakers, is prevalent in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Its literature dates from the 13th cent. The other leading South Indic tongue is Singhalese, or Sinhalese, the language of about 13 million people on the island of Sri Lanka. Although it belongs to the Indic group, Singhalese is separated geographically from the other Indic languages of N and central India by an intervening region in S India, in which the Dravidian languages are spoken. Thus, the fundamentally Indic vocabulary of Singhalese is influenced by the nearby Dravidian languages. Although its oldest existing literary texts are from the 10th cent. A.D., written records have survived from as early as the 2d cent. B.C.
The Pahari dialects or languages are spoken by about 17 million people in the kingdom of Nepal and in parts of N India. These idioms are classified as Eastern Pahari (or Nepali), which is the language of Nepal and has been influenced by Tibeto-Burman languages; Central Pahari, which has two main dialects, Garhwali and Kumaoni; and Western Pahari, noted for its numerous dialects. Both Central and Western Pahari are purely Indic and have not been affected by Tibeto-Burman forms of speech.
The third and last group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily consists of the Iranian languages, spoken by about 95 million people, mainly in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Central Asia. Historically, the oldest Iranian forms of which there are any records are Avestan and Old Persian, both highly inflected languages. Old Persian has survived in cuneiform inscriptions from the time of the Achaemenid kings, who ruled ancient Persia during the 6th to 4th cent. B.C. Avestan is the language in which was composed the Avesta, or sacred text of the Zoroastrian religion. The Avesta probably dates from about the 7th to the 5th cent. B.C., but apparently was handed down orally and was not recorded in writing until much later. Avestan is still in use today as the liturgical language of the Zoroastrian faith. The Middle Iranian period, dating from the 3d cent. B.C. to the 9th or 10th cent. A.D., is characterized by considerable grammatical simplification, as in the reduced inflection of the noun and verb. Among the languages surviving in written records that fall within this period are Parthian, Middle Persian, Khwarazmian, Sogdian, and Saka.
The modern Iranian languages, dating from about the 9th or 10th cent. to the present, show phonetic and grammatical simplification. For example, case endings tend to be dropped and the use of prepositions substituted. The most important of the modern Iranian languages is Modern Persian (Fārsī) the official tongue of Iran, which stems directly from Middle Persian, but has been influenced by Arabic and Turkish. It has a great literature of considerable age and is spoken by over 40 million persons in Iran and Afghanistan. There are a number of dialects of Modern Persian. Other modern Iranian languages include Pashto (also called Pushtu and Afghan), with 18 million speakers in Afghanistan, where it is the national language, and in Pakistan and Iran; Baluchi, which has about 6 million speakers, chiefly in Pakistan and Iran; Kurdish, the language of perhaps 20 million Kurds living mainly in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria; the Pamir dialects or languages, spoken in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan; Yaghnobi, which is derived from Sogdian and spoken in Tajikistan; and Tajiki, a tongue of more than 5 million people in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Today's Iranian languages are written in adaptations of the Arabic alphabet, except for Tajiki, which uses Cyrillic characters.