Monday, December 17, 2012

Language Profile: Marathi

Today we're looking at Marathi, yet another of the world's most spoken languages hailing from India (see our previous posts on Hindi, Bengali and Telugu). Marathi is an Indo-Aryan language with 68.1 million native speakers in India, mainly concentrated in the western Indian state of Maharashtra and its neighboring states.

Some scholars say that there are over 40 distinguishable dialects of Marathi. The differences between these dialects are mainly lexical and phonological, and usually occur because of contact between Marathi and another language used in the area. Despite the high number of dialects, there is a good degree of mutual intelligibility among all Marathi speakers. Standard Marathi is also used and is mainly based on the dialects used by the media and academics.

Pune, the second largest city in the Indian state of
Maharashtra, where the Mula and Mutha rivers converge.

Marathi is descended from Maharashtri, an ancient Indian language related to Sanskrit. Maharashtri was a literary language used to write poetry. Its grammar diverged from Sanskrit's in order to allow the language to fit different poetic meters.

The Marathi language gained popularity over a thousand years ago due to its adoption as the literary language of a ruling dynasty and a couple of religious sects. Grammar standardization first occurred during the British colonial period due to the influence of Christian missionaries... we've never heard of that happening before! The first newspaper in Marathi was published in 1835, and the language has since flourished due to its popular dramas, musicals and poetry since the late 19th century.

The skyline of Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra
 and the most populous city in India. 

There are currently three different writing systems used to write Marathi: Devanagari, Modi and Latin script. From the 13th century to the mid-20th century, the language was mainly written in Modi, a cursive script based on Devanagari. Modi was developed as a faster and less complicated way to write the language, with simplified characters that were easier to write without lifting the pen, though they may have been more difficult to read. It was mainly a handwritten script, but is currently regaining popularity with young speakers.

Since 1950, Marathi has mainly been written using Devanagari script, an abugida which is also used to write Hindi. However, the Marathi Devanagari alphabet does require the use of additional letters. It also uses Western punctuation.

"Marathi" written in Devanagari script (left) and Modi script (right).

The language is also written in Latin script online due to the difficulty of displaying Devanagari on computers. There are no standardized spelling rules for the Latin script though, so it probably leads to confusion from time to time!

Several government organizations promote and regulate the Marathi language. One of the most important is the Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad, a literary institution founded in 1906 to further Marathi language and literature.

Due to its contact with many other languages over the centuries, it has a diverse vocabulary. About half of the words in Marathi are borrowed or derived from Sanskrit, as well as words taken from other Indian Dravidian languages. You can also find the occasional word from Persian, Arabic, English and Portuguese in its lexicon!