The Gujarati language is spoken by an estimated 46 million people around the world, the majority of them located in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Thanks to the Gujarat State’s coastal location, the Gujarati language has come into contact with a wide variety of foreign sources, from Arabic to Portuguese, which has greatly influenced the language’s development. The history of the Gujarat State itself is an intriguing one, from the events leading to its official formation after the partition of British India, to the Muslim-Hindi violence that has rocked the state since independence.
Classification and Early History of the Gujarati Language
The Gujarati language is classified as a member of the Indo-Aryan group of Indo-Iranian languages, part of the Indo-European family of languages. The Indo-Aryan languages went through three major phases of development: Old Indo-Aryan, also known as Sanskrit; Middle Indo-Aryan, which included the Prakrit and Apabhramsha languages; and New Indo-Aryan.
Gujarati is believed to be derived from the ancient Indic languages of Sanskrit via Prakrit and Apabhramsha. Development of the Gujarati language can be dated back to approximately the 12th century CE, and the language is believed to have been fully developed by the end of the 12th century.
Written Gujarati Language
The Gujarati language is written using a cursive-style script derived from the Devanagari script (the primary script of the Hindi language). The Gujarati language script differentiates from Devanagari in that it lacks the horizontal line which runs above the script’s letters, a central characteristic of Devanagari. Gujarati also can be written using a Persian or Arabic script, although this method is less common and generally confined to specific regions such as the Gujarat State’s Kutch district.
The earliest known examples of written Gujarati date to circa the 12th century. Highlights of later texts from the mid-14th century are didactic texts written by monks. In the 15th and 16th centuries, a number of Gujarati-language poets appeared, many of them dealing with religious themes. One well-known Gujarati poet is Premananda Bhatta, who is known for his lyrical narrative poems that incorporated real-life figures as characters.
Early History of the Gujarat State: Ties to the Maharashtra State
The majority of Gujarati-language speakers in India are located in the Gujarat State, which was not formed as an independent state until 1960. The area of the modern Gujarat state was once part of the Maratha suzerainty, a massive empire which finds its roots in the Maharashtra area of India.
Mention of the Maharashtra State dates back as far as the 7th century, where it is noted in the accounts of a Chinese traveler known as Xuanzang. The name Maharashtra is thought to have derived from the word “maharathi,” which translates literally to “great chariot driver” and is a reference to a fighting force that existed in India at the time.
Creation of an Independent Gujarat State
With the arrival of British colonials in India, the Maratha suzerainty – along with almost all of India – came under British control. British power lasted well into the 20th century and it was not until 1947 that India gained independence. At this time the Bombay State was formed, comprising an area that housed two primary linguistic groups: Marathi-speaking and Gujarati-speaking.
Due to tensions between the two linguistic groups and demands for sovereignty by both parties, the Bombay State was divided into two parts in May 1960: the Gujarat State and the Maharashtra State. Bombay remained a part of the Maharashtra State and was renamed Mumbai in the 1990s.
Problems Since Independence
The Gujarat State has undergone periods of violence since independence. In 1965, violence broke out between India and Pakistan concerning the disputed area Rann of Kachchh. An international tribunal had to be consulted to establish a peaceful agreement between the two countries, with the result that nine-tenths of the Rann of Kachchh territory was awarded to India and the remaining one-tenth to Pakistan.
Gujarat faced new problems in 1985, when a series of Muslim-Hindu riots erupted, resulting in a period of violence that lasted nearly half a year. Since then, Muslim-Hindu tensions have erupted in violence periodically, as recently as 2002. Today, the majority of the Gujarat State’s population practices Hinduism, with followers of Islam comprising the most significant religious minority in the state.
The Modern Gujarat State
The modern Gujarat State is situated along India’s western coast, along the Arabian Sea, and is bordered by Pakistan as well as the Indian States of Maharashtra, Rajastha, and Madhya Pradesh. Thanks to the Gujarati-speaking areas’ location on the coast and consequent easy contact with foreigners, the Gujarati language has acquired a variety of foreign influences since its initial development, including Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian.
Gujarat State has two official languages, Gujarati and Hindi. Gujarati is the most widely spoken. The name “Gujarat” is derived from the Gurjara, a subtribe of Huns who dominated the area throughout the 8th and 9th centuries.
Mahatma Gandhi and the Gujarat State
One interesting highlight of the Gujarat State is that it served as a base for Mahatma Gandhi’s campaigns.
Gandhi built his Sabarmati ashram in the former Gujarat capital of Ahmadabad, the largest city in Gujarat. Today the capital has been moved to Gandhinagar, which lies on the outskirts of the former capital. However, Ahmadabad is still known for housing Gandhi’s former headquarters.
The impact of Gandhi’s influence in Gujarat is apparent today. Gandhi is revered as one of the Gujarat State’s most prominent authors, and his writings have greatly influenced modern Gujarati prose.
Gujarati Language and Dialects Today
A great variety of Gujarati dialects exist within India alone. As is the case with many languages in India, differences within the Gujarati language can also be found among speakers of different regions, ethnic and educational backgrounds, and castes.
In addition to the state of Gujarat, communities of Gujarati-language speakers can be found around the world, notably in the United States and United Kingdom.
Gujarati Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Gujrathi, Gujerati, Gujerathi
Language Family: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Central zone
Official Language of: India
Spoken by Approximately 46,106,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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