Which language is queen in India?

India is a country of incredible linguistic diversity. With 22 officially recognized languages and hundreds more spoken as mother tongues, India’s languages reflect its rich cultural history as a melting pot of different peoples and influences over thousands of years. Unlike most countries, India does not have a single national official language. After independence from Britain in 1947, debate raged over which languages should gain official status. Should India promote a single unifying language to bind its people together, or embrace its diverse linguistic heritage? Ultimately, the framers of India’s constitution supported both unity and diversity, declaring Hindi in Devanagari script as the official language of the Union, while also designating English as an additional official language for a period of 15 years. States were also granted flexibility in adopting their own official languages.

The Main Contenders

Over the decades, three languages have emerged as the main contenders for the unofficial title of “queen” language in India:


As the official language of the Union and the mother tongue of roughly 43% of Indians, predominantly in northern and central regions, Hindi has a strong claim to the throne. Efforts to promote Hindi as a unifying national language date back to the independence movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mahatma Gandhi himself advocated for Hindi as a lingua franca for Indians of different linguistic backgrounds. After independence, Hindi gained ground as the language of administration and education. While English remains very influential in higher education and is still used for official communication between states, Hindi has solidified its place as the most widely spoken language in India today.


Despite its foreign origins, English has emerged as a powerful contender for the queen’s crown. For nearly 200 years under British imperial rule, English became entrenched as the language of the administrative classes. After independence, India’s founding leaders decided to keep English as an official language to avoid unrest between Hindi and non-Hindi speakers. They envisioned eventually phasing it out, but instead the reverse happened. As globalization accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s, English became seen as the language of upward mobility, higher education, technology, and modernization. With around 10% of Indians now speaking English as their first or second language, and many more fluent to varying degrees, some argue that English has already ascended to the throne as India’s de facto queen language.

Regional Languages

While Hindi and English dominate nationally, regionally specific languages from India’s diverse linguistic fabric also vie for dominance within their spheres of influence. Chief among these are Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, and Marathi, each with tens of millions of first-language speakers concentrated in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra respectively. For their speakers, these languages represent identity and heritage as much as Hindi does for many north Indians. Local language pride has fueled strong social movements against the imposition of Hindi in south India and the northeast. Proponents argue that no language can claim the queen’s throne without also representing the rich regional tongues that make India’s linguistic landscape so colorful.

Factors in Ascendance

What metrics might help evaluate these languages’ claims to supremacy? Here are some key factors that allow languages to spread their influence:

Number of speakers

At the most basic level, a language’s imprint grows larger the more people who understand and use it. By this numeric measure, Hindi arguably rules the roost with over 500 million total speakers, though only about half speak it as a mother tongue. Bengali and Marathi clock in at #2 and #3 with around 100 million native speakers each, though they lag far behind in second-language use. English has seen massive growth as a second language, now estimated at 125 million Indians with some degree of proficiency.

Official status

A language that gains official recognition and governmental promotion naturally gains prestige and use. Hindi benefits enormously from its status as the sole official language of the Indian Union. Regional languages also became entrenched by attaining official status in their home states. However, India’s embrace of linguistic diversity means no one language can totally dominate nationwide solely on official status.

Economic value

Increasingly in the global era, a language’s economic utility makes it attractive for parents to pass on to their children and for jobseekers to learn. Here English has a clear edge. It remains the language of international business, technology, and outsourced services, all major parts of India’s economy today. Proficiency in English opens up higher education and white-collar professional opportunities. Regional languages offer less economic mobility beyond their states.

Cultural prominence

Some languages gain influence by becoming associated with culture, media, and literature that achieve nationwide appeal. Hindi has become the most common language across India’s hugely popular Bollywood film industry, television channels, and music. English dominates the news media and publishing. Bengali culture experienced a renaissance in literature and the arts during the 19th-20th centuries, enhancing its prestige. But regional divides persist in media consumption.

Historical legacy

Languages favored under past empires and kingdoms often retain cultural prominence. Hindi rose to power under the Mughal Empire from the 16th to 19th centuries. English gained sway under the British Raj and remains linked to educational privilege and political power, like French in parts of Africa. Tamil Nadu’s leaders promote Tamil by harking back to the ancient Tamil kingdoms. These associations with past glory add to a language’s aura.

Geographic Distribution

No discussion of language dominance in India would be complete without considering geographic spread. Here we see that linguistic supremacy depends hugely on whether one views India state-by-state or as a whole. The following tables illustrate the complex picture:

Language Native speakers Second-language speakers Total speakers States where dominant language
Hindi 258 million 250 million 508 million Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi
Bengali 97 million 7 million 104 million West Bengal, Tripura
Marathi 73 million 20 million 93 million Maharashtra
Telugu 74 million 8 million 82 million Andhra Pradesh, Telangana
Tamil 61 million 8 million 69 million Tamil Nadu, Puducherry
Gujarati 46 million 55 million 101 million Gujarat, Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli
Kannada 37 million 8 million 45 million Karnataka
Odia 33 million 2 million 35 million Odisha
Malayalam 33 million 2 million 35 million Kerala, Lakshadweep
Punjabi 29 million 9 million 38 million Punjab
Assamese 15 million 1 million 16 million Assam

This table shows the top languages by number of native speakers across India’s states. We clearly see the dominance of regional languages within their home states.

Language As primary language As secondary language Total speakers
Hindi 43.63% 41.03% 422.2 million
Bengali 8.03% 0.58% 102.7 million
Marathi 6.86% 1.67% 90 million
Telugu 6.70% 0.67% 81 million
Tamil 6.89% 0.67% 68.9 million
Gujarati 4.48% 4.47% 55.5 million
Kannada 3.61% 0.67% 44.3 million
Malayalam 2.88% 0.17% 35.1 million
Odia 2.85% 0.17% 35 million
Punjabi 2.76% 0.77% 30.7 million

This table shows the top 10 languages as shares of total population, factoring in both native and second-language speakers. Here we see Hindi clearly dominating at the all-India level.

The Verdict

When considering all the above factors – number of speakers, official status, economic value, cultural prominence and geographic distribution – it becomes clear no single language can claim absolute dominance nationwide in India’s complex linguistic landscape.

Hindi is King

By most metrics, Hindi stands alone as the most widely spoken and understood language across India’s diverse population centers. Its hundreds of millions of first-language speakers and its official Union status give Hindi unrivaled reach and influence in national media, government, education and culture. For many Indians, Hindi represents a mother tongue, a means to wider communication and a mark of national identity. Its roots in the Mughal Empire also lend it historical prestige.

English is Queen Consort

English cannot match Hindi’s sheer number of speakers, but excels in economic power, higher education, and global influence. Its legacy under British rule still confers elite status. While only a small sliver of Indians speak it natively, proficiency as a second language is spreading rapidly among the middle and upper classes. English’s utility in careers, technology, academics and international communication leads many to conclude it has attained the throne as India’s queen language, despite its colonial origins.

Regional Tongues are Princes and Princesses

Neither Hindi nor English can displace the pride, cultural value and local dominance of languages like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati and others in their home territories. These regional royals retain strong emotional pull and official status in their states. National parties must still campaign in these languages to win elections. Their historic literary traditions enrich India’s cultural fabric. Just as princely states co-existed with British India, no nationwide monarch can rule without acknowledging India’s diverse regional tongues.

Multilingualism is Key

Rather than elevating any single national queen, India’s complex linguistic landscape calls for embracing multilingualism. Proficiency in English alongside a regional language and Hindi enables communication and opportunity across India’s diversity. So does linguistic sensitivity – understanding no language completely dominates, and that mother tongues represent identity. Speaking India’s many languages empowers voices from all communities to contribute to public discourse. In a varied federal democracy like India, recognizing the multiplicity of tongues may be the wisest way forward.


India’s unique linguistic heritage makes crowning a single “queen” language impossible at the national level. Hindi and English dominate in different spheres, while regional languages rule locally. For effective governance and national unity, India is better served by promoting multilingualism than imposing any one language, the colonial experience has shown. The queen of India is in fact its diversity, best honored by respecting the country’s many tongues.

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