Odia, a classical language in India

According to a quiz I read recently, the 6th language to be designated in India as a ‘classical language’ is Odia. I had never heard of Odia, so I wanted to find out more.

The Language

Odia belongs, with Bengali and Assamese to the Madaghan sub-family of Indo-Aryan (Klaiman, 1990). Indo-Aryan is itself part of the Indo-European family of languages. Odia is spoken by 37.5 million people in the state of Odisha, southwest of Bengal (Pereltsvaig, 2020).

Spelling the name in English

The talk page on the Wikipedia page for this language shows vigorous debate about how to transliterate into English the name of the language and the state. It seems that the first consonant is a retroflex. Apparently, this was in the past transliterated into English with the symbol <r>, but recent government decrees stipulate that people should use the symbol <d>.  So:

  • the previous common English spelling was Oria (for the language, or sometimes Oriya) and Orissa (for the state).
  • the current official English spelling is Odia (for the language) and Odisha (for the state).

According to Spajić, Ladefoged and Bhaskarao (1996): Dravidianists (scholars of the Dravidian languages) transcribe a retroflex [r] as <ṛ>; but this symbol is not available in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). They suggest the symbol <ɽ> for a similar sound in Toda. 

A retroflex consonant is one in which the tip of the tongue curls upwards

Classical languages in India

The other 5 languages designated as classical languages in India are:

  • Sanskrit
  • Tamil
  • Telugu
  • Kannada
  • Malayalam

Sanskrit was a language of the Indo-Aryan family. It played a major role as the vehicle for sacred and other important texts of Hinduism, classical Hindu philosophy, Buddhism and Jainism.

Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam are all languages in the South branch of the Dravidian family. Telugu is in the South Central branch of the Dravidian family. Each of them has official status in an Indian state: Tamil (in Tamil Nadu), Kannada (in Karnataka), Malayalam (in Kerala) and Telugu (in Andhra Pradesh).

Criteria for becoming a classical language

According to a press report of 18 May 2016 in The Hindu, the criteria for declaring a language as classical are:

  • high antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1,500-2,000 years
  • a body of ancient literature/texts which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers and a literary tradition that is original and not borrowed from another speech community.

The criteria acknowledge that there can be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.

Declaring a language as classical opens the door to government funding. This may help fund a centre of excellence for the study of that language, scholarships and professorships.


Bengali, by M H Klaiman, in The Major Languages of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, edited by Bernard Comrie (1990)

Languages of the World: an Introduction, by Asya Pereltsvaig (3rd edition, 2021)

The Trills of Toda, by Siniša Spajić, Peter Ladefoged and P Bhaskarao, Journal of the International Phonetic Association, vol 26, issue 1 (1996)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odia_language (accessed 13 April 2022)

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