The Oriya Language

Oriya is an Eastern Indo-Aryan language, spoken as the official first language in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, the residents of which are also known as Oriyas. Oriya is one of the 22 official languages as established by the Constitution of India and one of the 14 regional languages of India. It serves as the official language in the state of Orissa, being the medium of communication for the government and businesses, and medium of education for the state, where it is taught as the first language in government run schools.

While it is primarily spoken by over 31 million people living in Orissa, there are significant pockets of Oriya-speaking populations in other states and linguistic regions in India too, especially the neighboring states of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. The concentration of large Oriya-speaking sections is seen in areas such as the Midnapore District of West Bengal, the Saraikela Kharsawan District of Jharkhand and the Srikakulam District of Andra Pradesh. The West Indian state of Gujarat has a sizeable Oriya speaking population too owing to the mass migration of labour to its industrial centres. Thus the commercial town of Surat in Gujarat is statistically the second largest Oriya speaking city in India.

Oriya is believed to have its direct roots to the ancient Indian language of Ardhamagadhi Prakrit. Prakrit is essentially a native term which refers to vernaculars as opposed to the formal language of Sanskrit, and may often include all Middle Indo-Aryan languages under the formal definition of “Prakrits”. Sauraseni, Magadhi, Maharashtri and Jain Prakrit represent the most prominent and distinct traditions of literature in Ancient India. Ardhamagadhi (literally “half Magadhi”, originating in the ancient Indian state of Magadha around the 5th century), which is often considered the original form of Prakrit, was used to write Jain scriptures. Oriya is believed to be directly descended from this form of the language. The evolution of the Oriya language is divided into five distinct phases. These are : Old Oriya (10th -14th Century), Early Middle Oriya (14th – 16th Century), Middle Oriya (16th – 18th Century), Late Middle Oriya (18th century -1850) and Modern Oriya (1850 - present).

While most modern North Indian languages show a marked confluence of Persian and Arabic, Oriya shows the least influence of Persian and Arabic amongst them all. Most of Oriya's vocabulary derives from Sanskrit. The modern form of the language shows great affinity to the modern languages Bangla (Bengali), Maithili, and Oxomiya (Assamese). Having said that, it remains relatively closer to Sanskrit word roots in terms of colloquial evolution as compared to the others. Due to its Prakrit roots, it shows significant Buddhist and Jain influences as well. The language also has borrows words from Persian, Arabic and from the Austronesian languages spoken by the some inhabitants of Andhra Pradesh. There is great cultural affinity between the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, having been a geographical part of the great ancient Kalinga Empire in India.

The Mughalbandi dialect is generally considered to be the proper and standard form of Oriya. The other regional dialects are named after the major districts that they are spoken in. These are eponymous called Balasori Oriya (Balasore district), Ganjami Oriya (Ganjam district), Desiya Oriya (Koraput in Orissa and in the hilly regions of Vishakhapatnam,Vizianagaram Dist. of Andhra Pradesh, Halbi, Bhatri), Sambalpuri Oriya (Sambalpur district), Kalahandi Oriya (Kalahandi district) and Singhbhum Oriya (Singhbhum district). Midnapuri Oriya is a dialect that has developed in Midnapur in West Bengal, while the Nagpuri, Sardi and Chatishgarhi languages are also considered to be derivatives of the Oriya language.

Oriya has 28 consonant and 6 vowel phonemes. Most vowels can be short on long, and care must be taken to remember that the length of the vowel changes the word meaning completely. Stress in Oriya generally falls on the penultimate syllable of a word, and the language is phonetically similar to Bangla and Oxomiya. Oriya is written with the Oriya script.

Oriya has a strong longstanding literary heritage. The earliest record of prose used can be found in the Madala Panji (Palm-leaf Chronicles) of the Jagannatha temple at Puri, which is an important religious centre for the Oriya people. These records date back to the 12th century. The language was initially standardised through a process of translation of classical codified Sanskrit epics like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Srimad Bhagabatam (The Bhagwad Gita), which had a long oral tradition in ancient India. This would further explain the preponderance of sanskrit vocabulary in spoken Oriya today. Oriya has had a glorious tradition of poetry, especially that of devotional nature. The first great poet of Orissa is the famous Sarala Dasa, who harks back to the 4th century. The next era is more commonly called the Panchasakha Age and stretches till the 18th century. The turn of the 18th century (Bhanja Age or Riti Yuga) bore witness to verbally tricky Oriya becoming popular, with verbal jugglery, subversive colloquial vulgarity and eroticism becoming the trend till about 1850, the most notable poet being Upendra Bhanja (1670-1720). This traditional heritage of poetry continues today, with modern Oriya poetry being the cornerstone of Oriya literature, though there have been some prominent authors in prose, especially short stories.

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