Middle Indo-Aryan is divided into three stages, and it covers a period ranging from 500 B.C. to a.d. 1000. The first stage is represented by Pali and the inscriptions of Asoka and later rulers, and comprises the period up to shortly after the Christian era. The term Prakrit, when used in the narrow sense, applies to the second stage.
It consists of the dialects described by the Prakrit grammarians, and it is exemplified in the drama, and in certain lyric and epic poems in the Maharashtra dialect, but principally in the canonical and post-canonical writings of the Jains.
The drama is governed by an interesting convention, according to which kings, ministers, and learned men speak Sanskrit, while men of lower status and women speak Prakrit, a practice reflecting, no doubt, the current usage of the time. Various Prakrit dialects are used in drama, according to the prescriptions of the grammarians.
The language of ordinary dialogue is SaurasenI, which would strictly be the dialect of the Mathura region, but which no doubt represents the language of the wider area now known as Uttar Pradesh. The Maharashtra dialect, based on what is now the Maratha territory is used for the lyrics that occur from time to time in the drama, and outside the drama it was the recognized medium for the composition of Prakrit poetry.
The Magadhi dialect, by a partly artificial convention, is used for the speech of the lower characters in drama, and other minor dialects are supposed to be used for specific purpose. The use of these various dialects is best exemplified by the Mricchakatika, which is perhaps the earliest of the surviving dramas.
As already observed, Ardhamagadhi is the language of the Svetambara Jaina canon; the non-canonical Prakrit literature of the Jainas is composed in either Jaina-Maharashtra (Svetambaras) or Jaina- Saurasenl (Digambaras).
Finally there is the curiously named Pharisaical (language of the goblins), in which the Brihatkatha of Gunadhya was composed, but which is unfortunately no longer preserved. The north-western Prakrit (‘ Gandhara’) lies outside the scope of the Prakrit grammarians and of classical literature; the Dhammapada, translated into this language, has already been mentioned. In addition there is an extensive series of documents from Central Asia testifying to its use as an administrative language even outside the boundaries of India.
The third and final stage of Middle Indo-Aryan is represented by what is known as Apabhramsa. This represents a stage of linguistic development roughly half-way between Prakrit and the modern Indo-Aryan languages, and its period is roughly a.d. 600-1000.
The earliest specimen would be the Apabhramsa verses appearing in the fourth act of Kalidasa’s Vikramorvasiya, but there is doubt as to their authenticity. This form of language is described by some of the Prakrit grammarians, and an extensive Jaina literature in Apabhramsa, mostly dated round about the end of the period, has been published in recent years.
The emergence of the modern Indo-Aryan languages dates from the period after a.d. 1000, when already the division of the regional languages was assuming the shape that is familiar today. The main block of Indo-Aryan stretches as a solid mass across north and central India.
In addition there are certain minor and eccentric languages outside the main block, which are of no literary importance but are often of great interest for linguistic history. Such are the Dardic languages of the north-west, which are both extraordinarily numerous and remarkably archaic.
The gypsy languages were taken to the Near East and Europe by itinerant tribes who probably left India about a.d. 500 or shortly after. The only literary language outside the main block is Sinhalese, which was introduced into the island by settlers from north India about the time of Buddha.
It is of great interest both on account of its independent growth, and because of the fact that, with the help of inscriptions, an almost continuous picture of its development can be formed. Its literature is extensive and the earliest portions of it considerably antedate the earliest literature produced in the modern languages of north India.
The modern languages of the main block of Indo-Aryan developed very much on parallel lines, since there were no major geographical obstacles inhibiting mutual contact. Eventually the following literary languages emerged:
The literary development of these languages took place at various times, MarathI and Guajarati being among the earliest. Linguistic difference was often associated with differences of alphabet, e.g. in the case of Oriya, Bengali, Panjabi (Gurumukhi), and Guajarati, which have alphabets of their own differing from the usual Devanagri (Hindi and MarathI, and, according to modern practice, Sanskrit).
Of greater importance was the introduction of the Arabic script by the Muslims for certain languages. In the case of Hindi this led to the development of two different literary languages, Urdu and Hindi, based originally on the same spoken dialect.
Apart from the Muslim influence the development of the modern Indo- Aryan languages followed the same lines. The early literature was predominantly religious and almost exclusively poetic. In form and subject-matter it was based on Sanskrit models. An important new feature in the modern languages, as opposed to the earlier Middle Indo-Aryan, was the introduction, on an extensive scale, of Sanskrit loanwords.
In Prakrit, even at the Apa- bhramsa stage, words might in fact be derived from Sanskrit, but they always appeared disguised as Prakrit by the operation of phonetic rules. At the stage of Modern Indo-Aryan this practice was no longer feasible and the Sanskrit words had to be introduced as such.
Another consideration was the poverty of the vernacular languages, due to the continued use of Sanskrit at the expense of the spoken languages down to a late date. This was a situation which could only be dealt with by drawing extensively on the vocabulary of Sanskrit. In the Muslim-dominated literary languages, a similar position was held by Arabic and Persian.
The development of the modern Indo-Aryan languages continued on these lines until the eighteenth century, after which the full effect of British rule and European civilization began to be felt. The introduction of printing, which took place in north India about this time, had a profound effect on the development of language and literature.
Works in prose, as well as poetry, began to be produced, the range of subjects for literature was extended and modernized, and literary output progressively increased. The processes initiated at this period have continued with increasing tempo till the present day.
Among the modern Indo-Aryan languages, the position of Hindi is of outstanding importance, since it has been officially accepted as the national language of India. Its history is also more complicated than that of the others.