Santali is a language in the sub family of Austro-Asiatic languages. It is spoken by about ten million people in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Most of its speakers are Indian. It is spoken in the States of Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Tripura, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. It belongs to the language family of Munda, Kherwari and Santhali.

Santali was included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution through the Ninety Second Constitutional Amendment in 2003. This language has been there in India since ages. It has its rich traditional literature and cultural value.

Santali language is distantly related to Khmer and Vietnamese languages. Santali is mostly spoken by the Santhal tribe. The Santali speakers are spread over three thousand miles from the river Ganges in the north to the river Baitami in the south. Santali is the only Mundu offshoot language that has been recognised by the Indian government as an official language. As a result of the tribal migration during the nineteenth century, Santali is also found across the entire country as far as Assam in the northeast and even the Andaman and the Nicobar Islands.




It is estimated that the Santali language is older than the Aryan languages. The history of Santali and the Santhals tribe can be found in folklore and songs of the tribe itself. Fa-Hien, the Chinese traveller, was the first to describe about the Santhal tribe. After him, historians have come from different regions and wrote different things about them. One thing that is established is that the Santhals were there since the pre-Aryan period. The Santhals fought with Aryans, both Vedic and non Vedic and later made peace with them. Many of them remained uninfluenced by the Aryan culture and languages for some time.

The Santali language can be classified as part Dravidian, part Austric and part Munda. The Kissam Koya and the Oraon tribes that come from the Dravidian language speaking clans along with the Santhals were the main tribes.

The Santali language has existed for over thousands of years mainly through oral communication. Santali is quite diverse in terms of language, economic status and caste.


Grammar, Dialect and Script


The major Santali dialect is Mahali. Santali is spoken by Santhals and other tribes such as Mahali and the Pahadis.

The script is Ol Chiki. It means the `writing symbol’. It used to be Latin during the British rule. Sadhu Ramchand Murmu used the modern Kherwal script known as `Muj Bandhi’ for the development of Santali language, literature and socio-religious cultural identity in the early part of the twentieth century. Then, the modern Ol Chiki script was developed later in 1925 by Pandit Raghunath Murmu. Ol Chiki has its own alphabet. It is a unique modern developed Indic script which uses both capital and small letters together.

The short hand concept was composed by Pruthunath Murmu to solidify the Ol Chiki script. The formative style of the script proves its natural shape.

The modern Ol Chiki script has six basic vowels a, aa, i, u, e and o and three additional vowels. Santali uses a number of affixes, tense and moods. It has got its own pronouns, numerical and syntactical structure as a fully fledged language.

The Santali alphabet is an indigenous alphabet which is based on traditional symbols as well as pictographs. It is also known as Ol Cemet or `language of writing’. In the earlier days, Santali was written with the Bengali alphabet and sometimes with the Latin alphabet. Santali is not an Indo-European language like most other languages of northern India.

The Indic script did not have letters for all the phonemes of Santali, particularly its stop consonants and vowels. This made it difficult for writing the language accurately in an unmodified Indic script.

The Christian missionaries brought the Latin alphabet into India. Latin was helpful at representing some of Santali’s stops but the vowels still created problems. Unlike most Indic scripts that are derived from Brahmi, Santali’s Ol Chiki is not an abugida but a true alphabet as the vowels are given equal representation with the consonants. One letter was also assigned to each phoneme as the letters were designed specifically for the language.

Santali has thirty letters. The forms of these letters represent natural shapes. The shapes of these letters reflect the names for the letters and the words are normally the names of objects or actions that represent traditional form in the pictorial shape of the characters. Santali is written from left to right. Speech perception in Santali is of simple phonetic contrast of syllables.

The Santali Latin alphabet was invented in the eighteen nineties by the Norwegian missionary, Reverend Paul Olaf Bodding. He was one of the most influential missionaries to have come to India.  

Santali uses thirty letters and five basic diacritics. It does not share any of the syllabic properties of the other scripts like Devanagari. Santali did not have a written language until the twentieth century and used the Latin script until then.




Santali is a language with its own distinct characteristics and has a literature that goes back to the beginning of the fifteenth century. The development of traditional Santali language and literature commenced during the British rule around 1870 by literary loving British people. They built a printing press at Benares for popularising the Santali works over the north eastern region. Many dictionaries, dramas and folk tales were written during this period. Santali literature is now widespread in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and Assam.

Pandit Raghunath Murmu of the Rairangpur District is the father of Ol Chiki script. He brought about somewhat of a renaissance in 1925 by inventing this script. Pandit Murmu enriched the Santali literature by writing dramas, poems and children’s stories. He did a lot for Santali grammar and wrote many books on mathematics too.  The book, `Bakhera’, written by him reflects the Santhal tribal religion. The book contains tribal verses and hymns. Pandit Murmu is popularly known as Guru Gomke among the Santhals. This title was conferred on him by the Mayurbhanj Adibasi Mahasabha.

Pandit Murmu’s philosophy was that modern Santali language and literature should point towards the principle of the identity of self rather than imitation. He felt that the Santhali society can be developed only when education was imposed in its mother tongue and that the cultural identity can only be established when its literature became developed with its own script. This historical path breaking philosophy not only gave the Santhals confidence for the development of modern Santali language and literature but also enabled proper expression of their language.


Santali and the Santhal Culture


The major economic occupation of the Santhals was agriculture, collection of forest produce and cultivation. Their life revolved around the forests. They made mats, baskets and musical equipment from the plants they collected. Literacy rate is very low among people speaking Santali. It is between ten and thirty per cent.

The initial attempt to study the Santali culture was done by the Moghals followed by the Christian missionaries. Many scholars and anthropologists have been attracted for decades to the Santali culture.

In 1933, Dr. Byomkas Chakrabarti, a Bengali research worker on ethnic languages, found out the basic relationship between the Santali and the Bengali languages. He was a poet and a renowned educationist. He showed how the Bengali language has got some distinct characteristics under the influence of Santali language. The reason for doing so was because of the similarities in the use of phonetics. His contribution was vital in the development of Bengali and Santali languages and it offered scope for further research in the field of linguistics.

The Santhals are known for preserving their native language unlike many other tribal groups of India. They were able to preserve the language despite invasions and migrations from the Moghals and the Europeans.

Santali culture is shown in the art works on the walls of the houses of the Santhals. The Santhals love music and dance. The first Santali feature film was `Pilchu Haram Pilchu Buddhi’.

Though Santali has been recognised as an official language in India, it is not much in use these days. Some Santhals who are educated still use it to write books and other literary works. During the British rule, the language was written in the Latin script.


Development of Santali


When the Jharkhand State was created, the Santhal tribes of eastern India demanded the recognition of Ol Chiki as the Santali script. This movement was spearheaded by the Kolkata based All India Santhal Council and the Santali Bhasha Morcha.  These cultural associations were responsible for getting Santali included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

Many literary and cultural societies have been established to promote art, literature and culture through Santali all over the country.  This language has now got a private academy and many printing presses and publishers. The Paschim Bangla Santali Academy was created to promote, advance and develop the study of Santali language and literature.  The academy also encourages the translation and publication of scholarly, historical and literary works into the Santali language. A library has been set up and archives have been built for the purpose of carrying on research work and to gather manuscripts and other articles of reputed scholars in Santali literature and language.

Santali has found a place in the mass communications media. The All India Radio has recognised this language. The transmission of Santali programs has been there from various centres.

Santali is now being taught from the school to the university levels in Jharkhand and Bihar. The University Grants Commission is also providing fellowship for higher studies in Santali language and literature. There are currently more than five hundred writers who are promoting this language.

The installation of the Doordarshan Santali Television satellite channel has also given the chance for the language to grow.  Now, the Santali speaking people can be in touch with both local and international news and other information regarding politics and economy of the world from all over the globe in their own language.

Article Posted By : tahnaklView All Articles

Tahseen Nakavi Juror

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Keywords :
Santali , Bhutan , Assam , Bihar , Jharkhand , Orissa , Tripura , Madhya Pradesh , West Bengal


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