The History and Future of Konkani Language

by Natasha

Konkani is the official language of India’s western and coastal state, Goa. However, the language is spoken widely across four states- Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala, albeit in different dialects, its use is somewhat limited to coastal regions only. It is the only Indian language written in five different scripts - Devnagari, Roman, Kannada, Malayalam and Persian-Arabic.

Though Konkani was recognized as the official language of Goa on January 4, 1987, it was only after five more years, on August 20, 1992, it was given status of a national language in India, through the 71st Amendment to the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Konkani now features in the 15 languages in which the value is printed on Indian Rupee currency notes.

However, a lot of ambiguity, sometimes controversial, exists over the origin of Konkani. While Konkani stands classified as language of Indo-Aryan origin, doubts persist over these claims.

Obscure Origin of Konkani

Generally, Konkani is called as a colloquial version of Marathi, the official language of Maharashtra state. However, various researches indicate, Marathi is an offshoot of Konkani. A paper presented by the Goa University in 2014 and studies by independent researchers from India and abroad suggest, Konkani was spoken by Indo-Austric tribes- Kukna (or Kokna) and Gamit. They are believed to have arrived in India from Central Asia or Eastern Europe around 50,000 years ago. Theories say, these tribes traveled over the Saraswati River towards south-western India and eventually settled along coastal regions from Maharashtra to Kerala. It is believed they settled around Gomanchal Parbat (or part of modern day Sahayadri mountain range in Goa) and flourished. And so did Konkani language.


While Kukna and Gamit tribes are credited for proliferating Konkani language on India’s western coast, no traces of these ancient people remain. Theories about their disappearance are rife. According to some researchers, these tribes hastily fled Goa due to invasion or catastrophe. Others claim, they mingled with indigenous Dravidian folk and eventually assimilated into the mainstream communities of the region. Regardless of which theory one subscribes, traces of Kukna and Gamit tribes have been obliterated in India over eons. However, their legacy, the Konkani language, has strong influences of Sanskrit and Prakrit. This lends credence to the theory that Konkani is indeed an Indo-Aryan language, if one studies its structure. However, Konkani could have undergone an overall change from a tribal dialect to a sophisticated language due to various sieges of Goa and other coastal regions where it is spoken.

Konkani Embattled

History of Goa as well as Konkan (or Kokan) region of Maharashtra, Karnataka and a small stretch of Kerala indicates it was ruled by several ancient dynasties. These include Konkan Maurya, a branch of the famous Maurya dynasty founded by Emperor Chandragupta of Pataliputra (now Patna). Around 297 BC and 273 BC, Emperor Chandragupta Maurya’s son, Bindusara gained control over much of southern India, including Konkani speaking regions. The region eventually came under the reign of Satavahana, Kadamba, Vijayanagara dynasties and myriad others. Over centuries, parts of Goa came under rule from Marathas of Pune, Adil Shah Bahman, a ruler of Iranian origin who founded the Bijapur sultanate in Karnataka. Goa was wrested away from Adil Shah by the Portuguese though parts of the state remained under Maratha rule.

Conquests and Their Influence

Conquests by rulers of various ethnicities, is believed to have lent Konkani its own unique structure. One example is inscriptions found on a giant Jain religious structure or dome seen in present day Gomateshwara shrine Sravanabelgola in Karnataka. The legend, in Konkani credits its construction to Chavundaraja, a confederate of South India’s Talakkad dynasty. These inscriptions are in a variant of the Nagari script, common to that era, although the words are indubitably in Konkani.

Portuguese conquests and the Inquisition of Goa caused many Konkani speaking people to flee the state and seek refuge in Karnataka and Kerala. Adil Shah’s military had several soldiers from the Levant and North Africa who also spoke Konkani and were Jews. They are believed to have sought safe haven in coastal states of South India to flee forcible conversion during the inquisition. Consequently, the language spread further and became a dialect spoken along coastal Karnataka and parts of Kerala too.

Evolution under Portugal

With Portuguese strengthening their hold over Goa, the colonial rulers faced a dilemma. As the influence of local scripts, especially Devnagari ebbed under Portuguese rule for several reasons the foreign administrators were forced to look for alternatives to communicate with locals. Hence arose a new version of Konkani, liberally interspersed with Portuguese words and written in Roman alphabet.

Down south, Konkani got influenced by Kannada and Tulu languages while northwards, Konkani, spoken in Konkan regions of Maharashtra, began its tilt towards Marathi. Today, Konkani is spoken in different dialects in all these regions.

Tribal and Communal Influences

Interestingly, Konkani is also influenced by dialects used by various tribes and communities. For example, people of North Goa speak the language differently than their counterparts in southern regions of the state. As we move towards the southern borders of Goa, Konkani assumes a newer dialect and is influenced by Kannada and Kerala.

Further, people of tribal origin in Goa speak Konkani much differently from those termed as ‘upper caste.’ Additionally, there is a vast difference between Konkani language spoken by Hindu, Christian and Muslim communities in these states. For example, Muslims of Bhatkal in Karnataka speak a version of Konkani heavily influenced by Kannada, Urdu and Arabic. Indeed, the manner in which a person speaks Konkani betrays ethnicity such as native land, caste and religion. Unfortunately, this diversity in a single language has not saved it from what now appears imminent extinction of Konkani language.

Konkani on the Decline

Despite obscure yet ancient heritage, Konkani in recent years is on decline. There are several contributors towards this steady ebb. One reason is mass migration of Goa residents to foreign countries, especially Portugal. The European country which ruled Goa till December 19, 1961 offers Portuguese citizenship to people who were born during their rule, and their children. Consequently, an estimated half million families have migrated to Portugal under this scheme and onwards to the UK, US and Canada.

Further, English-medium schools in Goa offer Konkani as an optional language in their curriculum. Due to incessant barrage of Bollywood movies and songs in Hindi, youth of Goa and other Konkani speaking regions consider it trendy to claim they cannot speak or write their native tongue. Konkani in Maharashtra is overwhelmed by education in Marathi while predominance of Kannada makes it impossible for growth of the language in Karnataka.

Rifts over Konkani

Several internal rifts also divide native Konkani speakers. For example, Konkani in Goa is written in two scripts- Devnagari, the official one and Romi or Roman script. There is a lot of dissimilarity between the two. Proponents of Konkani written in Roman script are lobbying for its recognition as official language of the state too. However, this lobbying is impeded by differences over it usage: Roman script Konkani is widely popular among Christians of Goa and Karnataka while Devnagari is favored by Hindus. Since words used by the two communities differ in meaning and sometimes in pronunciation, the issue seems deadlocked.

In Kerala, the language is represented in Malayalam script while in coastal Karnataka, it is written in Kannada and Persian-Arabic scripts.

Destruction of Konkani Culture

While Portuguese rulers are blamed for trying to eradicate Konkani culture, the Indian government too has played a role towards its destruction. Indian Air Force bombed the Portuguese radio station, Emisora de Goa during preemptive raids before launching a land and naval assault on the state. Consequently, recordings of Konkani plays and songs made during the Portuguese era were destroyed. Indian authorities, especially All India Radio is struggling to find equipment that can play old recordings, in a bid to digitize whatever remains. Recordings owned by old music companies are inaccessible due to lawsuits.

Konkani Revival Movement

Despite these bleak scenarios, there are some efforts to revive Konkani to whatever extent possible. In 2007, about seven million people spread across Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala spoke Konkani. Migration to Portugal and other parts of India over the last 11 years would definitely have denuded this number. Hence, independent movements in Goa and Karnataka are working to revive the language before it becomes altogether extinct. Several organizations now flourish in Goa and Karnataka, among other places, to keep the language alive.

A miniscule minority of Goan origin in Pakistan, primarily based in Karachi, attempts to keep Konkani alive by holding ‘tiatrs’ or theatrical plays in the language regularly.

People from Goa residing in North America, Europe and countries of the Middle East have socio-cultural organizations where Konkani is celebrated and used.

Current Status of Konkani

Recognizing the rapid decline, various organizations are playing a key role of preserving and promoting use of Konkani language. Prominent among these are All India Konkani Parishad, Goa Konkani Akademi and Delgado Konkani Akademi, based in Goa. The Karnataka state government helped constitute the Karnataka Konkani Sahittya Academy. Combined efforts of these and other organizations helped establishment of the World Konkani Center in Mangalore, Karnataka. The facility was opened on January 17, 2009 and aims at preserving the language across India and among Konkani speaking Indian diaspora worldwide. Konkani Rocks, a Panaji, Goa based entertainment brand brings renowned and budding Konkani singers together to hold shows in the state and elsewhere.

In Conclusion

Even as efforts are made to revive Konkani, the language seems to be fading. A clear example is, there are no broadcast or satellite TV stations in India that offer exclusively Konkani programs, though there is no dearth of artists. State-run TV channel Doordarshan’s Goa station also airs programs in Konkani for very limited durations daily. Original songs by popular Konkani artist and movies are hard to find at music stores and YouTube. Further, individuals are using decline of Konkani to further their political interests rather than preserve the ancient language and culture. Any talk of reviving Konkani therefore leaves an aftertaste of political agendas rather than a cultural move. Given these scenarios, extremely serious and concentrated efforts are required to preserve Konkani language and its culture.

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