The main economic activity of the members of Maithili speech community is farming. But Maithils in Bihar have had the earliest education – both Sanskritic and modern education. In ancient and medieval India, therefore, Maithil scholars were well-known all over India in several disciplines. Today, they are found in very high numbers in government jobs and also in skilled activities.
Presently, the number of Maithili speakers is estimated to be 50 million. But this needs some elaboration.
In 1891, Grierson (1908) had estimated the number of speakers of Maithili as 9,289,376. As against this, Census 1961 figures showed 4,982,615. Obviously, the Census 1961 figures are not realistic. Although Grierson’s (1909) population estimates based on his survey done in 1891 were not agreed upon by all, at the turn of the present century Maithili was spoken in the following regions:
- all Darbhanga and Bhagalpur,
- 6/7th of Muzaffarpur
iii. 1/2 of Monghyr
- 2/3rd of Purnea, and
- 4/5 of the so-called “Hindi” speakers (enumerated in the Census) under the Santhal Parganas.
During 1816, a part of the northern speech area was permanently annexed by the Kingdom of Nepal. Therefore, for the total number of speakers, about 14% population of Nepal will have to be added.
Paul Brass (1974: 64-6) uses Gait’s computation (cf. Census 1901) based on various documents available through 1885 and arrives at the figure of 16,565,477. The calculation here is based on Grierson’s estimates plus the growth of overall population for Bihar over these 8 decades. On the basis of 1981 figures, and considering the figures of scattered Maithilis outside the Mithila area, and considering the population in the 10 districts (out of 31), I and my colleagues had, in the mid-1980s, arrived at the figure of 22,972,807. (Cf. Singh, Rajaram & Bose 1985). This figure, considering the decennial increase of population, has gone up to 40 million.
Census estimates or official figures of speakers of Maithili have not remained stable. If we look at the decennial increase or decrease of Maithili speakers in all Census figures since 1891 base, we find tremendous fluctuations as in the following:
1901 – 11: + 3.12%
1911 – 21: – 0.77%
1921 – 31: + 7.68%
1931 – 41: + 9.13%
1941 – 51: Not conducted
1951 – 61: + 22.35%
1961 – 71: + 20.89%
1971 – 81: + 24.19%
The fact of the matter is that the number of Maithili speakers have reasonably steadily increased. The 2011 Census figures are yet to come out but according to Wiki estimates, the total number is 50 million in India with 3.7 million in Nepal.
It is estimated that the inhabitants of Mithila region who understand, speak, read or write this language are as follows:
Skills:% of Total Number
Although it can only be a guess, it is believed that only 25% to 30% of speakers may be monolingual. Most male speakers and educated females (less than 20% of total females in Mithila) too, speak Hindi besides Maithili. Those Maithili speakers living near western Bihar also speak in Bhojpuri and those in the Patna-Ranchi-Gaya-Monghyr region know Magahi, too, in addition to Hindi. Only a tiny percentage, less than 5% of Maithils, can also speak effectively in English. However, today we do find Maithils as successful administrators, entrepreneurs, technocrats as well as authors-teachers-public figures in a large number. Interestingly, the 1931-Census data gives us a caste-wise literacy figure which is difficult to ascertain now. For instance, it is interesting to note that even then 37.2% Kayasthas were literate as against 18.48% Brahmins, 13.56% Bhumihars and 12.05% Rajputs. It should not be surprising if the leadership of the Maithili language movement was drawn mainly from Brahmin and Kayasthas.
As such, the speech community is not in danger, because of its sheer numerical strength. Of late, there has been a 500% increase in Maithili speakers in Nepal. Besides, educated Maithils do occupy the very important position of power. Thee have also been a five-hundred-year-old system of maintenance of family records (called `Paanjii’) to certify the pedigree of each important family. Therefore, as a community, it does not feel the threat of extinction. The threat could only be internal in case there is a shift in linguistic identity which has been witnessed among the Hindus in Punjab in several decades.