Sanskrit (???????; in devanagari) is one of the oldest known members of the Indo-European language family, and an official language of India. Having first developed around 1500 BC, It has sometimes been described as the Asian equivalent to Latin for its role in the religious and historical literature of India. Sanskrit is also the ancestor of the Prakrit languages of India, such as Pali and Ardhamagadhi. Scholars have preserved more Sanskrit documents than documents in Latin and Greek combined. The Vedic scriptures were written in a form of Sanskrit.
The word Sanskrit means completed, refined, perfected. Sam (Together) + krtam (created). Virtually every Sanskrit student in India learns the traditional story that Sanskrit was created and then refined over many generations (traditionally more than a thousand years) until it was considered complete and perfect. The original crude language from which Sanskrit was derived could be Prakrit which means Prototype. Pra (prime, first, pre-) + krt (created).
The language underwent several stages of consolidation and modification. In its older Vedic form, it is a close descendant of Proto-Indo-European, the root of all later Indo-European languages. Vedic Sanskrit is also practically identical to Avestan, the language of Zoroastrianism. After the consolidation of its grammar and lexicon it turned into a classical language of strict esthetic rules and gave rise to considerable literature of drama, medicine, politics, astronomy, mathematics, alchemy etc.
Its common origin with modern European and the more familiar classical languages of Greek and Latin can be seen, for instance, in the Sanskrit words for mother, matr, and father, pitr. European scholarship in Sanskrit, initiated by Heinrich Roth and Johann Ernest Hanxleden, led to the discovery of this language family by Sir William Jones, and thus played an important role in the development of linguistics. Indeed, linguistics (along with phonology, etc.) was first developed by Indian grammarians who were attempting to catalog and codify Sanskrit’s rules. Modern linguistics, which arose much later in the rest of the world, owes a great deal to the grammarians, including key terms for compound analysis.
Sanskrit is the oldest member of Indo-Aryan sub-branch of Indo-Iranian. Vedic Sanskrit and Avestan are the oldest members of the Indo-Iranian sub-branch of the Indo-European family. Nuristani languages, spoken in roughly what has become Afghanistan, are grouped with Vedic and Avestan.
The oldest form of Sanskrit is Vedic, in which the Vedas, the earliest Sanskrit texts, were composed. The earliest of the Vedas, the Rîgveda, was composed in the middle of the second millennium BC. The Vedic form survived until the middle of the first millennium BC. Around this time, as Sanskrit made the transition from a first language to a second language of religion and learning, the Classical period began. The intense study of the structure of Sanskrit at this time led to the beginnings of linguistics. The oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar is P??ini‘s c. 500 BC A???dhy?y? (“8 Chapter Grammar”). A form of Sanskrit called Epic Sanskrit is seen in the Mahabharata and other epics. Vernacular Sanskrit may have developed into the Prakrits (in which, among other things, early Buddhist texts are written) and the modern Indic languages. There has been much reciprocal influence between Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages.
See also: Upanishad
Sanskrit today is generally written in the syllabic Devanagari script composed of 51 letters or aksharas. Several Latin-alphabet transliterations of varying utility are also available. Previously Sanskrit was written in the Brahmi script which was used especially by Ashoka for his pillar inscriptions. Siddham was also an important script for Buddhist texts, and was exported along with Buddhism as far as Japan (via China, and Korea) where the writing of Siddham mantras and seed syllables is still practiced. Writing was introduced relatively late to India, and did not immediately become important since scholars were required to recite texts from memory. However some early Buddhist texts make reference to writing as an occupation, and as a children’s game. Rhys Davids suggests that writing may have been introduced from the middle east by traders, but Sanskrit, which was used exclusively in sacred contexts, remained a purely oral language until well into the common era.
Sanskrit had some influence on the Chinese culture because Buddhism was initially transmitted to China in Sanskrit. Many Chinese Buddhist scriptures were written with Chinese transliterations of Sanskrit words. Some Chinese proverbs use Buddhist terms that originate from Sanskrit.
Sanskrit words are found in many present-day languages. For instance the Thai language contains many loan words from Sanskrit, and ranged as far as the Philippines viz. Tagalog ‘guru’, or ‘teacher’, with the Hindu seafarers who traded there well before Magellan.
Phonology and writing system
Sanskrit has 48 phonemes (Vedic Sanskrit has 49). The Sanskrit syllabary serves as a model for all Indian language writing systems except Urdu. For the ingenious phonetic classification scheme of these writing systems see Indian language.
The sounds are described here in their traditional order: vowels, stops and nasals (starting in the back if the mouth and moving forward), and finally the liquids and sibilants.
(Note: The long vowels are held about twice as long as their short counterparts. Also, there exists a third, extra-long length for most vowels, which is used in various cases, but particularly when recording a shout, or a greeting.)
a – gut
aa – father
i – pin
ii – tweak
u – push
uu – moo
r^i = between r + i and r + u
long r^i = between r + ii or r + uu
l^i = l + r^i
(Sanskrit recognizes vocalic r (errr) and l (ulll), unlike, say, English)
e – hay
ai – aisle
o – snow
au – pow
Vowels can be nasalized.
Sanskrit has a voiceless, voiceless aspirate, voiced, voiced aspirate, and nasal stop at each of the following places of articulation:
- Velar (soft palate) (k, kh, g, gh, n as in ing)
- Palatal (hard palate) (c, ch, j, jh, ~n)
- Retroflex (roughly the place of articulation of English alveolars like t, but with the tongue curled back) (t, th, d, dh, n)
- Dental (tongue against teeth, like Spanish) (t, th, d, dh, n)
- Labial (with the lips) (p, ph, b, bh, m)
It also has four semivowels: y, r, l, v. All of these but r have nasalized forms. Sanskrit also has palatal, retroflex, and alveolar sibilants. Rounding out the consonants are the voiced and voiceless h (the voiceless h, called the visarga, tends to repeat the preceding vowel after itself) and the anusvaara, which often appears as nasalization of the preceding vowel or as a nasal homorganic to the following consonant.
Vedas Sanskrit had a pitch (music) or tonal accent, but it was lost by the Classical period. Vedic Sanskrit also had labial and velar fricatives and a retroflex L.
Sanskrit has an elaborate set of phonological rules called sandhi and samaas which are expressed in its writing (except in so-called pada texts). Sandhi reflects the sort of blurring that occurs, particularly between word-boundaries, in spoken language generally, but is codified in Sanskrit and written down. A simple example of English sandhi is “an apple” versus “a clock”.
Sandhi makes Sanskrit very hard to read without a great deal of practice. It also creates ambiguities which clever poets have exploited to perform such feats as writing poems which can be interpreted in multiple, unrelated ways depending on how the reader chooses to break apart the sandhi.
Sanskrit is a highly inflected language with three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) and three numbers (singular, plural, dual). It has eight cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, and locative. It has over ten noun declensions.
Sanskrit has ten classes of verbs divided into in two broad groups: athematic and thematic. The thematic verbs are so called because an a, called the theme vowel, is inserted between the stem and the ending. This serves to make the thematic verbs generally more well-behaved. Exponents utilized in verb conjugation include prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and reduplication. Also extremely common is vowel gradation; every root has (not necessarily all distinct) zero, guna, and vrdhii grades. If V is the vowel of the zero grade, the guna grade vowel is traditionally thought of a V + a, and the vrdhii grade vowel as V + aa.
One other notable feature of the nominal system is the very common use of nominal compounds, which may be huge (10+ words) like in some modern languages like German language. Nominal compounds occur with various meanings, some examples of which are:
Bahuvrihi, or much-rice, denotes a rich person–one who has much rice. Bahuvrihi compounds refer to a thing which is not specified in any of the parts of which the compound is formed. A block-head, for example, is someone whose head is said to be as thick as a block.
A compound in which all of the words specify that to which the compound refers. A houseboat, for example, is both a house and a boat.
There are many tatpurushas (one for each of the nominal cases, and a few others besides); in a tatpurusha, one component is related to another. For example, a doghouse is a dative compound, a house for a dog. It would be called a “caturtitatpurusha” (caturti refers to the fourth case–that is, the dative). Incidentally, “tatpurusha” is a tatpurusha (“this man”–meaning someone’s agent), while “caturtitatpurusha” is a karmadhariya, being both dative, and a tatpurusha.
The verbs tenses (a very inexact application of the word, since more distinctions than simply tense are expressed) are organized into four ‘systems’ (plus gerunds and infinitives, along with such creatures as intensives/frequentives, desideratives, causatives, and benedictives derived from more basic forms). Each verb is also has a grammatical voice: either active, passive or middle. (Middle indicates actions done to something other than the speaker for the speaker’s own benefit. The semantic distinction between middle and passive is not maintained in later Sanskrit). The four systems are:
Word order is free with tendency toward SOV.
Here is a simple example to illustrate the different contexts in which the cases are used for the pronouns:
mayaa tatam idam sarvam jagad
matsthaani sarvabhuutaani na caaham
teshv avasthitah ||
-- Giitaa (9.4)
“mayaa” (by me) in the first line is in the instrumental case. Word for word this says “by me is pervaded this all universe” but a naturalized translation would be “I pervade all this universe…”.
“mat-sthaani” in the second line is a compound of “mat” (me) and “stha” (standing, staying at) and means “they are in me”.
“-aham” (I) in the second line is nominative. na caaham = “…and not I….”, meaning “but I am not…”.
“teshv-” (in/at/by them) at the end of the second line is in locative plural. Translated: “…in them”.