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Sanskrit (in Devanagari: संस्कृतम्) is the classical language of India, and one of the liturgical languages of Hinduism, the language of the Vedas and Upanishads. It is also the language of the Indian epic poems, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is one of the oldest and earliest attested of the Indo-European languages; parts of the Rig Veda are believed to date back to around 1500 BCE.
When Sanskrit was encountered by British colonialists in India, it became clear to them that the language was related to Classical Greek (a language that all Brits of above average schooling had a knowledge of at the time) and other Indo-European languages. This led to the then-startling discovery that the languages of at least some people in India shared a common ancestor with the languages spoken by most Europeans (hence the terms "Indo-European" and "Indo-Germanic). However, the common belief at the time that all Indian languages are related to Sanskrit is demonstrably wrong.
Various Hindu nationalists, and Hare Krishna devotees such as Stephen Knapp, have asserted that Sanskrit is the original language of the human race. One motivation behind these claims appears to be a wish to assert that the Sanskrit language, and the Aryan people who spoke it, did not arise elsewhere, but rather are indigenous to India and arose locally. Even if their ancestors had moved into the area before 1500 BC, that still makes them outsiders, apparently; they do not want this. These writers will take exception to the usual claims of historical linguistics, that:
- there exists a Proto-Indo-European language that existed prior to Sanskrit, and is ancestral to it; or
- the ancestor of Sanskrit developed outside of India, and was spread to the subcontinent by Aryan migrations.
A related claim is that the Brahmi alphabet, which is the ultimate source of all the wide variety of native alphabets in India, South Asia, and parts beyond, was not derived from existing alphabets. Instead, the Brahmi scripts have been claimed by some to descend from the undeciphered writing system of the Indus Valley civilization, despite the intervention of a millennium and a half of illiteracy between the disappearance of the Indus Valley civilization and the first Brahmi inscriptions. Also the fact that Sankrit has thus far not been useful in the deciphering of the Indus valley script might indicate the two are unrelated.
"Since the start of human civilization on the earth, people and the Sages both spoke pure Sanskrit language.... Sanskrit is the source of all the languages of the world and not a derivation of any language. As such, Sanskrit is the Divine mother language of the world." This
tripe literature resorts to many of the standard tropes of denialism. For instance, because there is disagreement among linguists about the Indo-European homeland, claiming that it is native to India is as likely as any other explanation:
“”So, as we can see, most of these ideas are but speculations that remain ever-changing, or, to put it plainly, inconclusive. Nonetheless, some people think that the original language has indeed already been identified, and has been around for thousands of years, if not longer, which is Sanskrit, which is the oldest of all languages and from which all other languages are but derivatives. Whatever factors for a Proto-Indo-European language the scholars are looking for can be found in Sanskrit.
“”When a language is spoken by unqualified people the pronunciation of the word changes to some extent; and when these words travel by word of mouth to another region of the land, with the gap of some generations, it permanently changes its form and shape to some extent. Just like the Sanskrit word matri, with a long ‘a’ and soft ‘t,’ became mater in Greek and mother in English. The last two words are called the ‘apbhransh’ of the original Sanskrit word ‘matri.’ Such apbhranshas of Sanskrit words are found in all the languages of the world and this situation itself proves that Sanskrit was the mother language of the world.
Others have made weaker claims of the primacy of Sanskrit. David Frawley, an astrologer in the Hindu tradition, argues that Sanskrit must be indigenous to the Indian subcontinent because the language itself is too sophisticated to have been spoken by "barbarian hordes". Never mind that cultures considered "primitive" by technological societies tend to have more complex languages.
Other, even more curious claims have been made for Sanskrit literature; it has been claimed that the Ramayana is two million years old, and includes gomphotheres. Under accepted chronologies, this would mean that the poem was written by Homo habilis, who apparently spoke Sanskrit. This seems, shall we say, unlikely.
Sanskrit is not the first language
Sanskrit is descended from Proto-Indo-European. But many features shared among other Indo-European languages, and which can be shown to be the result of inheritance from the original protolanguage, cannot be derived from Sanskrit alone.
There are many features of the Proto-Indo-European language whose existence is attested by the comparative evidence, which are not found in Sanskrit:
- The so-called “laryngeal” sounds, for instance, that are widely agreed to have existed in Proto-Indo-European, are not preserved as such in Sanskrit (though their trace effects account for some of the metrical irregularities in the Rig Veda). Hittite and other ancient Anatolian languages preserve them better, and they also leave telltale signs in Ancient Greek, Latin, Classical Armenian, and Old Irish.
- Sanskrit also collapses the vowels e ē o ō of Proto-Indo-European to a and ā. As such, Indo-European words like Latin octō, Greek οκτώ ("eight"), which clearly had *o originally, appear in Sanskrit as aṣṭa (अष्ट). Once again, the vowels of the Latin and Greek forms cannot be derived from the Sanskrit, because they preserve a distinction Sanskrit lost. Sanskrit must have changed these sounds in the interim. All occurrences of the vowel a in Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit owe their origin to Indo-Euopean combinations of h₂ with e, which is probably due to vowel retraction caused by an uvular consonant (h₂=χ).  
- Proto-Indo-European contained the labialized velar stops *kʷ and *gʷ. That these consonants had a 'w' component can be established by Latin quod (/kʷod/) and English what /ʍʌt/, requiring the reconstructed Indo-European root to be *kʷō-. The Sanskrit cognate of quod and what is kah (कः); in Sanskrit this 'w' quality is consistently lost. The Sanskrit form cannot be ancestral to the Latin or the English.
- Sanskrit is also a satem language. This is a group of Indo-European languages that underwent a common sound shift; at some point in their history, a sound reconstructed as *ḱ was palatized to s. They stand in contrast to the centum languages, which preserved the underlying sound as k. The names derive from the Latin word centum (in Classical Latin /kɛn.tʊ̃ /) and the Indo-Iranian Avestan word satəm (Sanskrit शतम्, śatam), both meaning "one hundred". In Sanskrit, this sound has regularly shifted; Sanskrit is in fact closely related to its sister Indo-Iranian language Avestan.
- Additional changes made by Sanskrit were the loss of the syllabic nasals m̥, n̥, and the *l sound. The PIE preposition h₂m̥bʰi, meaning around, on either side of, became amphí in Greek (where the m is still present), but abhi in Sanskrit (where the m has disappeared). Vedic merged the *r and *l sounds, so where English has wolf and Russian has волк (volk), Sanskrit has वृक (vṛka).
In short, we can be certain that Sanskrit has changed several of its sounds from the ancestral form, and merged them with sounds it already had. The entire sound inventory of Proto-Indo-European cannot therefore be recovered from the evidence of Sanskrit alone, and the method of comparative reconstruction requires inputs from other Indo-European languages. Sanskrit cannot be the sole ancestor of the Indo-European languages, much less all the world's languages.
The lexicon of the Indo-European languages quite simply suggests that the people who spoke the language ancestral to Sanskrit were not all that familiar with the features of the Indian subcontinent. The words they had suggest that they lived elsewhere.
They had words for trees like ash, apple, oak, linden, aspen, pine, but nothing for palm tree or sandalwood, for example. They knew animals: bear, wolf, hound, turtle, elk, deer, trout/salmon, rabbit, horse, cow, but no words can be reconstructed for tiger or elephant. They had words for snow but none for typhoon or monsoon. While there are a number of competing proposals for locating the Indo-European homelands, these focus on steppe or woodland territories from Northern Europe, the Ukraine, and Anatolia. The reconstructed lexicon of Indo-European does not suggest that they came from a tropical or subtropical area.
And, by contrast, in the Dravidian languages, most of which are spoken in southern India, words can be reconstructed for trees like banyan, neem, coconut, mango, palmyra and tamarind; crops like rice paddy, yam, banana, sugarcane, and ginger, and animals like tiger, elephant, mongoose, cobra and monkey. The people who originally spoke Sanskrit had no names for any of those tropical animals or plants. This suggests that the Dravidian languages were first spoken in a place where rice paddies, cobras, and ginger could be found. Unlike the Sanskrit homeland, the homeland of the Dravidian languages seems tropical or subtropical, and looks a lot like India.
Sanskrit, in turn, borrowed many of these words, even borrowing certain Munda and Dravidian sounds. Sanskrit words for which Dravidian etymologies are certain include kulāya, "nest", kulpha, "ankle", daṇḍa, "stick", kūla, "slope", bila, "hollow", and khala, "threshing floor". According to F. B. J. Kuiper, approximately 4% of the lexicon of the Rig Veda is not Indo-European, but was borrowed from Dravidian or Munda languages.
There were bears and wolves, but no cobras or tigers, where the language ancestral to Sanskrit was spoken. While Sanskrit is foundational to the languages and culture of northern India, its own ancestors came from outside the region.
Sanskrit and artificial intelligence
A widely repeated claim is that Sanskrit is somehow an ideal language for computing, artificial intelligence, or science generally. It is also believed that Sanskrit is widely used at NASA in computing.
These claims go back to a single 1985 paper by Rick Briggs in which Briggs claimed that, while most natural languages are "cumbersome and ambiguous in their function as vehicles for the transmission of logical data", Sanskrit's grammatical tradition rendered the language so transparent that he believed that it was uniquely suited for computing. "Among the accomplishments of the grammarians can be reckoned a method for paraphrasing Sanskrit in a manner that is identical not only in essence but in form with current work in Artificial Intelligence. This article demonstrates that a natural language can serve as an artificial language also, and that much work in AI has been reinventing a wheel millenia old."
Briggs is right about this much. The grammatical tradition and analysis of Sanskrit, culminating in the Astyadhyayi (अष्टाध्यायी, "Eight Chapters") of Pāṇini (पाणिनि) was remarkably sophisticated. It included a complex, abstract notation for both phonological and combinatory features of the language. It was a more sophisticated analysis of language than anything that appeared in the Western world before the mid-20th century with the analyses of De Saussure and Noam Chomsky. It also seems obvious that Pāṇini's grammar represents the culmination of a long preceding tradition of analysis, now lost or subsumed in his work.
This sophistication, however, reflects the religious imperative of carefully preserving the methods for correct recitation of the Vedas. Hinduism held that their correct pronunciation was vital for their effectiveness in worship. The texts were preserved by oral recitation and memorization. For much of the history of India, it was held to be a sin to write down the Vedas. This required attention to detail, to prevent the oral Vedic texts from becoming subjected to the predictable processes of linguistic drift and change.
This attention to detail was also important because Sanskrit is in fact an ordinary natural language. And a fairly hairy one at that: it is a typical older Indo-European language of the highly inflected kind that gives computers fits. It has ten separate classes of verbs with complicated inflections that change the "grade" of the stem and lengthen or omit vowels. Pāṇini's grammar is terse and complex because it had to be. In short, if you had to learn Latin (or Ancient Greek for that matter) at some point in your life, you can imagine the level of complexity Sanskrit grammar must have had. Almost all major Indo-European languages have lost a lot of their inflection and other complicated grammatical features over time. Sanskrit being three and a half millennia old in its oldest preserved texts of course retains a lot of them. In short: Latin ain't got shit on Sanskrit. The language retained primitive features because it was deliberately kept from changing by people who thought the words were magic.
- Johnson, Indian historical linguistics: setting the record straight The Economist, May 13, 2013.
- Hey kids! Free Sanskrit lessons!
- The Sanskrit Heritage Site, contains online lexicons and grammatical tools.
- See, Stephen Knapp, The Out of Africa Theory versus the Vedic View
- These scripts are the basis of Burmese and Thai, and were carried as far as the Philippines and Korea,
- See, e.g., G. R. Hunter, The Script of Harappa and Mohenjodaro and Its Connection with Other Scripts (Studies in the history of culture, London:K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1935).
- Sanskrit - The Mother of All Languages, pt. 1 - The Vedic Foundation
- Stephen Knapp, Sanskrit: Was it the Original Language?, Haindava Keralam
- See the Wikipedia article on Apabhraṃśa.
- David Frawley, The Myth of Aryan Invasion of India
- Ramayana was composed 2 million years ago !. Internet Hindu, August 17, 2016.
- *e, *o > a, *ē, *ō > ā; Sanskrit e and o are in origin diphthongs representing *ai and *au, and are treated as diphthongs in Panini's grammar.
- Alexander M Lubotsky, (1988). The System of Nominal Accentuation in Sanskrit and Proto-Indo-European. (Brill. ISBN 90-04-08835-0.)
- In fact, in the neuter gender Sanskrit innovates further; the word that directly translates "what" is kim (किम्), originally an accusative. This definitely cannot be an ancestor to the Latin or English words.
- See the Wikipedia article on Centum-satem isogloss.
- Robert S.P. Beekes, Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: an introduction. (Benjamins, 1995), pp. 109-113.
- Rivers of ink have been spilled over the question whether the Indo-European word for "salmon" has some meaning as to the "original home" of the speakers of said language and if so which. Until some researchers discovered that all these words originally referred to a different type of fish.Russian and French Wikipedia for your reading at home.
- Preserved in the name of the Himalaya mountains.
- See, e.g., Douglas Adams, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (Taylor & Francis, 1996; ISBN 1884964982), pp. 294-295.
- Bhardriraju Krishnamurti The Dravidian Languages (Cambridge, 2003; ISBN 0-521-77111-0), pp. 12-14
- These are the retroflex consonants, found in Dravidian languages like Tamil, but among Indo-European languages they are largely confined to those spoken in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
- K. Zvelebil, Dravidian Linguistics: an Introduction, (Pondicherry: Pondicherry Institute of Linguistics and Culture 1990), p. 81.
- F. B. J. Kuiper, Rigvedic loanwords, in: Studia Indologica, ed. Spies, Bonn (1955), pp. 137-185
- David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. (Princeton, 2007; ISBN 0-691-05887-3). Page = 455
- Navin Kabra, What is so 'scientific' about Sanskrit? #seriousquestion, Smritiweb, Mar. 24, 2014
- "Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence". AI Magazine, Volume 6 Number 1 (1985)
- Frits Staal, (1988). Universals: studies in Indian logic and linguistics. University of Chicago Press. p. 47.
- "Johnson", "Indian historical linguistics: setting the record straight". The Economist, May 13th 2013
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