Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Of languages and tongues

Many of us know that Sanskrit is one of India’s two Classical languages (the other being Classical Tamil). It was also the language of Indic religions, with a substantial chunk of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain scripture written in Sanskrit or languages directly derived from it. In classical language terms, it is part of the “Big seven” (the others being Latin, Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew and Tamil) that had a tremendous cultural influence that far exceeded their “official” territorial boundaries. But this post is not about that. Rather it is about Sanskrit’s relatives and evolution of tongues.

Languages are dynamic, growing rapidly and evolving with their surroundings and interaction with other languages. However, Sanskrit is almost unique in that it was artificially preserved for posterity, and its rules do now allow further evolution. “Sanskrit”, or more correctly “Samskrita” approximately means ornamented, improved, and “perfected.” It was the language of the elite, the learned, and scholars alone. The common man spoke a “Prakrita”, that which was natural, common and ordinary. These were languages like Pali and Gandhari, tongues that were close brothers of Sanskrit, but not bound by code, and continued to evolve. This artificial preservation of Sanskrit became complete with Panini’s masterwork of Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi, composed in about 500 B.C. Subsequent generations adhered absolutely to this work, and the language remains preserved almost intact to this day.

Sanskrit belongs to the “Indo-European” group of languages, and that means it is in fact related to some languages of modern Europe, and Central Asia. But how can one say that these languages are really related? Remarkably, language evolution can be mapped just like genetic evolution. The Sanskrit root Asti becomes Esti in ancient Greek, est in Latin and modern Romance languages, ist in German and, you said it, is in English. The Sanskrit nama becomes onama in Greek, nomen in Latin, and name in English. But are similar words enough to show language relations? No, because similar words could also be “loan words” (which will come a little later in this post). Relationships are also subtler, with shared grammatical forms not obvious at first glance. The singular form of Sanskrit asmi (I am) is sum in Latin, asi (you are) is es in Latin, and asti (s/he is) is est. This relationship is maintained with the plural. Sanskrit pashyamaha (we se) is Latin specimus, pashyatha (you see) is specitis, and pashyanti (they see) is speciant. But here the pashya sound is speci in Latin. The Sanskrit verb root pash means “see”, but this is actually a later Sanskrit root. The older root had an s (as seen with words like spashta, clear), changed (yes) over time. More amazingly, every Sh sound in Sanskrit becomes a C or K in Latin. Importantly, script cannot be used to compare language relationships. Script/writing evolved after language, and often one language just “borrowed” the entire script of another language. So yes, English is indeed distantly related to Sanskrit. But if some cultural chauvinist insists that English is derived from Sanskrit, it is not true. Given current historical evidence, all that can be said is that Ancient Greek (and Latin), Persian and Sanskrit share a common ancestor. That is all.

But we know that all languages constantly evolve. Change is the only thing that is permanent. So did Sanskrit absolutely avoid change? No, because that is scientifically impossible. Change can be minimized, but not avoided. For example, Sanskrit was in constant contact with Dravidian tongues for three thousand years. The Dravidian tongues, being rapidly evolving tongues, assimilated Sanskrit extensively, and Sanskrit words are common in these languages. This is what is meant by “loan words”, words borrowed from another language, but assimilated completely. The extent can be little (like Tamil, which has only about 10% Sanskrit words) or extensive (like Kannada, with over 50% of its words from Sanskrit). But Sanskrit did not avoid change completely, in spite of its best efforts. Words like nagara (town) or mayura (peacock) are, incredibly, loan words from Classical Tamil. English has happily always accepted “loan words”, and has taken in words cheerfully from Greek, Gaelic tongues, Indic languages (and not just words like guru and pundit), African languages, Malay, Chinese, Russian and even Native American languages. Could it be one reason why it is so successful as a global language? I don’t know, but it’s fun to speculate.

Postscript: Also read Srikanth's excellent article on the Sanskrit grantha script. I also would like to acknowledge Prof. Richard Salomon, a magnificient Sanskritologist.


Srikanth said...

A well-written post, as usual. Just a couple of points:

>>or more correctly “Samskrita”

Don't you think it might be more accurate to say "Samskrta," since the vowel ऋ is neither 'ri' (as it is commonly transliterated) nor 'ru' (as spoken in the southern languages). Interestingly, this vowel is also present in American spoken English - the word "pretty" is often pronounced "prDi" (पृडि).

>>This artificial preservation of Sanskrit

Wouldn't "This standardisation..." be a happier expression? It is akin to the ANSI standard of the C programming language, which has never been referred to as a means of "artificial preservation!"

Sunil said...

Samskrta is perhaps better. I've been fiddling with the computer for a couple of hours trying to figure out how to import fonts and accents and everything into blogger. Haven't figured it out. And how do you add devanagri to it?? Tell, please.

"This standardisation" is perhaps a happier expression :-)
But, really, the language has been "artificially preserved", practically unknown in any other language.

Srikanth said...

I was able to include the Devanagari letters in my previous post, thanks to Unicode. It is a standard (I seem to love this word ;)) that facilitates displaying characters of various scripts, such as देवनागरि, தமிழ், ಕನ್ನಡ, മലയാളമ്, etc., without having to change fonts.

This site might help you compose Unicode text in Indic scripts.

In addition, you might also need to install a Unicode component to render the text correctly. If you are a Windows user, you would go to Control Panel->Regional Settings->Languages and check the "Install files for complex scripts" option.

Hope this is useful!

Anonymous said...

very good post - German is very like sanskrit - I have learnt both languages sporadically and they are both rather intuitive given that they follow strict grammar codes (of course german genders are another story altogether!) - dravidian languages also have tamil roots - not so much tamil though - i wonder if it just happened that way or it was a conscious 'dravidian' thing - telugu certainly does - my husband('s family) is telugu and I am constantly surprised by how much of it I can understand by simply putting the words into context - and thinking about their possible roots...

Sunil said...

Correct Charu. A post on Dravidian languages is a task in itself.....given that they all derive from Classical Tamil, with Telugu the first to diverge, followed soon by Kannada. Kannada infact has a literary tradition older than most modern Indian languages (i.e. other than Tamil and Sanskrit), dating back to the 6th century. Malayalam was the last to diverge (about the 12th century), so though it is a lot like tamil, given the huge influence of Sanskrit by that time, it is heavily Sanskritized.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Sunil. You have a knack of handling serious topics in a seemingly effortless way. Look fwd to many more such posts.

ashvin said...

Nice post, Sunil. It really is fun to find similar words in different languages. I've got a couple to add :

1. Pramantha (fire in sankrit ?) and Prometheus (greek god who stole fire from zeus to give to humans). [Disclaimer: I know no sanskrit, and this comes via my sanskrit-learning room-mate].

2. This might be a stretch : Vaishakhi/Baishakhi (indian name for spring/harvest festival) and Pesach/Pesacha (spring festival, a.k.a passover/easter, in judeo-christian traditions)

Sunil said...

Yes Ashvin, Pramantha and Prometheus are etymologically related.With Greek and Sanskrit the relations are remarkable.....and very close. It is more distant with English, and the relationships are not always obvious. For example, the word yoke (to bind together) comes directly from yoga (to bind with :-)
Less obvious are words where major semantic changes have occured. For example, deva and divinity are directly related (somewhat obvious) but gharma and warm are also related (less obvious). I certainly am not an expert in these things....but Prof. Salomon is, and I learnt much of this in discussions with him.

Suhail said...

Wow Sunil. This is an excellent Sanskrit primer for a newbie. Probably, it was the loan-words, which made a Tamil acquaintance of mine insist on claiming that whole of Sanskrit was derived from Tamil.

I also do this word linking thing quite often. Do you know, mother/ma/mom & so on is the only word across most languages, which starts with the sound of 'm'? Also as you said, I think this preservation is one of the reasons why these classic languages are dying. Urdu - though not a classic in its own right - comes to my mind. How beneficial/harmful is that for the lang, I don't know.
Check the comments on this post for the scripts.

Your post has provided me with a topic. Expect something on my blog soon. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Very well written article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wish you write more. I read another very interesting article at
about this guy's new proposition that we need to create another language for India. It was outrageous proposition but very thought provoking. Keep posting more please.

Sunil said...

Thank you Ramesh.

The article you linked is also quite thought provoking, and has an opinion. He does correctly point out why Sanskrit or Hindi may not work as national languages.

Personally, I don't really favour a single national language in India, since each language is beautiful and rich. Unfortunately, in India it always seems to be something at THE COST of the other, so forcing a new language will result in the disregard of existing languages.

But it is really an interesting thought, that a number of people have pondered about. I guess one will know, only if there is a national language.

Sunil said...

Correct Pennathur.....I wasn't proposing language evolution in any way....just pointing out relationships between (clearly related) languages. And you are probably right.....these classical languages may well have been technical languages.....
I am not a specialist in language evolution by any means!! This post is just something i came up with after discussions with Dr. Salomon.....a world expert on Sansrkit, Pali and Gandhari......and really a very learned linguist.......who also appreciated much of Dravidian language grammar.
I just also wanted to move away from political chauvanists......who insist that Sanskrit or Tamil is absolutely pure, and was never influenced by anything.

Iyer the Great said...

Sunil, great article. Just came across your blog today and have been posting comments to a few of your posts.

Latin is another language that is "artificially preserved" - in Laxman-speak :)

It may be of significance that both these languages have religious connotations associated with them. Is this why they went out of use? The people at the top of the religious chain, both Hinduism and Christianity, had dispropotionately more power than common people and these languages were associated with such a "priestly" class. The same did not happen with Arabic as the religion is more inclusive.

I know I am treading thin ice, equating religion and language - something I am loathe to. Nevertheless, on reading your piece that is the first thing that popped in.

Anonymous said...

Sunil, I live in Seattle and I would like to learn Sanskrit. If you know any leads please lemme know. Thanks. -vt

tris said...

So yes, English is indeed distantly related to Sanskrit. But if some cultural chauvinist insists that English is derived from Sanskrit, it is not true.

Sunil - do you really know people who go around claiming such things :-)?

Sunil said...

Anonymous...this might be a little late....but do contact the folks at the UW (Richard Salomon is linked in this post) for suggestions...

Tilotamma....some of the people I know simply amaze me with their claims! :-)

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not.important said...

Words like nagara (town) or mayura (peacock) are, incredibly, loan words from Classical Tamil.

Hmm...on what basis are these claims made? From my rudimentary knowledge of dhaatu padas in Sanskrit both have Sanskrit roots.

nagara ~= na + ga = without + movement (generally used for trees, mountains, towns etc.)

mayura ~= maayu is the bleating, crying sounds made by some animals. Hence mayura.

the grom said...

I still give a great deal of credit to our ancient legends...a lot of them e.g. Icarus and Pegasus legends seem to parallel and give a certain weight to the legend of the Tower of Babel...I am sure that as a race we do go back to maybe two or three different species (not so sure about the single Homo Sapiens theory) and as a result as a race we could have at a point in time have communicated in one language...

but of course I am still trying to tie up a lot of threads to validate this.