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.