Sanskrit संस्कृतम्

Sanskrit depiction

Sanskrit is a topic that I am particularly passionate about. I love languages and learning about them, because each language is simultaneously a cultural phenomenon and a historical map into the past. I am bi-lingual in French and English and really can appreciate what learning a second language has given me. Now I understand more about the interplay of how language affects a culture’s evolution and how languages are influenced by the evolution of the society that uses it. Learning French as an American was hard because French is a particularly exacting language and the nuances of speaking were evasive (particularly Parisien dialects), but learning French is one of the most rewarding things I have ever accomplished. Sanskrit is one of the coolest languages I have learned about because of its origins and function and because of its highly descriptive nature.

Sanskrit is the language that teacher’s use for the names of yoga poses. For instance, Eka Pada Utkatasana is single legged chair pose, but more literally means: “one part seated posture”. Sanskrit is an extremely old language the sages known as Patanjali, who also invented the Hatha yoga system and Ayurvedic medecine, invented and popularized it. Sanskrit is very similar to Latin in Europe, but for Greater India (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal). Sanskrit’s ancestor, Vedic Sanskrit, is one of the oldest known languages and is how the Vedic epics were written. That makes the origins of the language about 3700 years old.

Much of Sanskrit theory comes back to Panini, who was a 4th Century scholar that defined classical Sanskrit. He worked to define nearly 4,000 Sanskrit rules and it is said that his analysis of language was as advanced as any western scientist until the mid 20th century. He is the defining line between Vedic Sanskrit, and Classical Sanskrit; Classical Sanskrit includes everything after his work. It appears that even in ancient times, Sankskrit was a language of refinement and was often used by multilingual speakers. This makes Sanskrit a mark of nobility and wealth in Ancient India and almost directly parallels the development of Latin in the West. Some consider Sanskrit to be a “dead” language, but in reality it is spoken, written, and used popularly today. This idea comes from a lack of innovation in the language and the inability to express modern ideas precisely in the language, as it is a language of administrative and liturgical precision and is especially linked to religious tradition.

Sanskrit is truly an oral-only language as it never developed into its own writing form. However, virtually every writing system in Southeast Asia has been used to write it and since the late 19th century Devanagari has been the writing system used for Sanskrit. It is very interesting that Sanskrit was almost never written in ancient times. It was almost always used for scientific, liturgical, or administrative texts and the sacred texts were only written with hesitation at relatively late times as they were passed down orally for centuries.

Sanskrit has four verb tense systems, compared to 17 tenses in French and 12 in English. Both English and French have hundreds of classes of verbs whereas Sanskrit has about 10. It also has 3 verb genders, whereas French has 2 and English has only 1. It also has a dual noun form which does not exist in English. Sanskrit also has free word order due to the complex declension system (declension defines number, case, and gender of the noun) which is something that is simplified in English. Basically, all of this means that Sanskrit is extraordinarily descriptive for a language and that it has many peculiarities. You could even describe it as an artificial language, because it would be a second language learned after a basic speaking and familiar language and would not have been easily used in familiar life (daily tasks, family meals, etc). Usually you will see subject-object-verb word order in the language, but this isn’t necessary.

Sanskrit has 36 unique phonemes (equivalent to a letter in English, is a basic sound) to create words. It also has an extraordinarily large vocabulary and has huge amounts of synonyms and even synonym constructions. Sanskrit is also considered potentially useful for machine learning, as it has powerful knowledge representations and could be useful for natural language processing. The language is highly evolved, highly descriptive, and used mostly in the educated population.  This is much more than just a “yoga” language and has implications for knowledge transfer than extend back into ancient history.