October 13, 2016

What is Sanskrit?

Filed under: — Giulio Geymonat @ 8:05 pm

Sanskrit is an ancient language belonging to the Indo-European family, a family that includes the vast majority of European languages, the slavic languages, the farsi language (the language of Iran) and a good number of Indian languages (excluding the South Indian languages which belong to other linguistic families).

Functioning as the pan-indian cultural language for more than 1500 years, Sanskrit, from the linguistic point of view, is peculiar in the fact that it is not a natural language (such as Latin and Greek for example, also ancient languages belonging to the same Indo-European family). Instead, it’s the product of a centuries long grammatical enquiry into the language attested in the Vedas (this one a natural language, or rather, seen its great number of variations, a set of languages strictly related among themselves), the Vedas being a collection of sacred texts belonging to a period ranging approximately from the XV to the VII century BC (the Vedas are the most ancient corpus we possess into an Indo-European language).

In other words Sanskrit is a grammatical language, which means that it is not a language based on a specific community of speakers, but a language based on the respect of its grammatical rules: while in a natural language the grammar (if it exists at all) describes in grammatical terms the reality of the language (spoken if it’s a living language, written if it’s a dead language), so that it can be said that the grammar follows the language, changing when the language changes, with Sanskrit the relation language-grammar turns the other way round, both from a chronological point of view and from a point of view of importance.

Classical Sanskrit spread and established itself as the language of culture and power after that its grammar had been defined in all particulars, in terms of pronunciation, sentence grammar, formation and meaning of the words: that’s why it could remain unchanged throughout the centuries and everywhere it spread (other than in the South Asian subcontinent Sanskrit was adopted by the Hindu Kingdoms of South East Asia).

The authorities for classical Sanskrit have always been the grammar on the one hand and the models offered by the great poets and writers on the other, themselves obviously respectful of the grammatical rules but offering besides the canons of good writing (if the grammar is everywhere the same, the various literary genres differ significantly as far as style is concerned, while the vocabulary is common to all genres, something that partly explains why many Sanskrit words have more than one meaning, often quite different between each other).

The power of expression of Sanskrit, when compared to other languages, depends mainly on the fact that in Sanskrit every aspect of linguistic expression is strictly regulated, especially the phonologic, morphologic, semantic and grammatical aspects, aspects that in a natural language are at least in part spontaneous and unconscious (so much that a natural language, as it is well known, is bound to change over the generations of speakers).

Sanskrit is first of all a powerful tool for a clear articulation of thought and expression because it imposes to the writers, with its grammatical rules, a careful reflection on the structure of sentences and on the choice of terms, a reflection that, at least in part, can be reconstructed by the readers in as much as it is based purely on the respect of the grammatical rules.

It can be said that Sanskrit is a language that tries to minimize all irrational and unconscious aspects of linguistic expression, and that’s why it could work very well, over the centuries, as a pan-indian cultural language used to codify and transmit knowledge, playing a central role in the constitution of an unitarian Indian cultural identity (it should not be forgotten that ancient India did not have a political unity: Sanskrit did not impose itself with military means, as Latin for example did in Europe, but it spread because of its prestige, becoming itself the basis for the cultural unity of the sub-continent).

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