Sanskrit: The Overview of the Language

Name Origin

Derived from saṃskṛta, meaning 'polished', 'elaborate', 'perfect'.

Classification

Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Old Indo-Aryan. Sanskrit is the only documented language of the Old Indo-Aryan stage.

Overview

Sanskrit is, with Hittite and Mycenaean Greek, among the oldest attested Indo-European languages. It is one of the two classical languages of ancient India (Tamil is the other) with an extensive religious and philosophical literature playing an important role in linguistic studies.

Sanskrit is noteworthy not only for the numerous sound changes that words and morphemes experience as a result of their environment but also because they are reflected in writing (sandhi). It has a complex nominal and verbal morphology preserving to a great extent that of the ancestral Indo-European language and it freely uses nominal compounds, that may consist of several words, adding to an already very large lexicon. Passive constructions are very frequent as well as participial ones, the latter tending to replace the finite verb.

Varieties

Vedic or Archaic and Classical. Vedic Sanskrit (preserved in the Vedas and Brāhmaṇas) is the most ancient form of the language; it is closely related to Avestan, the Old Iranian language of the Avesta. Classical Sanskrit begins with the magisterial grammar of Panini (c. 500-400 BCE).

Status

Extinct. Vedic Sanskrit was prevalent in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent while Classical Sanskrit spread eventually to the whole of ancient India being understood mainly by the brahmanical class and the upper echelons of the warrior class. It was also a prestige language employed in inscriptions by the elites of southeast Asia. Today, it is still used in religious ceremonies.

Oldest Documents

  • 1380 BCE. A treaty between the Hittite and Mitanni empires, inscribed in a clay tablet, mentions the Vedic gods Mitra, Varuna, Indra and Nasatya (Aśvins).
  • 1350 BCE. A horse training manual, written in Hittite by Kikkuli 'the Mitanni', includes numerals and several technical terms in Sanskrit.
  • 1300-1200 BCE. Rig Veda (books 2-8) containing hundreds of hymns to the Vedic gods composed in northwest India and transmitted orally during a millennium or more.
  • 500-400 BCE. The superb grammar of Panini which was so authoritative that became normative, freezing the evolution of Sanskrit and marking the beginning of Classical Sanskrit.
  • 150 CE. First Sanskrit inscriptions by Rudradaman I, a king of northwestern India.

Phonology

Vowels (13). There are 13 in total, including 8 monophthongs, 3 vocalic liquids, and 2 diphthongs:

  • Monophthongs
  • Vocalic liquids (3): ɽɪ ɽɪ: ɭə
  • Diphthongs (2): ai, au

The vocalic (or syllabic) liquids are a combination of a liquid consonant with a brief vowel (ɪ, ə). In spite of the consonant component, they behave like vowels from the prosodical and grammatical viewpoint. Two of them (ɽɪ:, ɭə) are infrequent, specially the last one which is limited just to one verb and its derived words.

Long vowels have double duration than their short counterparts. Vowel length is phonemic.

Consonants (33). Sanskrit has 33 consonants in total including 20 stops, 4 fricatives, 5 nasals, and 4 liquids/glides. The stops and nasals are articulated at five different places, being classified as labial, dental, retroflex, palatal and velar. The palatal stops are, in fact, affricates. Every series of stops includes voiceless and voiced consonants, unaspirated and aspirated, this four-way contrast being unique to Indo-Aryan among Indo-European languages (Proto-Indoeuropean had a three-way contrast only). The retroflex consonants of Sanskrit, articulated immediately behind the alveolar crest, are not from Indo-European origin. They are, probably, the result of Dravidian language influence.

[w] is realized as [v] after vowels. The voiceless glottal fricative [h], called visarga, is restricted to word-final position and it is transliterated as ḥ.

While virtually every consonant may be at the beginning of a word, final consonants are restricted to k, ʈ, t, p, ŋ, n, m. Besides, words may end in a vowel or visarga.

Sound changes at the juncture of words and between morpheme boundaries are widespread, a process known as sandhi.

Vowel gradation (ablaut) is ubiquitous particularly in conjugation and word-derivation. Different forms of the same verb, or related words, may differ in the length or quality of a vowel. In Sanskrit, vowels are classified into three strength grades: weak, middle, strong. Comparative philology shows that the normal grade is the middle one from which vowels are weakened or strengthened, as shown in the table. Vowel gradation occurs within each column e.g. the middle grade of i is e and its strong grade is ai.

Stress. A pitch (musical) accent existed in Vedic Sanskrit but disappeared in Classical Sanskrit in which only stress accent remained. Stress falls on the penultimate syllable if it is heavy (long vowel or short vowel followed by more than one consonant). If the penultimate is light, the stress falls on the antepenultimate if it is heavy, failing which it falls on the fourth syllable from the end.

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