‘Sanskrit has had profound influence on world languages’

November 24, 2016 12:07 am | Updated 12:07 am IST

Mumbai: Here are a few facts to chew on: Sanskrit has the largest body of literature in the world, and Panini’s grammar has influenced ancient and modern languages in a profound way. Even today, Sanskrit is the first language for five villages in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. At the same time, the number of people in India claiming it to be their primary language has alarmingly dropped from about 50,000 to under 15,000 in a decade, according to the 1991 and 2001 censuses.

Some of these facts came up in a talk on ‘Linguistic harmony in India’ by Dr. Peter M Scharf at the IIT Bombay on Tuesday, as part of the National Integration Week. Dr. Scharf is the founder and president of the Sanskrit Library, and Associate at the Department of South Asian Studies, Harvard University.

Dr. Scharf said India has incredible linguistic diversity. According to UNESCO, India’s Linguistic Diversity Index was 0.93 in 2009 which makes it the ninth most diverse country after the Central African and Pacific Island countries. For more than one billion speakers in India, there are 22 official languages, 234 identifiable mother tongues, more than 600 dialects, six major language families and 66 scripts. After Hindi, which is spoken by 41.02 per cent of the population, Bengali, with eight per cent speakers, is the most commonly spoken language in the country. Unlike European languages, however, Indian languages do not see much interchange when measured in terms of publication.

India is traditionally a multi-lingual country, with most people able to speak in more than two languages. Dr. Scharf said Indian linguistics date back to the Harappan civilisation, around 3300-1300 BCE, though their language “is not directly attested because the Indus script is still undeciphered.” Fifty per cent of the signs are unique; that is, nothing can be made of them yet. Dr. Scharf said the jury is still out on whether the inscriptions make a language. Some say it’s not a language per se but a non-linguistic sign system; some say it’s a language as each seal has a distinctive combination of symbols. Some say it’s Vedic Sanskrit.

As a language, Sanskrit has had a profound influence on many other languages and has resiliently borne the brunt of time. For years, it remained the primary knowledge-bearing and culture-bearing language of India, Dr. Scharf said.

Sanskrit “has the largest body of literature in the world and has seen continuous production of literature in all fields of human endeavour”. Its geographical influence is seen in India, South Asia, South east Asia, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. What is truly remarkable, Dr. Scharf said, is that “about five to 30 million extant manuscripts – that is 100 times those in Greek and Latin combined – have been written in Sanskrit.”

The syntactical influences of Paninian grammar are visible in all languages, for instance, “ rad, rad, radli ” in contemporary Marathi (“She wept intensely”) derives from Panini. In fact, “all prominent linguists have studied Sanskrit to learn Panini’s grammar,” Dr. Scharf said. The sound-change law, adaptation of synchronic values, stems and suffixes – these concepts have influenced languages all over the world and owe their origin to Panini.

After a phase during which Prakrit became the preferred language of writing and communication, Sanskrit re-emerged as the language of choice after the fall of the Mauryan empire.

Explaining the phenomenon, Dr. Scharf said, “That happened because Prakrit kept changing; it had evolved into languages that were no longer mutually intelligible. So the rulers preferred to make texts in Sanskrit which was still being used as a literary language.”

Sanskrit remained the dominant cultural language from 10th century to modern times. Contending that Sanskrit was not indigenous but, like all other languages, came from Africa, Dr. Scharf said all modern languages in India draw about 50 per cent from Sanskrit, with Malayalam and Kannada topping the list.

Scholars from the Romantic period of the 18th century to contemporary times have paid tribute to the brilliance of Sanskrit and its contribution to enrichment of all-round literature. Quoting a few of them, Dr. Scharf cited Sir William Jones saying in 1788 that Sanskrit “is of wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined than either.” French scholar Friedrich von Schlegel pointed out in 1808 that Brahmin astronomers had posited a spherical earth of a correct size. Jewish German mathemetician Hermann Minkowski had said, “They set down mathematically demonstrable distances between the equator and Ujjain and between Ujjain and the Himalayas.”

The writer is a freelance journalist

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.