The Misinformed Sanskrit Legacy

Is Sanskrit the oldest language in the world? Is Sanskrit the most scientifically accurate, programmable language in the world?
You answered correct if you said no to both the questions.

I’m sure every Indian has met someone or read somewhere that Sanskrit is the oldest language in the world, it was also the first language ever. Additionally, it is a scientific language, as even touted by NASA. The internet is filled with such articles and India is filled with people who truly believe it without understanding the meaning or the implication of this claim. I have relatives who think this way too.

Firstly, Sanskrit is not the oldest language in the world, period. Every language today comes from its own set of parents and grandparents, and each of those trace their roots back to what are known as proto languages. Proto languages are linguistically reconstructed languages which came about when humans evolved enough to communicate with each other. Wikipedia has a list of those here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_proto-languages  The one relevant to us is called the Proto-Indo-European Language, or PIE. PIE is the grand daddy of almost all Eurasian languages, including Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, Iranian group, Pashto, German, French, Latin, Greek, Russian, Serbian, and of course, English. (Note that the South Indian languages do no fall under PIE. They evolved from Proto Dravidian. Similarly, Pacific languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Burmese, Tibetan etc evolved from other proto languages).

This common ancestor is the reason why so many Sanskrit/Hindi words sound similar to their English and European counterparts. There are a few words that did indeed migrate from India to Europe due to the culture (Shakkar/sugar being a prime example), but most words are cognates, i.e., have the same parents. Here’s an informative chart that show’s PIE’s descendants:

PIE language descendants

PIE language descendants. Image: http://gawron.sdsu.edu/fundamentals/course_core/lectures/historical/historical.htm

 

Sanskrit in its modern form evolved from Vedic Sanskrit, which was closest linguistically to the Iranian language, Avestan. Indo-Aryan race separated from Proto-Indo-Iranian race in the Bronze age, splitting a language from their ancestors. (This is different from the Aryan Migration Theory, which was based off this people migration but is heavily debated and is heavily contested to be false through DNA testing.) This is when Indo-Aryan languages started being spoken separately from Indo-Iranian languages. Proto-Rigvedic language was spoken (before Rig Veda) by the people extending from Afghanistan to Northern India. Gandhara, in Afghanistan, became the first place where Vedic Sanskrit was spoken and formed a hub of culture and religion. Vedic Sanskrit is the parent of Dardic languages (Kashmiri, Savi, Bateri, etc). But it evolved and changed (as explained below) into its current form, Classical Sanskrit, which is the parent of other Indian languages, like Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, etc.

I’ve also been hearing that Sanskrit is a “scientific” language and that it is “most ideal for programming computers in” for twenty years now. It’s a little confusing because people who speak Sanskrit don’t go about saying, “If (Sunlight) {Turn off lights}” or whatever. Sanskrit is a fully formed, normal language, like any other language spoken throughout the world. The fact that it is an archaic language, no longer spoken by the masses, seems to have led to some major misconceptions about the mystical nature of this language that is easy to learn in schools and is only ever heard in Hindu hymns.

Almost all of this misconception stemmed from two major things: the study of linguistics based off of a Sanskrit work by Panini, and a 1985 paper written by Rick Briggs, Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence .

Panini lived somewhere between 6th to 4th century BC and wrote the first known comprehensive text on descriptive linguistics. This work is called the Ashthadhyayi and consists of over 3,500 grammatical constructs and rules in Sanskrit. His work effectively transitioned Sanskrit from its old form (Vedic Sanskrit) to the language we know now. Today’s Sanskrit, known as Classical Sanskrit, was widely spoken and was quite different from its parent, the older Vedic Sanskrit.

Panini’s work has been very influential in the study of modern linguistics, owing to its incredible detail in dealing with grammar (morphology, root, allomorphs), phonology (phonemes, prosody), phonetics, semantics, and syntax. His work is often claimed to describe Sanskrit, as a language, completely and absolutely. Ashtadhyaya used very technical metalanguage (lexicon, morphology, syntax) and had algorithms that could churn out well-formed words. In a sense, this work is similar to the computer language structures we have today: metasyntax is used for both natural languages and programming languages. These algorithms essentially described Sanskrit (or any other language) as blocks, having sentences and ideas that were formed by grouping and structuring independent clauses together: the basis of both natural languages as well as programming languages.

Eg: John, having seen Jack’s blue bat, painted his bat blue.
This sentence can be broken up into: John saw Jack’s bat. Jack’s bat was blue. So John painted his bat blue too.

person John, Jack;
color johnBatColor,  jackBatColor;
if (JohnSawJackBat == true){
    johnBatColor=jackBatColor;
}

The combined field of study of mathematics as a language, computer programming languages, and natural human languages is called Formal Language studies. Formal Language uses a concept called Context-Free Grammar. CFG essentially produces a mathematical algorithm for generating language blocks mentioned above by describing how the smaller blocks come together.

John (having seen (Jack’s (bat (blue in color))), painted (bat (his own)), (same color as Jack’s)).

Or more simply, we can look at the most common example used:
Full Address = (House Number OR Apartment Number OR P.O. Box Number) + Street Name + (Area Name if applicable) + City + State + Country + Pin/Zip.

This is similar to BODMAS/BEDMAS operations in mathematics:
2 + 3 * 4 /5 is actually 2+ (3 * (4/5)).

In 1950s, Noam Chomsky, then a professor at MIT, combined linguistics and mathematics, and formalized CFGs, taking a lead from Panini’s work. He called it Phrase Structure Grammar. CFGs were then introduced as block structures into programming languages, with Algol, by John Backus. Backus described the syntax of Algol using Chomsky’s context-free grammar.  This was called the Backus Normal Form. A few years later, Peter Naur improved on the BNF by reducing the size of the massive character set used by Backus, renaming BNF to Backus-Naur Form. Backus-Naur Form is still in heavy use today. (Incidentally, many scientists had proposed the name Panini-Backus Form as Panini had come up with constructs independent of, and much much earlier than, Backus or Naur).

Coming to Briggs’s paper on AI, he claimed that Sanskrit was basically much simpler than English in terms of sentence construction: a fact that is true. His work was primarily on the field of artificial intelligence, specifically to program machines to understand and construct human languages. Briggs said that Panini’s work could be a direct reference to try and have computers understand Sanskrit. However, the reduced number of words forming a sentence does not take away from the complexity of the sentence and the ideas expressed by it. The fact still remains that the larger reason Briggs chose to use Sanskrit instead of any other language was because of the ready availability of Panini’s work, which stands undisputed (partly because it’s so ancient, and partly because Sanskrit isn’t widely spoken today). Chomsky’s and Backus’s have faced criticisms and have been rejected by certain schools. Briggs wanted to build something ground-up and use a detailed, existing work for reference.

TL;DR:
Sanskrit is an ordinary language, but Panini worked extensively on it, because, well, that’s the language they all primarily spoke back then. His work was the first linguistically descriptive and complete work on any language. This work led to further research by Chomsky on linguistics, and Backus and Naur on programming language constructs, all of which were modeled on Panini’s work on Sanskrit. Rick Briggs, who might or might not have been from NASA, proposed a paper to develop an AI mechanism to resemble Panini’s work closer than Chomsky’s, but that led him nowhere. That’s really all there is to it.

NASA did not beam Sanskrit into space because it is technical or symmetric. Sanskrit does not have grammar that is completely non-confusing. Computers cannot be programmed in Sanskrit. Sanskrit is not the only Perfect Language in the entire world. And Sanskrit is most definitely not the oldest language in the world or the parent of languages spoken throughout the world today. Max Mueller said nothing of the sort.

Ignorance breeds supremacy.

Further reading:
Briggs’s paper was written for Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence
Full PDF of the paper can be found here: Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence I have to say, it’s quite fascinating and crazy at the same time!
Chomsky Normal Form: Page on clemson.edu
Development of Algol: The American side of the development of Algol

(Hoax, clickbait) Scientists at NASA claiming Sanskrit is perfect: NASA scientists hail Sanskrit as the only perfect language
Pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo on Sanskrit and parts of brains and things like that: Jeopardy Computer, Sanskrit, Artificial Intelligence
Zomg NASA to beam Sanskrit into space and this is confirmed on NASA website because American kids are learning Sanskrit from childhood: NASA to echo Sanskrit in space, website confirms its Mission Sanskrit

Sanskrit is the Oldest language in the world: Atman Institute

Clickbait headline, but accurate article on the Hindu: Sanskrit the oldest language.

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32 comments on “The Misinformed Sanskrit Legacy

  1. Pingback: Feb 20, 2015 | Link Lists

  2. Kush

    While what you said is in the domain of debate and is highly contested, what is beyond question is the value, scope, size and influence of literature written in Sanskrit. Like you said, Panini influenced grammarians, similarly Indian thought enshrined in Sanskrit, Tamil and Pali has shaped and influenced the Global Mind since millennia.

    Wtites Prof Kapil Kapoor of JNU which you might find interesting.

    “Had the classical thought enshrined in Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit texts and some of it preserved as adaptation in Old Tamil texts been made a part of the mainstream education it would have enabled the educated Indian to interact with the west on a level ground. This tradition has attested texts and thinkers in a wide range of disciplines – philosophy, grammar, poetics, prosody, astronomy, architecture, mathematics, medicine, atmospheric sciences, sociology / ethics (dharmasastra), chemistry, physics, agriculture, economics and commerce, music, botany and zoology, weaponry and art of warfare, logic, education, metallurgy. The texts of these disciplines not only make statements about the respective domains of knowledge but also enshrine the empirical wisdom gathered by our society over centuries in these spheres.

    All this knowledge has been marginalized by and excluded from the mainstream education system. Efforts to incorporate it or teach it have been politically opposed and condemned as ‘revivalism’. Europe’s 13th century onwards successful venture of relocating the European mind in its classical Greek roots is lauded and expounded in the Indian universities as ‘revival of learning’ and as ‘Renaissance’. But when it comes to India, the political intellectuals dismiss exactly the same venture as ‘revivalism’ or ‘obscurantism’. The words such as ‘revivalism’ are, what I call, ‘trap words’. And there are more, for example ‘traditional’ and ‘ancient’ – the person working in Indian studies is put on the defensive by these nomenclatures. ‘Tradition’ is falsely opposed to ‘modern’ and the word ‘traditional’ is equated with oral and given an illegitimate pejorative value. And the adjective ‘ancient’ as pre-fixed – ‘Panini, the ancient grammarian’, ‘ancient Indian poetics / philosophical thought’- makes the classical Indian thinkers and thought look antiquated.

    No western writer ever refers to Plato, for example, as ‘ancient’ or Greek thought as ‘ancient’. This psychic jugglery is directed at the continuity of Indian intellectual traditions suggesting as it does a break or a disjunction in the intellectual history. There is no such disjunction in India’s intellectual history but then the Indian intellectual brought up on alien food must set up a disjunction in Indian history if there is one in the western history! If at all there is a disjunction it happens with the foundation of the English education and then too it is a horizontal disjunction between the mainstream education system and the traditional institutes of learning and not a vertical temporal disjunction.

    Even this disjunction is indefensible – for those who believe that this knowledge is now archaic would do well to recall that the contemporary western theories, though essentially interpretive, have evolved from Europe’s 19th century interaction with Sanskrit philosophy, grammar and poetics; they would care to remember that Roman Jakobson, Trubetzkoy and de Saussure were Sanskritists, that Saussure was in fact a professor of Sanskrit at Geneva and that his published papers include work on Sanskrit poetics. The structural, formalist thinking and the linguistic turn of contemporary theory have their pedigree in Sanskrit thought. In this, Europe’s highly fruitful interaction with the Indian thought over practically the same time-span contrasts sharply with 150 years of sterile Indian interaction with the western thought. After the founding of Sanskrit chairs in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Europe interacted with the Indian thought, particularly in philosophy, grammar, literary theory and literature, in a big way without abandoning its own powerful tradition. In the process, it created, as we have said a new discipline, Historical-Comparative Linguistics, produced a galaxy of thinkers – Schiller, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietszche, Jakobson, Trubetzkoy and above all Saussure – and founded a revolutionary conceptual framework which was to influence the European thought for the next century, Structuralism.”

    Although you may not say it, because your arguments certainly are embedded in reason and rationality, however these same arguments are furthered to shoot down Sanskrit and its value…especially in secular fields of knowledge. Similarly, a precussor to these excellent scientific ideas, as those in this article, are ideas of antiquity and general uselessness of Sanskrit (and its vast body of literature) beyond marriage rituals and the like.

    Sanskrit classics outnumber Greek by a 100, and its literature is more vast than any other language of the world. (Dalrymple in NYT, Ananya Bajpeyi in The Hindu, writing separately said this.)

    But only a meagre 5 or 6% of this vast body of literature has ever been translated…even to an Indian language. Who knows what treasures lie buried there. If not chest-beating, maybe you’ll permit us a little feeling of self-worth?

    1. Rugved

      Good one. The writer validated it’s greatness and called it ordinary at the end. He has completely displayed it’s superior grammar but called it ordinary because it is “not confusing”! Funny person. He is bringing proto languages (which are theoretical) into consideration and calling them ancestors thus saying that sanskrit is not “old enough”! It is at least one of the oldest surviving classical languages which have well developed grammar and extensive bibliography.

      1. Sandrova

        Thanks. The writer is me and I’m not a ‘he’.

        1. Gagan

          So you agree that Briggs did recommend sanskrit for AI and you do agree he didnt study sanskrit as a subject in high school. He was a native English speaker and having studied Panini’s work for his research, he could well have adapted the naunces to English and proven otherwise.

          Ma’am, Thanks but no thanks. The British were famous for marginalising the cultures they ruled, and to calling people “Savages”. They extracted every bit of knowledge and then anglicised it. Thereafter they totally discredited the culture after baptising the population. Well they still say that allopathy is the real thing and homeopathy is a hoax, just because its German !

          May I please ask you if you are a sanskrit scholar ? Have you read scriptures or google and wikipedia is your source of knowledge ?

          I would like to read your dismissal of the ‘myth’ about Indian Calculus and Astronomy too

          1. Adam A R

            Well, She has gone for a crash course in being a Sanskrit scholar.
            Good luck with you waiting… cause you will have to wait till her next life!

          2. Sandeep Raturi

            Homeopathy is rubbish not because it is German but because it is rubbish. Please read a little about the fundamentals of Homeopathy to know how ludicrous it is 🙂

        2. George

          Hello Sandrova,

          Allow me to bust your amateur prose. The whole article is written on the premise of the Aryan invasion theory – which has been proven as a bucket of hen poop, through genepool studies.

          Not that intelligent people needed proof through genetic studies, it was fairly obvious the propagators of the AIT had their own elitist agenda.

          The same genepool studies have also validated the Out of India theory. Yeah, thats right. Civilization as you know it today, primarily happened because nomads from Africa traveled to the Indus and Ganges plains, learnt to live as peaceful societies and then went out and spread to Europe.

          Of course, all this is gonna be really difficult to digest, considering we are all well fed on ‘scientific fact’.

        3. kanti bhatt

          gr8 info what is your facebook address–m unable to find it–

          my facebook link is https://www.facebook.com/DNA.HUMANN

          पाणिनीय व्याकरण की महत्ता पर विद्वानों के विचार:
          “पाणिनीय व्याकरण मानवीय मष्तिष्क की सबसे बड़ी रचनाओं में से एक है” (लेनिन ग्राड के प्रोफेसर टी. शेरवात्सकी)।
          “पाणिनीय व्याकरण की शैली अतिशय-प्रतिभापूर्ण है और इसके नियम अत्यन्त सतर्कता से बनाये गये हैं” (कोल ब्रुक)।
          “संसार के व्याकरणों में पाणिनीय व्याकरण सर्वशिरोमणि है… यह मानवीय मष्तिष्क का अत्यन्त महत्त्वपूर्ण अविष्कार है” (सर डब्ल्यू. डब्ल्यू. हण्डर)।
          “पाणिनीय व्याकरण उस मानव-मष्तिष्क की प्रतिभा का आश्चर्यतम नमूना है जिसे किसी दूसरे देश ने आज तक सामने नहीं रखा”। (प्रो. मोनियर विलियम्स)

  3. Kumar

    gr8 read both main txt as well as the comment section.. With my limited knowledge of sanskrit and programming language i can only say that sanskrit is still being used by various western research organizations for medical developments specially Germany and that i confirm as a part of such organizations.

    only one thing amaze me that why people still dont want to believe what in their hand rather chest thumping on other languages which have been vanished and ignorance to sasnskrit is among that. Most of work done in modern world is by westerns and purposefully they have suppressed Indian society to keep it under control.

  4. Alan

    Dude , no body inbright senses is sayingbsanskrit was the first language. People communicated with each other since origin. Sanskrit is the first most structured language which has tremendous literature written in it. It’s an highly developed language and has superb grammer structure.
    Secondly Sanskrit gave the world concept of shoonya and place holder system, without which I don’t think today’s modern would be so modern.

  5. Harish Kumar

    Well explained , I am also doing the research on it .It will really help me on my thesis .Thanks dude
    He did really a good job .If you have more content please send me.

  6. Aparna

    its really disappointing that instead of doing a through research on ones own level people hurl such personal views based on limited knowledge!!!

    today russia n germany have thousands of natives studying n researching on sanskrit, AND how proud!!!!!! the people whose mother tongue is daughter of sanskrit are so ashamed to accept its greatness!!

  7. Rachana

    Wow!

    It’s the first post I read on your website. Can’t wait to finish the rest…

    🙂

  8. SuperiorSanskrit

    I think you must be stupid.

    I will only try to defeat only one single point of yours.

    Your claim: Sanksrith is an ordinary language.

    Then why did so many researchers take cues from Sanksrith for linguistic research, instead of newer languages which you yourself have given enough information. Especially when Sanksrith is so old and not spoken.

    So it means that Sanksrith must have things which other languages lack. And hence Sanksrith must be superior to all other languages and hence NOT ordinary rather extraordinary.

    Now what is your tacit hate or dislike towards Sanksrith? Are you Tamil or non-Hindu?

    1. Kaviya

      Sanskrit is not an ordinary language – agreed. But brother why do you want to ask whether the person opposing this claim as Tamil or non-Hindu?. Especially why Tamil? Please don’t get into such generalisation because outsiders reading such opinions will get an image like- even inside India Tamil people and Hindi-speaking people fight over sanskrit. That is even more bad. Both are our languages and both are rich in material and structure. If we really need to revive sanskrit we need to be genuine about its credibility and not too emotional. Also, to glorify one language it is not necessary to degrade another. Sanskrit is an exceptionally well-structured language and has knowledge treasures. And Tamil too is one of the longest surviving classical languages and very much in regular use today and has a properly constructed structure. We can take good from anywhere available. Let us be fair towards each other and not divided.

  9. Srikanth

    The article is all about author’s view point on how prove Sanskrit is inferior she is not STATING ANY FACTS HERE..
    Go do some research in the field of literature.
    Author agrees that Sanskrit is grammatical well structured n’ easy to speak language but she can agree it’s superiority..

    I will put you in one word “JEALOUSY”..

    Or you may be feeling inferiority complex..
    All you European’s wanted to prove is you superiority to the world.
    May be Europeans are highly educated barbarians of the world..

    1. Rajeev

      Do you think that an average Westerner is even bothered about Sanskrit or about this discussion going on here? As someone commented, get a life!

  10. Tarun Narayan

    Your article clearly shows that you have been funded by some western universities to carry a mis-propoganda against Sanskrit. Clearly your write up is brimming with the fact that you have an agenda to promote. Firstly, many studies have demonstrated that Sanskrit has the potential to be implemented in geo-physics and molecular biology. Sushruta a Rishi who is considered “Father of modern surgery” has used most scientific surgical pinciples as derived from Sanskrit. Even Wiki has mentions of the same.The glory of this language cannot be understood by shallow writers it needs prudence and imagination to comprehend the dynamism of this ancient language.

  11. Jack

    I think you are confused things
    For example a lot of ancient languages are not best preserved as Sanskirt, only two ancient European languages were preserved

  12. KG GOPALAKRISHNAN

    Very well written. The rabid reactions prove it. 😀

  13. KG GOPALAKRISHNAN

    Im not able to share it on fb…..

  14. jd

    What about the New York Times article that presented findings that Lithuanian is the parent of Sanskrit?

  15. Piyush

    Sandhya Ramesh is a South Indian. Huge probability may be a Tamilian.

    No points for guessing why the article is emotional and less logicial.

  16. Lakshmeesh

    This article is one directional. It is emboldened to bring down the value of the language.
    The title says “misinformed” but I would say the author is less informed. The author has written aggressively.
    please work and get the facts in proper direction with a right directed scholar.

  17. Peter Aremone

    There is absolutely NOTHING called the “Proto-Indo-European” language. It is a total Hogwash like the British invented Aryan Invasion/Migration Myth nonsense.

    There is a REASON why it is even called “Indo-European” & not “Euro-Indian”. The reason is because the languages grew from India TO Europe, not the other way around. Similarly the peculiar Irish Fair Skin tone has been Genetically traced to India by Irish scientists:
    http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/the-light-skin-of-the-irish-can-be-traced-to-india-and-the-middle-east-239166271-239671671.html

    By all modern Genetic Research, it is being proven that any lingual or racial migration was not into India, but FROM India into Middle East & Europe.

    There is not a single Archaeological evidence of Hindu Artifacts outside of Indian subcontinent predating those excavated in Europe, Russia, Middle East. While the Indus Valley Civilization artifacts of Hindu sculptures date back to 7000 BC (9000 years ago), the latest excavations of Vishnu, Shiva statues in Russia, Belgium etc date about 1000-500 BC, that is 2500 years ago – before even Christianity was born.

    The main reason why all of this is suppressed is two fold :

    1) Racist Bigoted Europeans & Christian historians (not the scientists) cannot swallow the fact that Indian Civilization or Hindu Civilization is probably their own roots. Which is why they made the Fake Aryan Invasion Myth which the Nazis swallowed whole from the British & with the help of Catholic Church & Muslims of Middle East, killed 6 Million of us Jews.

    2) Anti-Hindu Left wing, Islamic Political parties in India who use the guise of Secularism to fool majority of Indians – absolute hate the entire Heritage of India & are will to commit a total Historical & Cultural Holocaust on India because their Marxist or Islamic hatred for India makes them behave like that while the majority Hindus of India are foolish & easily fooled by them.

    From,
    Prof. Peter Aremone
    Givatayim, Israel

  18. Mayank Trikha

    really protolanguages? It’s just a theory. why do you call something ‘well-structured’ and then say it is ordinary. Just because it is ancient does not mean it is primitive. You are just trying to say that the most vastly researched topic is just nothing.

  19. Dr. Ananth G

    Scholars agree that Samskrita has potential to be used as a tool for developing useful algorithms in computer applications. Let us concentrate on that and not indulge in polemics between right and left or going to the antiquity of the language. Let us concentrate on the present and not either going to to the past or think of the future as a subhashita says.” Gate shoko na kartavyaha bhavishyamnaiva chintayet/vartamaane vivekena vartayanti vichakshanaaha// let use our brains to develop something which is useful to the humanity than using our intelligence in indulging in useless discussions.

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