The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Sanskrit language

(Redirected from Sanskrit)
Sanskrit (संस्कृतम् )
Spoken in: Asia
Region: India and some other areas of South Asia, parts of South East Asia
Total speakers: 6,106 (1981 census). 194,433 second language speakers (1961 census).
Ranking: Not in top 100


Official status
Official language of: India
Language codes
ISO 639-1 sa
ISO 639-2 san

The Sanskrit language (Skt. saṃskṛtā vāk संस्कृता वाक्) is one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family and is not only a classical language, but also an official language of India. It has a similar position in India to that of Latin and Greek in Europe, and is a central part of Hindu/Vedic traditions.

The first Sanskrit text known to us is the Rig-veda (ṛgveda ऋग्वेद), part of the early canon of Hinduism, the Vedas. Most Sanskrit texts available today were transmitted orally for several centuries before they were written down in medieval India.



The word saṃskṛta- means "put together or constructed well, completely formed, perfected", also "purified, consecrated, sanctified". The language referred to as saṃskṛtā vāk "the refined language" has by definition always been a 'high' language, used for religious and scientific discourse and contrasted with the languages spoken by the people. The oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar is Pạ̄nini's Ạṣtādhyāyī ("Eight-Chapter Grammar") dating to ca. the 5th century BC. It is essentially a prescriptive grammar, i. e. an authority that defines (rather than describes) correct Sanskrit, although it contains descriptive parts, mostly to account for Vedic forms that had already passed out of use in Panini's time.

Almost every Sanskrit student in India learns the traditional story that Sanskrit was created and then refined over many generations (traditionally more than a thousand years) until it was considered complete and perfect. When the term arose in India, "Sanskrit" was not thought of as a specific language set apart from other languages (the people of the time regarded languages more as dialects), but rather as a particularly refined manner of speaking, bearing a similar relation to common language that "Standard" English bears to dialects spoken in the United Kingdom or United States. Knowledge of Sanskrit was a marker of social class and educational attainment, and was taught through close analysis of Sanskrit grammarians such as Panini. This form of the language evolved out of the earlier "Vedic" form, and scholars often distinguish Vedic Sanskrit and Classical Sanskrit as separate languages. However, they are extremely similar in many ways and differ mostly in a few points of phonology, vocabulary, and grammar.

Vedic is the language of the Vedas, the earliest sacred texts of India and the base of the Hindu religion. The earliest of the Vedas, the Rigveda, was composed in 2nd millennium BC. The Vedic form survived until the middle of the first millennium BC. It is around this time that Sanskrit made the transition from a first language to a second language of religion and learning, marking the beginning of the Classical period. A form of Sanskrit called Epic Sanskrit is seen in the Mahabharata and other Hindu epics. This includes more "prakritisms" (borrowings from common speech) than Classical Sanskrit proper. There is also a language dubbed "Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit" by scholars, which is actually a prakrit ornamented with Sanskritized elements, perhaps for purposes of ostentation.

There is a strong relationship between the various forms of Sanskrit and the Middle Indo-Aryan "Prakrits", or vernacular languages (in which, among other things, most early Jain and Buddhist texts are written), and the modern Indo-Aryan languages. The Prakrits are probably descended from Vedic, and there is mutual interchange between later forms of Sanskrit and various Prakrits. There has also been reciprocal influence between Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages.

The Vedic form of Sanskrit is a close descendant of Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed root of all later Indo-European languages. Vedic Sanskrit is the oldest attested language of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. It is very closely related to Avestan, the language of Zoroastrianism. The genetic relationship of Sanskrit to modern European languages and classical Greek and Latin can be seen in cognates like Eng. mother /Skt. मतृ matṛ or Eng. father /Skt. पितृ pitṛ. Other interesting links are to be found between Sanskritic roots and Persian (the language of modern-day Iran), present in such a striking example as the generic term for 'land' which in Sanskrit is sthaan and in Persian staan.

European scholarship in Sanskrit, initiated by Heinrich Roth and Johann Ernst Hanxleden, led to the proposal of the Indo-European language family by Sir William Jones, and thus played an important role in the development of Western linguistics. Indeed, linguistics (along with phonology, etc.) first arose among Indian grammarians who were attempting to catalog and codify Sanskrit's rules. Modern linguistics owes a great deal to these grammarians, and to this day, key terms for compound analysis are taken from Sanskrit.

Phonology and writing system

See also Shiva Sutra. Classical Sanskrit has 48 phonemes (Vedic Sanskrit has 49).

The sounds are described here in their traditional order: vowels, stops and nasals (starting in the back of the mouth and moving forward), and finally the liquids and sibilants.

(Note: The long vowels are held about twice as long as their short counterparts. Also, there exists a third, extra-long length for most vowels, which is used in various cases, but particularly when recording a shout, or a greeting.)

Simple vowels

Devanāgarī IAST HK approximate pronunciation
independent vowel sign English IPA
a a gut ʌ
ā A father
ि i i pin i
ī I tweak
u u push u
ū U moo
R purr
RR the same, but longer and rolled r̩ː
L pickle

Unlike in English, , , and really are treated as vowels. Some grammarians mention ॡ , a longer version of , but this does not actually occur in Sanskrit and seems to have been created by analogy with the other vowels.

Diphthongs (combinations of simple vowels)

Devanāgarī transliteration approximate pronunciation
independent vowel sign English IPA
e hay
ai bite
o snow
au pow

Vowels can be nasalized.


Sanskrit has a voiceless stop, voiceless aspirate, voiced stop, voiced aspirate, and nasal stop at each of the following places of articulation (transliteration in IAST with HK in brackets):

Velar (soft palate
(k क, kh ख, g ग, gh घ, (G) ङ)
Palatal (hard palate
(c (ch) च, ch (chh) छ, j ज, jh झ, (J) ञ)
Retroflex (roughly the place of articulation of English alveolars like t, but with the tongue curled back) 
( (T) ट, ṭh (Th) ठ, (D) ड, ḍh (Dh) ढ, (N) ण)
Dental (tongue against teeth, as in Spanish
(t त, th थ, d द, dh ध, n न)
Labial (with the lips
(p प, ph फ, b ब, bh भ, m म)

It also has four semivowels: y य, r र, l ल, v व. Sanskrit also has palatal, retroflex, and alveolar sibilants, ś (z) श, (S) ष, and s स. Rounding out the consonants are the voiced h ह and voiceless ḥ ः or visarga (which tends to repeat the preceding vowel after itself), and the anusvāra (ṃ ं), which often appears as nasalization of the preceding vowel or as a nasal homorganic to the following consonant.

Vedic Sanskrit had a pitch or tonal accent, but it was lost by the classical period. Vedic Sanskrit also had a labial fricative [f], called upadhmaniya, and a velar fricative [x], called jihvamuliya. These are both allophones to visarga: upadhmaniya occurs before p and ph, jihvamuliya before k and kh. Vedic also had a separate symbol ळ for retroflex l, an intervocalic allophone of , transliterated as or ḷh. In order to disambiguate vocalic l from retroflex l, vocalic l is sometimes transliterated with a ring below the letter, ; when this is done, vocalic r is also represented with a ring, , for consistency.


Sanskrit has an elaborate set of phonological rules called sandhi and samaas which are expressed in its writing (except in so-called pada texts). Sandhi reflects the sort of blurring that occurs in combining sounds, particularly at word-boundaries; this occurs in spoken language generally, but is explicitly codified in Sanskrit. A simple example of English sandhi is "an apple" versus "a clock".

Sandhi can make Sanskrit difficult for the inexperienced reader. It also creates ambiguities that clever writers have exploited to perform such feats as writing poems which can be interpreted in multiple, conflicting ways depending on how the reader chooses to break apart the sandhi.


Vedic Sanskrit is a pitch accent language. Since a small number of words in the late pronunciation of Vedic carry the so called independent svarita on a short vowel one can argue that late Vedic was marginally a tonal language. Note however that in the metrically restored versions of the Rig Veda almost all of the syllables carrying an independent svarita must revert to a sequence of two syllables the first of which carries an anusvāra and the second a (so called) dependent svarita. Early Vedic was thus definitely not a tone language but a pitch accent language.


Sanskrit historically has had no single script associated with it. Ashoka used the Brahmi script for his pillar inscriptions (which were not in Sanskrit, but in Prakrit dialects and other languages). Roughly contemporary with the Brahmi, the Kharosthi script was used. Later (ca. 4th to 8th centuries AD) the Gupta script, derived from Brahmi, became prevalent. From ca. the 8th century, the Sharada script evolved out of the Gupta script, and was mostly displaced in its turn by Devanagari from ca. the 12th century, with intermediary stages such as the Siddham script. Other scripts used include Kannada in the South, and Bengali and other North Indian scripts in other regions.

From the late Middle Ages, and especially in modern times, the Devanagari (meaning "as used in the city of the Gods") script has become the most widely used and associated with Sanskrit. Occasionally, in regions of India where Devanagari is not the script of the vernacular (as it is with Hindi or Marathi) one will find texts still written in the local script.

Writing was introduced relatively late to India, and it did not immediately become important since oral learning was the primary means of transmitting knowledge. Rhys Davids suggests that writing may have been introduced from the Middle East by traders, but Sanskrit, which had been used exclusively in sacred contexts, remained a purely oral language until well into India's classical age. It is interesting to note the importance that Sanskrit orthography and Vedic philosophy of sound play in Hindu symbolism, as the varnamala , or sound-garland/alphabet, of 51 letters is also seen to be represented by the 51 skulls of Kali. In the Upanishads, the transcendent-immanent nature of Brahman is represented by the half-matra, or sphota of sound that is inherent to a beat of sound in the Sanskrit system.

Since the 19th century, Sanskrit has also been transliterated using the Latin alphabet. Most commonly used today is the IAST (International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration), which has been the academic standard since 1912. Other transliteration schemes have evolved due to difficulties representing Sanskrit characters in computer systems. These include Harvard-Kyoto that was used earlier, and ITRANS, a lossless transliteration scheme that is used widely on the Internet (especially Usenet).

For scholarly work, Devanagari has generally been preferred for the transcription and reproduction of whole texts and lengthy excerpts; however, references to individual words and names in texts composed in European languages are usually represented using Roman transliteration.


Grammatical tradition

Panini (scholar), Shiva Sutra, Astadhyayi, Dhatupatha, Patanjali, Varadaraja , Laghukaumudi .

Classification of verbs

Sanskrit has ten classes of verbs divided into in two broad groups: athematic and thematic. The thematic verbs are so called because an a, called the theme vowel, is inserted between the stem and the ending. This serves to make the thematic verbs generally better-behaved. Exponents used in verb conjugation include prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and reduplication. Vowel gradation is also very common; every root has (not necessarily all distinct) zero, guṇa, and vṛddhi grades. If V is the vowel of the zero grade, the guṇa-grade vowel is traditionally thought of as a + V, and the vṛddhi-grade vowel as ā + V.

Conjugation of verbs

The verbs tenses (a very inexact application of the word, since more distinctions than simply tense are expressed) are organized into four 'systems' (as well as gerunds and infinitives, and such creatures as intensives/frequentives , desideratives , causatives, and benedictives derived from more basic forms). Each verb also has a grammatical voice, whether active, passive or middle. There is also an impersonal voice, which can be described as the passive voice of intransitive verbs. Classical Sanskrit verbs have an indicative, an optative and an imperative mode. Vedic verbs have even four modes, the fourth being subjunctive. The latter, however, is absent in Panini's grammar and generially believed to have disappeared by then at least in common sentence constructions (cf. English sporadical use of the subjunctive mode in fixed expressions like "Long live the Queen").

The four kinds of tenses are:

Nominal inflection

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy