The evolution of Sanskrit
Sanskrit is one of the foundation languages of the Indo-European family, and an understanding of its evolution is therefore vital to knowing how the languages of this family interrelate and how the modern languages of South Asia came to be as they are today. Indeed, the science of linguistics owes its origins to the discovery by Sir William Jones, in 1786, of the similarities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.
It is also a religious language, in that it is the language of the ancient texts of Hinduism and Buddhism, and it thus occupies the same revered place for Hindus and Buddhists that Hebrew does for Jews and Arabic for Muslims. Surprisingly, despite its antiquity, it is also a living language, being one of the 22 official languages of India, although it is spoken fluently by only about 14,000 people.
The origins of Sanskrit are unknown, although one theory is that it derived from a source language that also spawned Greek, Latin, and several other language groups. This has been termed the Proto-Indo-European language (or PIE) which has been traced to Anatolia (part of modern Turkey) and which dates back to at least 6500 BCE. However, this theory is not accepted universally, with some Indian scholars holding that Sanskrit derived from the language of the first settlers of the Indus valley. Indeed, many Hindus regard Sanskrit as having existed for all time as the language of Heaven, and that to talk of its origins in other terms is sacrilegious.
For a language to spread and evolve, either the people speaking that language must migrate into new territories, or communities must have contact in other ways, such as by trade. There is no evidence that the ancient peoples of the Indian subcontinent came from Anatolia, so the latter path seems more likely. If Sanskrit did evolve from PIE, it must have happened before 5000 BCE or thereabouts, because the Indus Valley civilization (3300-1800 BCE) was clearly using a fully fledged version of Sanskrit that was adopted by the succeeding Vedic civilization at around 2500 BCE. It is generally accepted among Indian scholars that Sanskrit took at least 1000 years to reach its perfected state; indeed, the word “Sanskrit” means “complete and perfect”.
Sanskrit is recognised in two forms, known as Vedic and Classical, although the differences between them are not great. Vedic Sanskrit was the language of the Vedas, the four foundation texts of the Hindu religion. These were doubtless the result of a long oral tradition, but the written forms date from around 1800-1500 BCE.
At the close of the Vedic period, in the 4th century BCE, the grammar of Sanskrit was set out in great detail by Panini, who defined 3,959 rules of morphology. His grammar effectively created Classical Sanskrit, which became the language of science and scholarship as well as of religion.
EVOLUTION INTO OTHER LANGUAGES
The languages of modern India derive from two main sources, one being Sanskrit and the other Dravidian, which was the ancient language of southern India, and was not Indo-European. Later movements of population, and military invasions, have led to many other influences entering the language spoken in everyday use, and the creation of new languages.
The term “apabhramsha” is used to denote north Indian dialects of the 6th to 13th centuries AD that deviated from Sanskrit, the word meaning “corrupt”. From these dialects, several quite distinct modern languages have evolved, including Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati and Sinhala. Hindi, for example, shows many instances of grammar and vocabulary that derive straight from Sanskrit.
The evolution of Sanskrit, both before and since the Classical period, is therefore a complex study, and there are many issues that are far from certain. However, the preservation of so many ancient texts, and the current interest in reviving Sanskrit as a working language, show that interest in this supposedly “dead” language is still at a high level.