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In 1786 Sir William Jones, the English Chief Justice in India, noticed similarities between Greek and the ancient language of India, Sanskrit. This observation led Jones to hypothesize that Greek and Sanskrit, as well as Latin, descended from a common linguistic ancestor, now lost, and further that this language was also the source of the Germanic and Celtic languages.

The Sanskrit tongue most probably entered the Indian subcontinent with an early migration of Indo-European people. As the Indo-Europeans moved into the Indian subcontinent, their language displaced that of the aboriginal Indians. The Dravidian languages, still widely spoken in southern India, are believed to be the modern descendants of the earlier linguistic layer.

Sanskrit is no longer a spoken language, but continues to be used in religious ritual, and its Classical form is still cultivated as a literary language. Sanskrit is divided into two general categories, the more ancient Vedic Sanskrit (assumed to have been spoken from approximately 1500-200 B.C.) and Classical Sanskrit (approximately 500 B.C.- 1000 A.D.). Classical Sanskrit was formalized in the fourth century B.C. and, although there is some overlap between the two periods, there are important differences between it and the Vedic form.

Vedic Sanskrit literature developed first in an oral form, and was first set down in writting after centuries of oral transmission. The gap between the composition of and the written recording of the literature makes dating difficult, but most of what survives can be assigned either to the Vedic or Classical period. Although the art of oral transmission in a pre-literate society required exact memorization, scholars cannot confidently say how close what was finally recorded in the third century B.C. is to the original composition.

The primary method of classifying the works by date is to take the subject matter and style of the work into consideration. The Vedic period is typified by an archaic style and religious subject matter. The Classical period is more secular in orientation and closer to the written style as it continued in the current era. The most important works of the Vedic period are the four Vedas (the word Veda meaning 'knowledge' in Sanskrit). The Rig-veda is the oldest, consisting primarily of religious hymns; the Sama-veda is the veda of chants, the Yajur-veda the veda of prayers; finally, the Atharva-veda contains the lore of the Atharvans.

In the Classical period Sanskrit was used much like Latin in Medieval Europe, as a literary language of an educated elite. Two major works of this period were the epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Classical Sanskrit also includes works of philosophy, astronomy, science, medicine and law.

Indian Languages Today

As the Latin language evolved into the Romance languages in Europe, Sanskrit gave rise to a variety of dialects that in time became separate languages. In modern India there are a number of languages that descend from Sanskrit, such as Sindhi, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. Romany, the dialect of the Gypsies in western Asia and Europe, is also descended from Sanskrit. The Dravidian languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam are also spoken in India, as are certain Iranian and Sino-Tibetan languages.

sanskrit writing sample

Here are some links to information about Sanskrit language and literature:
Click here to read translations of hymns from the Rig Veda
Click here to see some Sanskrit texts and analysis
Click here for a breakdown of the Vedas
Click here to learn more about Hindu, Urdu, and Sanskrit

Sanskrit literature preserves the stories of the Hindu gods.
Here are some links to information about Hinduism, one of the major religions of India:
Click here to see images of Hindu gods
Click here to see the Rama Anjaneya temple
Click here to see the Orissa Puri temple
Click here to see a detail of a temple