Origin and Development of Sanskrit

A Page Showing Sanskrit and Related Languages

A Sanskrit-English dictionary, etymologically and philologically arranged, with special reference to Greek, Latin, Gothic, German, Anglo-Saxon, and other cognate Indo-European languages.

by Jayaram V

Sanskrit is a language which is mother of all languages. Sanskrit, S-a-n-s-k-r-i-t, Sanskrit language. So this is the original language of this..., not only of this planet. In other planets also, this language is spoken. - Swami Prabhupada

Many people in India are familiar with the Indiana Jones of the famous Hollywood series, but not with Sir William Jones, who lived in India for 11 years from 1783 and introduced to Europe the antiquity and true merits of Indian literature, languages, history and culture.

He originally went to India to work as a supreme Court Judge in Calcutta. Proficient in many European and Asian languages from an early age, he developed an interest in the study of Indian culture and civilization. He found an outlet to his enlightened interests in the form of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta, which he established in 1784, with the support of his friends and colleagues.

During this period, he made an exhaustive study of Indian history and literature and published many books and papers of great merit on a wide range of subjects, which were published subsequently in 1807, in Europe, into 13 volumes. Among the many projects he undertook, worth mentioning were his translation of the Manu Smriti, some translations of the woks of Kalidasa, translation of the Gita Govinda of Jaideva, his studies of Indian plants and animal species, his exploration of Indian astronomy and ancient Indian sciences, his paper on the Indian Classical Music delivered to an European audience and so on. Sir Jones was the first to suggest that Sanskrit originated from the same source as Latin, Greek and Persian, thus laying the foundation for the comparative study of what we now refer as the Indo European languages.

In 1786, while delivering his third lecture, Sir William made the following statement which aroused the curiosity of many scholars and finally led to the emergence of comparative linguistics. Noticing the similarities between Sanskrit and the Classical Languages of Europe such as Greek and Latin he declared:

"The Sanskcrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could not possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskcrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family..." (Jones, Collected Works, Volume III : 34-5).

The Prot-Indo-European Language-PIE

The statement of Sir Jones was both revelatory and revolutionary. It shook the foundations of the age old European belief that Hebrew was the source languages of all the world languages and introduced a new concept which, a few decades later in the 19th century, led to the comparative study of the origin and evolution of all the Indo European languages that possible came from a common source, now referred as the Proto Indo European Language, or simply PIE.

The Pioneers

Prominent among those who did the pioneering work in this field were the Danish philologist named Rasmus Rask (1818), the German philologist named Franz Bopp, (1791- 1837), Fick August, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacob Grimm, Karl Brugmann of the neogrammarian school and many more. The term Indo-European was actually coined by Thomas Young in 1914. The word Prot-Indo-European language was used to designate the root or the source language, which existed probably sometime in 7000 BC in a region about which we have no common agreement, but which is considered by the majority to be Anatolia in Turkey, otherwise known as Asia Minor or little Asia.(This view is however currently disputed by some historians from India.)

What are these languages?

The following languages are supposed to have been derived from the Proto-Indo-European Language and, after extensive research, have been classified into the following groups or branches.

1 Indo-Iranian Divided into Indic (Indo-Aryan) comprising of Sanskrit and its derivative languages on one side and the Iranian languages most popular among them being Avestan, Persian and Pashto
2 Baltic, Lithuanian, Latvian, etc.
3 Slavic Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatia, etc.
4 Armenian Albania
5 Greek
6 Celtic Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton;
7 Italic Latin and its descendants.
8 Romance languages Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and others.
9 Germanic, German, English, Dutch, and the Scandinavian language
10. Anatolian Hittite, Palaic, and Lydian, Cuneiform Luwian, Hieroglyphic Luwian, and Lycian. Hitite is now extinct, but considered by many as the oldest IE language with written records (1700 BC). This author disagrees with this observation and the reasons are sited elsewhere.
11 Tocharian Also called Tocharish, was spoken in northern Chinese Turkistan during 1st century AD, written in a form of Brahmi and used by the Buddhists.

The Proof

What proof do we have to suggest that these languages had a common ancestor.? Firstly the linguists were able to find some most widely shared common words among these languages. These words give credence to the theory that they all emerged from the same source. Readers can verify a list of such words from the links we have provided at the end of this article. Secondly, in order to understand how, over a period of time, the languages acquired distinct characteristics of their own and also gave birth to other languages, the linguists tried to study the origin and evolution of the various words of each language and their possible connection with similar words in other comparable languages. Their attempts yielded irrefutable evidence of their common origin and gradual evolution.

The Techniques

They accomplished this by studying possible mutations in the sounds and tones that were associated with different words, the structure of the alphabet, the number, arrangement and expression of the vowels and consonants in each comparable language and also the comparative changes that might have taken place in other relevant areas such as the usage of verbs, the nouns, the cases, the gender, the syntax and so on. In course of time they relied upon two principal techniques, namely, the comparative method and the method of internal reconstruction. The former led to the formation of Grimm's law (1822), Verner's law (1896) and neogrammarian hypothesis (1857) etc., which enabled the linguists to compare certain corresponding or comparable words from various languages in the family to understand their origin and development. The Comparative method was very useful in reconstructing the historical basis of many languages for which Latin was the source language. The method of internal reconstruction relies upon the study of the structure of words, especially the arrangements of consonants and vowels, in a given language all by itself

The Origins of PIE

Anatolia: According to the most commonly held view, the source language existed some where near Caspian Sea in the Eastern region of Anatolia (present Turkey), also identified as Asia Minor, some 8500 years ago (6500 BC). This theory is based upon the descriptions of landscape and climate, description of some plants and trees used in agriculture and food gathering, knowledge of the wheel, description of some domesticated animals and some tools in the earliest known vocabulary of the derived languages. The available archaeological evidence is in the form of excavations at Catal Huyuk in South central Turkey by the British archaeologist James Mellaart, which revealed an ancient settlement belonging to the 6th or 7th Century BC of an advanced civilization who practiced hunting, observed fertility rites, lived in mud-brick structures, engaged in trade and adorned their houses with wall paintings and reliefs of geometric patterns, humans, and animals.

Other Possibilities

Dravidian Origin: Another view which is not accepted in the west, but which is proposed in India is that the common proto language of Sanskrit was none other than some proto Dravidian language or the language spoken by the Indus people. We are unable to make any comments on this view, since very little work has been done in India on this subject to prove or disprove the point. If you think that you have some useful information, which can throw some light on this subject, you may help us with your comments or article or post a link to our site. (To add your link, please go to the bottom of this page.)

Sanskrit Origin

We would be curious to know if any one provides us with any information on the theory or the possibility that the source language for Sanskrit did not come from Asia Minor but from within the subcontinent, and that an earlier version of Sanskrit itself was the source language. Perhaps readers are aware that there has been a great deal of controversy among historians about the origin and background of the Vedic people. (For more information on this theory, please visit our history subsection, the link to which is available from our Hinduism Main Page and read the articles written by Rajaram). However we believe that enough evidence is yet to be gathered to accept the Indian origin of Sanskrit language.

Independent origin and development: Another possibility is that there was never a common root language, but only exchange and intermingling of words and expressions form one language into another. This theory is based upon the following assumptions.

It is not uncommon for us to see languages borrowing heavily even today from one another. We are very familiar with the process of the continuous permutations and combinations the languages undergo, the way they influence and get influenced by the ever-changing nature of the world around them. People do not generally switch over to new languages unless there are very compelling reasons.

However this view is not acceptable because it fails to explain the fundamental similarities that exist among the Indo-European languages, which cannot arise out of mere contact with other languages. Besides, we are very much familiar with the historical process of old languages giving way to new languages. In the Indian subcontinent itself after the emergence of Sanskrit, several new languages evolved over a period of time and replaced their source language almost to the point of the latter's complete elimination.

If so many new languages can evolve and develop in one region of the world, the possibility of the evolution of new languages from a source language in different parts of the world cannot be ruled out. We have therefore sufficient grounds to believe that the hypothesis put forward by Sir William Jones more than two hundred year ago is correct and stands the test of linguistic evidence.

There was PIE language but there was no migration of people from Anatolia: To draw an analogy, if people all over the world are using the Microsoft Windows or the VB Script, it does not mean that they have all descended from Bill Gates! It was possible that in the beginning there was one language, perhaps the first language ever to be invented by a human community in a region as vast as Europe and Asia combined, and in course of time, along the trade routes, it might have gradually spread to other areas unaccompanied by any major migration of populations to such areas.

In other words the proto language might have spread to other areas, without major movement of people and communities. It might have happened through migration of individual scholars, ambitious warriors or small trading or nomadic communities. Endowed with the secret or the special knowledge of the language, these people might have lured the local rulers or ruling classes with the prospect of teaching the new language systematically in return for their patronage and favors. The language they so brought and taught might have got integrated with the local dialects in some places and in course of time might have also evolved into new languages.

Skilled craftsmen, traders, scholars, poets, writers and warriors traveling to far away lands in search of personal fortunes, recognition or royal favors was not entirely unknown in the ancient world. We cannot say that this might have happened in every area or in case of every language. But it might be true in some cases, like the south eastern movement of the language to Iran, India and Chinese Tukistan. This broad based approach would also help us to address satisfactorily some of the problems we encounter to explain the chronology and antiquity of some of the oldest languages like Sanskrit.

Evaluation of the East European connection of Sanskrit

If we have to accept the theory that the proto IE came from outside India, then we need to answer some questions regarding the chronology of ancient India very convincingly.

1. When exactly did this movement took place? Was it before or after the formation of the Indus valley civilization?

In order to answer this question convincingly we need to resolve the problem with regard to the antiquity and antecedents of the Indus people, what language they spoke and what legacy they left behind. Presently there is no unanimity among Indologists about these matters.

Some recent developments in our understanding of Indian history suggest that the Indus civilization was basically an Indian affair, with little or no influence from outside and that they were probably the earlier cousins of the Vedic people, spoke a rudimentary form of Sanskrit with some Dravidian elements and were experts in agriculture, metallurgy, urban planning, trade and commerce.

The civilization probably began sometime around 6000 BC as farming and food gathering communities spread over a vast area of the subcontinent, right up to the borders of Iran. It attained its peak status in two stages. In the first stage, probably around 4500 BC, it developed into small village settlements and then evolved into well organized and flourishing urban cities by 3500 BC or even before. The Indus people possibly lived in an area by the Saraswathi River which is now extinct, before they migrated into other areas, forced by the climatic changes.

The existence of the river Saraswathi is now established beyond doubt by satellite imagery. The Indus people were great builders. Their civilization was neither a borrowed one nor a superimposed one. It developed and evolved over a period of time on the Indian soil. It did not disappear completely, although the cites were buried in the earth ravaged by some unknown calamities, but was integrated into the Vedic culture in a peaceful way.

The Indus culture was probably succeeded by the early Vedic culture around 2500 BC with Sanskrit as the principal language of communication, at least among the elite and ruling classes of the society. By this time Sanskrit had already evolved into a full fledged language as is evident from the earliest Sanskrit verses found in the Vedas.

If these dates are true, which are based upon the astronomical data available in the Vedic scriptures, then we have to look afresh at the dates suggested by the European scholars to explain the movement of the PIE into other areas. In our opinion, from the point of view of the origin of Sanskrit, the PIE theory is not acceptable, unless we are able to place the first movement of PIE in the direction of Iran and India, possibly around 5000 BC or even earlier.

In the same manner the earliest Indo European Language cannot be Hittite, whose suggested date of origin was 1750 BC, but Sanskrit or an earlier version of Sanskrit which was in use as early as 2500 BC or even before. In other words if we want to accept the Anatolian origin of Sanskrit language, and place the south eastern movement of the Proto language from Anatolia to India in the proper of scheme of things, we need to push back the possible period of its occurrence by at least 3500 years to 5000 BC.(Please read the opinion of Prof. Jay Kumar regarding the antiquity of Hittite language and the status of Anatolian Languages from the links at the bottom of this page.)


Drawing conclusions on a subject of this nature, with the kind of complexity involved in its study and understanding, and justify such conclusions is a perilous task, and any attempt in this direction is bound to invoke some criticism and disbelief. However for the sake of clarity of our approach and thinking on this subject, and in view of the fact that much of the previous study on this subject was lopsided and one sided, for the sake of balance, we would like to undertake this hazardous task and present the following view points or conclusions.

1. There was a Proto- Indo-European language somewhere in the Caucasian Region.

2. The language might have either traveled to other parts of the Asia and Europe along with migrating populations or individual traders and fortune seekers, and was adapted by various local populations as their medium of communication. Over a period of time the language underwent transformation in each area and developed its own distinct qualities, grammar, idiom and sound patterns, influenced by the local needs, customs, climate, prevailing languages and other factors.

3. In case of India and probably Iran the language might have traveled much earlier, probably around 5000 BC and retained much of its old phonetic structure and syntax.

Note of Appeal

As we have already noted, this is a very complicated subject. We do not claim any exclusive authority on this subject. It is quite possible that we might have ignored some vital issues and drawn some wrong conclusions. It is also possible that our dates for the Indus valley civilization and Vedic civilization are much earlier or much before the actual dates. If you disagree with some of our conclusions or if you think that you can throw further light on this subject, please feel free to send us your views, informing us your background and familiarity with this subject. We will publish your views in this section for the reader's benefit.

Knowing well the complexity of the subject involved, we have assembled a few very useful and informative articles on the subject in addition to some useful links to other websites on this subject. Readers are requested to verify these links also for a better perspective of the subject.

Suggestions for Further Reading

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