A Synopsis by Amrutha MK (Research Associate, NIAS) – on “A Historical Linguistics Approach”
Lecture given by Prof. Madhav Deshpande given on 27 January 2021

Series Title: Sanskrit Language & its Traditions: A Journey Through its History and Contemporaneity
Organised by: NIAS Consciousness Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India
Email: niasconsciousnessprogramme@nias.res.in 

Prof. Madhav Deshpande delivered a lecture on the topic “Sanskrit: A Historical Linguistics Approach” as the second in the series on “Sanskrit Language and its Traditions: A Journey Through its History and Contemporaneity”. The second lecture was on 27 January 2021.

Prof. Deshpande took us on a journey starting with the prehistory of Sanskrit language to the Vedic Sanskrit, Pāṇinian Sanskrit, and finally, to modern Sanskrit. He started with the word saṃskṛta and suggested that the usage of the word saṃskṛta to refer to a language is relatively late. He claimed that the word satkṛta was the ancient alternative for saṃskṛta. Later, as it happens, the word satkṛta disappeared from and saṃskṛta survived in the linguistic corpus of Sanskrit. In Daṇḍin’s Kāvyādarśa, saṃskṛta was mentioned as daivī vāk, he added. Similarly, the idea that the Vedas as words of god was held by Nyāya and Vaiśeṣikas. Despite that, to understand the history of the Sanskrit language we need to step outside the realm of religious beliefs, he suggested. Highlighting the dynamic aspects of the Sanskrit language, he demonstrated that it was neither restricted to a geographical location nor was it stagnant. In addition, the Vedic branches were settled in different regions and had shown local variations in the Vedic recitation and ritual practices. Another topic he shed light on was the branching of Indo-European languages with respect to Indo-Aryan migration to India.

Prof. Deshpande observed that in the language of classical texts like Ramayana, Mahabharata, and various Puranas, a distinction in the literary repertoire of language as distinct from colloquial, ordinary spoken language was found. According to him, what we read in Kalidasa was not colloquial expressions rather it was influenced and shaped by multiple factors like meters, rhyme, alliteration, erudition, and acrobatics. He reminded that technical Sanskrit survived through texts describing rituals and various philosophies. Besides, “an intermediate form of Sanskrit” survived through composite forms of Buddhist and Jain literature. He pointed out that in royal inscriptions, a blend of Sanskrit and local languages with a distinct function to provide different information was found. He also mentioned the process of classicalization of the Sanskrit language and opined that the Sanskrit language got fossilized with the preservation of ancient surface structures but with a slow loss of semantic distinctions. The three past tenses and the loss of their distinctive meanings over time were given as examples. All these three past tenses were found in epics through those semantic distinctions disappeared later. He also mentioned that in India there was always a tradition to safeguard the Sanskrit language. Therefore, there was no question of rediscovery, rather there was continuous preservation of the Sanskrit language and its tradition. It is a living tradition, not a dead language, he concluded.

(Prof. Madhav Deshpande is a Professor Emeritus, Sanskrit and Linguistics, University of Michigan; Senior fellow, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, and Adjunct Professor NIAS)

Click on the thumbnail below to watch the full lecture video

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