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(săn`skrĭt), language belonging to the Indic group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Indo-IranianIndo-Iranian,
subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages, spoken by more than a billion people, chiefly in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (see The Indo-European Family of Languages, table).
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). Sanskrit was the classical standard language of ancient India, and some of the oldest surviving Indo-European documents are written in Sanskrit; however, Hittite is probably the earliest recorded Indo-European tongue with at least one text dated c.17th cent. B.C. The oldest known stage of Sanskrit is Vedic or Vedic Sanskrit, so-called because it was the language of the VedaVeda
[Sanskrit,=knowledge, cognate with English wit, from a root meaning know], oldest scriptures of Hinduism and the most ancient religious texts in an Indo-European language.
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, the most ancient extant scriptures of Hinduism. The Veda probably date back to about 1500 B.C. or earlier, many centuries before writing was introduced into India. Vedic Sanskrit was current c.1500 B.C. to c.200 B.C. However, Sanskrit in its classical form, a development of Vedic, was spoken c.400 B.C. as a standard court language. It became the literary vehicle of Hindu culture and as such was employed until c.A.D. 1100 (see Sanskrit literatureSanskrit literature,
literary works written in Sanskrit constituting the main body of the classical literature of India. Introduction

The literature is divided into two main periods—the Vedic (c.1500–c.200 B.C.
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). Even today Sanskrit survives in liturgical usage. Although it is a dead language, it is recognized in the Indian constitution of 1950 because of its association with the religion and literature of India.

Study of grammar by Indian scholars began early. The oldest existing Sanskrit grammatical work was written by the Indian grammarian Panini (c.4th cent. B.C.), who perceptively analyzed and commented on the Sanskrit language. Grammatically, Sanskrit has eight cases for the noun (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, instrumental, vocative, and locative), three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), three numbers for verbs, nouns, pronouns, and adjectives (singular, dual, and plural), and three voices for the verb (active, middle, and passive). The language is very highly inflected. The ancient Indian scripts known as the Brahmi and Kharosthi alphabets have been employed to record Sanskrit. Both Brahmi and Kharosthi are thought to be of Semitic origin. The Devanagari characters, which are descended from Brahmi, also were, and still are, used for writing Sanskrit. The comparison of Sanskrit with the languages of Europe, especially by Sir William JonesJones, Sir William,
1746–94, English philologist and jurist. Jones was celebrated for his understanding of jurisprudence and of Oriental languages. He published an Essay on the Law of Bailments (1781), widely used in America as well as in England.
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, opened the way to the scientific study of language in Europe in the 18th cent.


See J. Bloch, Indo-Aryan, from the Vedas to Modern Times (rev. ed., tr. 1965); R. P. Godman and S. J. Sutherland, Devavanipravesika: An Introduction to the Sanskrit Language (2d ed. rev. 1987).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the principal Old Indic languages of the Indo-European family of languages, which was developed into a literary language.

Sanskrit was spoken in northern India from the first century B.C. The language is characterized by a strictly normalized grammar and a standardized system of rules. Sanskrit differs from the Prakrits in that the former is a language developed to formal perfection, as indicated by the word samskrta, which literally means “perfected.” It is also distinguished from Vedic, an archaic language with little standardization, and from the other ancient Indic dialects from which the Prakrits derived. Sanskrit, a language of fiction, religion, philosophy, law, and science, influenced the culture of Southeast and Central Asia and Western Europe. It influenced the development of the languages of India, primarily in the area of vocabulary, and the development of other languages within the sphere of Sanskrit or Buddhist culture, such as the Kawi and Tibetan languages. In India, Sanskrit is used as a language of the humanities and in worship and is also spoken as a conversational language by a small circle of people.

There are several types of Sanskrit. Epic Sanskrit, the language of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, is more archaic and less normalized. Classical Sanskrit, the standardized language of an extensive literature, was described by ancient Indian grammarians and occupies a central position among the various types of Sanskrit. Vedic Sanskrit, the language of the late Vedic texts, was influenced by the Sanskrit of its time. Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit and Jain Sanskrit are the middle Indic languages of the Buddhist and Jain scriptures, respectively.

Sanskrit uses various scripts deriving from Brahmi, including Kharoshthi, Kushan, Gupta, Nagari, and Devanagari. The phonetics and phonology of the language are characterized by three pure vowels (a, e, and o), two phonemes with vowel and consonant allophones (i/y and u/v), and two liquid consonants that can be syllabic (r and l). The system of consonants is highly ordered. There are five groups: labials, dentals, retroflexes, velars, and palatals. Each group is divided into voiced and unvoiced and aspirated and nonaspirated phonemes. The prosody of Sanskrit is characterized by a movable accent, the pitch of the stressed syllable, and long and short syllables. The numerous rules of sandhi determine the behavior of phonemes at the junctures of morphemes and words. A morphonemic peculiarity of the language is the presence of three types of roots, depending upon the length of vowels. The morphology is characterized by an eight-case system of nouns, three genders, and three numbers. The verb has a developed system of tenses and moods. The syntax depends on the nature of the text: some texts exhibit a richness of inflected forms, whereas others have a predominance of compound words and analytic forms of tense and voice. The vocabulary is rich and stylistically varied.

Sanskrit was first studied in Europe in the late 18th century. In the early 19th century Sanskrit played a decisive role in the emergence of comparative-historical linguistics.


Ivanov, V. V., and V. N. Toporov. Sanskrit. Moscow, 1960.
Wackernagel, J., and A. Debrunner. Altindische Grammatik, vols. 1–3. Göttingen, 1930–57.
Renou, L. Grammaire sanscrite, vols. 1–2. Paris, 1930.
Whitney, W. D. A Sanscrit Grammar, 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1960.
Edgerton, F. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary, vols. 1–2. New Haven, Conn., 1953.
Böhtlingk, O. Sanskrit Wörterbuch, vols. 1–7. St. Petersburg, 1855–75.
Mayrhofer, M. Kurzgefasstes etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen, vol. 1. Heidelberg, 1956.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


an ancient language of India, the language of the Vedas, of Hinduism, and of an extensive philosophical and scientific literature dating from the beginning of the first millennium bc. It is the oldest recorded member of the Indic branch of the Indo-European family of languages; recognition of the existence of the Indo-European family arose in the 18th century from a comparison of Sanskrit with Greek and Latin. Although it is used only for religious purposes, it is one of the official languages of India
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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