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Saṃskṛtā vāk or Saṃskṛtam
Spoken in Indian Sub-continent
Total speakers about 15000 [1]
Language family Indo-European
Language codes
ISO 639-1 sa
ISO 639-2 san
ISO 639-3 san
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-based pronunciation key.

Sanskrit (saṃskṛtaṃ, short for saṃskṛta vāk, literally "unimpaired/full-formed speech", diglossically contrasted with prākṛta vāk, "derived/evolved/artless speech") is an ancient language that was spoken on the Indian Subcontinent. Besides India, it was used as a liturgical language for Hinduism and Buddhism in Tibet and South-East Asia.

In its pre-classical form, it is known as Vedic sanskrit, the language of the Vedic hymns. The term Sanskrit is popularly applied for Classical Sanskrit (unless expressly specified as Vedic or Epic). As the diglossic high-register of Indo-Aryan, classical Sanskrit was a prestige dialect that was used as a marker of social class and literacy in post-Vedic India.

The grammar of classical sanskrit was codified by Panini by the 5th century BCE in his work, the Ashtadhyayi (literally, the "eight chapters"), which contains 3,959 sutras (aphorisms or rules) divided thematically into eight chapters. Although Panini mentions eleven other grammarians that preceded him, the Ashtadhyayi is today the earliest extant Sanskrit grammar that acquired prescriptive value in later times and has continued to be considered the most authoritative till date. Katyayana's varttikas ("elaborations", circa 4th century BCE) and Patanjali's Mahabhasya ("great commentary", circa 2nd century BCE) on Panini's sutras are considered as the most important works on grammar next only in importance to Panini.

Though proper Classical Sanskrit was maintained for many centuries, vernacular languages related to Sanskrit (the Prakrits) developed alongside it. One of these, Pali, became historically important as one of the languages of Buddhism. Like Latin and Greek, Sanskrit enjoyed a long life as a literary language, and, in addition to a large body of secular literature, is the language in which many of the central texts of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism were written. All the modern Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages are greatly influenced by Sanskrit. Spoken sanskrit had a steady decline from 1000 BCE till present times, there being only about 14135 fluent speakers in India according to its 2001 census [1]. Modern Sanskrit Revival attempts are in place among educated Indians in India and the West, chiefly spearheaded by Samskrita Bharati.


Sanskrit belongs to the Indic/Indo-Aryan family, a bifurcation of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. In its oldest forms, Sanskrit preserves some of the features of Proto-Indo-European (like its original eight grammatical cases). The closest ancient relatives of Sanskrit are Avestan and Old-Persian, both Iranian languages, and together, these are said to be derived from a common source called by modern linguists as Proto-Indo-Iranian language, an early descendant of Proto-Indo-European.

Vedic Sanskrit

Vedic sanskrit (or simply Vedic) represents the oldest form of Sanskrit, dating from about 1500 BCE, with the language of books 2-7 of the Rig Veda being regarded the most archaic. No written records from such an early period survive. However, scholars are confident that the oral transmission of the texts is reliable: they were ceremonial literature whose correct pronunciation was considered crucial to its religious efficacy[2].

Old-Indic substrate in Mitanni

Old-Indic loanwords and Indo-Aryan names are also found in Hurrian (Mittani), Hittite and Nuzi records dated to around 1400 BCE[3]. In a treaty between Hittite king Suppiluliuma and Mittanian king Matiwaza, ca. 1380 BC, the Vedic deities Mitra, Varuna, Indra, and Nasatya (Asvins) are invoked. Kikkuli's horse training text in the Hittite language includes technical terms such as aika (eka, one), tera (tri, three), panza (pancha, five), satta (sapta, seven), na (nava, nine), vartana (vartana, round). The name for one aika is taken as definitive indication that it was Indic rather than Iranian (since both aika and aiva are preserved in later Sanskrit as eka and eva while in Iranian languages, a cognate is attested only for the latter).

Another text has babru'(-nnu)' ('"babhru, brown), parita(-nnu) (palita, grey), and pinkara(-nnu) (pingala, red). Their chief festival was the celebration of the solstice (vishuva) which was common in most cultures in the ancient world. The Mitanni warriors were called marya (Hurrian: maria-nnu), the term for (young) warrior in Sanskrit as well [4]; note mišta-nnu (= miẓḍha,~ Sanskrit mīḍha) "payment (for catching a fugitive)"[5]. Sanskritic interpretations of Mitanni names render Artashumara (artaššumara) as Arta-smara "who thinks of Arta/Ṛta" [6], Biridashva (biridašṷa, biriiašṷa) as Prītāśva "whose horse is dear"[7], Priyamazda (priiamazda) as Priyamedha "whose wisdom is dear" [8], Citrarata as citraratha "whose chariot is shining"[9], Indaruda/Endaruta as Indrota "helped by Indra"[10], Shativaza (šattiṷaza) as Sātivāja "winning the race price"[11], Šubandhu as Subandhu 'having good relatives"[12], Tushratta (tṷišeratta, tušratta, etc.) as *tṷaiašaratha, Vedic Tveṣaratha "whose chariot is vehement"[13].

Archaeologists have attested a striking parallel in the spread to Syria of a distinct pottery type associated with what they call the Kura-Araxes culture [14], however the dates they usually assign for this are somewhat earlier than the Mitanni are thought to have first arrived.

Classical Sanskrit

From the Rigveda until the time of Panini (fl. 5th century BCE) the development of the Sanskrit language may be observed in the Samaveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda, Brahmanas, and Upanishads. During this time, the prestige of the language, its use for sacred purposes, and the importance attached to its correct enunciation all served as powerful conservative forces resisting the normal processes of linguistic change[15].

The term saṃskṛta was not thought of as a specific language set apart from other languages, but rather as a particularly original and refined/perfect manner of speaking (vāk). It was contrasted with the evolved/lay form of speaking i.e prākṛta vāk which developed into the vernaculars called prakrits. As a literary language, Sanskrit continued to co-exist with the vernacular prakrit dialects. The vernaculars in time evolved into the apabhramsa and abahatta languages and further into the modern Indo-Aryan languages. While Sanskrit is classified as an Old-Indic language, the prakrits and their successors, the apabrahmsa and abahatta languages are classified as Middle-Indic languages. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is a Middle Indic literary language based on early Buddhist prakrit texts which subsequently assimilated to the Classical Sanskrit standard in varying degrees.[16]


  1. India Census 2001
  2. Meier-Brügger, Michael; Matthias Fritz, Manfred Mayrhofer, Charles Gertmenian (trans.) (2003). Indo-European Linguistics. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter, p. 20. ISBN 3110174332. 
  3. P.E.Dumont - Indo Aryan names from Mitanni, Nuzi and Syrian Documents
  4. Manfred Mayrhofer, Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen, Heidelberg 1986-2000, II 293
  5. Mayrhofer II 358
  6. Mayrhofer II 780
  7. Mayrhofer II 182
  8. Mayrhofer II 189, II378
  9. Mayrhofer I 553
  10. Mayrhofer I 134
  11. Mayrhofer II 540, 696
  12. Mayrhofer II 209, 735
  13. Mayrhofer I 686, I 736
  14. James P. Mallory, "Kuro-Araxes Culture", Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.
  15. Keith, Arthur Berriedale (1993). A history of Sanskrit literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, p. 4. ISBN 8120809793. 
  16. Edgerton, 1953