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Linguistics in Ancient India

India is a country of diversities. Along with the many cultures, peoples, and communities that have found a home here and shaped the nation, so are their languages intertwined with the past and present. The story of a nation is linked with its history, and we may get to know a lot from material remains of the past, but linguistic history is an equally important factor that can be traced to understand the origins of a community and where it is headed. Similarly for India the most widely believed theory about the communities that inhabited it is the Invading “Aryans” or the Raiders from the North who defeated the Dravidians occupied what is North India now, the latter being forced to evacuate to the South. Except now we know that the tribes were not called Aryans, it was the language that they spoke which was of the Indo-European family. And it was these people who were responsible for the Rig Vedic texts, and the language that they use is similar to the even more ancient text called Zend Avesta.


To go into the linguistics of ancient India, first we need to understand what linguistics itself means. It is the scientific study of a language, entailing a comprehensive, systematic and objective analysis of its nature and structure. Studying the many layers that make up a language, from the sounds being produced by the speakers and the meanings that those sounds express. Because of these many layers there are various subfields within this field of study:

i) Phonetics- studying the sounds of the speech, made by the speech organs of the speaker, and the properties of the sounds themselves.

ii) Phonology- the study of language sound systems and the laws governing them, about the patterns and their meanings. For example, what sounds contrast in one language like the two different sounds for “p” in the word “pop up”. Phonology is what the sounds are in language, and pronunciation is how we put these into action.

iii) Morphology- the study of the structure or shape of the word. For example, “build” is an independent morpheme, and adding the dependent morpheme “er” is the correct use of it, also called a suffix.

iv) Semantics- it is concerned with meaning of words, the logic behind their usage, reference, implications, and the relations between them.

v) Historical Linguistics- studying how languages change over time, how modern day languages are different from ancient languages, and why certain languages are closely related to each other.

Just like no common ancestor for the people inhabiting India can be traced, as they are descendants of different groups, the languages spoken in modern day India are the result of hundreds of years of evolution of languages from different speech families. And it is the last field, the sub field of Historical Linguistics that helps us trace their origin. The four major language groups of India are Austro-Asiatic (earliest known speech family), Tibeto-Burman (along with Austro-Asiatic they have the most speakers, but their earliest use is all oral), Dravidian (prevalent in all of South India), and Indo-Aryan (all ancient languages fall in this speech family).

The Indo-Aryan family is the one that contains all the old Indo-Aryan Vedic Sanskrit. And born from this are the middle Indo-Aryan languages of Prakrit, Pali and Apabhramsa. Sanskrit continued to dominate the literary scene, and continued to develop with Prakrit till the early medieval times. Classic Sanskrit became the sign of the priestly and educated class, where Prakrit became the language of the commoners. Pali, which chronologically came before Prakrit, was the first language based on Sanskrit and the language of the Jatak Kathas. Eventually Apabhramsa which was a dialect of Prakrit came to be recognised as a literary language in the 6th century.



On the other hand a tradition of linguistic analysis developed in India, continuing till the modern times, concerned with the composition of the ancient Vedic hymns. By the 4th century Panini composed a whole grammar of Sanskrit which was a culmination of a long line of linguistic research based on phonetics and phonology. Becoming the first systematic investigation of a language, and this was motivated by the need to accurately preserve these Vedic texts. Fields of metrics, lexicography, phonetics, and grammar were recognised, the semantic study of words as well as sentences was carried out. The sentence was considered as a unit, which would only be recognised in the Western world after Chomsky in the 20th century. Sandhi which is “joining together”, and studying words by themselves and as part of sentences was done. The relation between dhvani (the actual event) and sphota (abstract, unexpressed entity) which is the relation between perceived utterance and meaningful articulated language was also recognised, which is the difference between phonetics and phonology today. The effort and the activity which takes place in the buccal cavity, nasal cavity and lungs was identified. Many general grammar rules of today were already pinpointed, such as the verb as the core of the sentence and the other words in relation to it could be the agent or the object. The other being the rules for the grammar, and how the words are set in an order. We already had compound words called tatpurusha, attributive compounds like doorknob, and exocentric compounds called bahuvrihi which are still in general use.

Language was studied against backdrop of literary studies and philosophical enquiry; it was found that the grammar utilises sophisticated techniques for reference, of morphology, and follows abstract principles of rule precedence. This linguistic analysis of Sanskrit formalised the analysis pattern of other Indian languages. And this precedence of rules is what has made the languages that are spoken and written today by people all over the world.



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