Spoken Sanskrit

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From December 13-17, 2015, I participated in an international workshop at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS) on the Edmond J. Safra campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  The title of the workshop was "A Lasting Vision: Dandin’s Mirror in the World of Asian Letters".  Here's the workshop website.

The workshop was about Sanskrit poetics, especially as detailed in the Kāvyādarśa (simplified transliteration:  Kavyadarsha; Mirror of Poetry) of Daṇḍin (circa AD 7th c.), the earliest surviving systematic treatment of poetics in Sanskrit.

The participants were exceptionally learned, and included many of the best specialists in the world on Sanskrit poetics.  I was impressed by their ability to recite Sanskrit, but what really astonished me was hearing Sanskrit spoken as though it were a living language.  When Nagaraja Rao spoke extemporaneously and eloquently in Sanskrit, my jaw dropped.  As I watched him putting together complex sentences, I could almost hear the brainwheels whirling in the background.  It was a mind-boggling experience for me to hear Sanskrit spoken that way.  I could only understand a small fraction of what was being said, but it was clear that the other participants (who were all Sanskrit scholars) could understood everything, or almost everything, that Nagaraja was saying.

The reasons why I was so astonished to hear Sanskrit being spoken this way were that I had always thought of it as long-dead, classical language and because, from having studied it for several years, I was intimately familiar with the extraordinary complexity of its grammar, which made me think that it was not suited for quotidian purposes.

In "Sanskrit resurgent " (8/13/14) I discussed the recent burgeoning interest in Sanskrit as a living language.

I concluded that post thus:

There's no danger of this ever happening with Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese), since it has not been a spoken language for two millennia, if ever.

Deeply curious to learn more about Sanskrit as a spoken language today, I asked several colleagues who are Indologists to describe it in more detail than I was able to glean from merely listening in.  I am grateful to David Shulman, Whitney Cox, Frederick Smith, Shenghai Li, and Devin Patel for their responses, which I copy below.

David Shulman:

Sanskrit scholars in India quite often speak Sanskrit among themselves; I have heard scholars from different parts of the country choose Sanskrit as the most efficient medium for them to communicate with one another (on the bus, in the street, and of course in academic settings).  For a good Sanskrit scholar, Sanskrit is probably more useful and accessible in such meetings than English or Hindi.  Spoken Sanskrit is, of course, a  scholastic language, though there have been attempts in recent decades to generate new, modern words for various bits of modern life. There's a pretty good book, with conversations, published I think by the Kuppuswamy Sastri Institute in Chennai:  there one finds discussions in Sanskrit about how to fix a flat tire on your bicycle, about going to political demonstrations, and other such contemporary topics. Sanskrit is very regularly the language of instruction if one is reading a classical text with a Sanskrit pandit.

Spoken Sanskrit uses the classical morphology (the verbal system perhaps somewhat reduced in its range), but its syntax often follows whatever spoken mother tongue the speaker uses. In this, however, it is continuous with medieval written Sanskrit which, despite what one reads in various primers and other works, is actually a left-branching language (like all other South Asian languages in the Dravidian and Indo-Iranian families), unlike Vedic, which is right-branching (like Greek, Latin, English, German, etc.).  Also, medieval Sanskrit has the same profusion of modal and aspectual forms that we find in other South Asian languages, although these forms have largely gone unnoticed by scholars trained in the old Indo-European paradigms.

Whether this rich modality and aspectuality actually survive into spoken Sanskrit is a question worth examining empirically.

For a taste of this spoken scholastic Sanskrit, i recommend the set of lectures given by Prof. Arindam Chakrabarty (Univ. of Hawaii) in Tirupati– an introduction to Western philosophy for Sanskrit pundits in Tirupati. Some of these are available on YouTube. Arindam has also published the lectures as a book, in Sanskrit of course; you can read there very beautiful introductions to Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Kant. Arindam had to more or less invent an adequate vocabulary and style for these lectures; they were extremely popular in Tirupati, and well attended.

Despite all of the above, spoken Sanskrit is of course a very far cry from any of the mother tongues in terms of its expressive range. It's reminiscent of the way Latin was spoken until quite recently in Europe, among scholars.

Nagaraja Rao himself is the author of several novels in Sanskrit– they are wonderful to read. You can also hear the news in Sanskrit every morning on All-India Radio; it's called "Vaartaa," and tends to focus on the results of cricket matches.

For a fine essay on a modern play in Sanskrit, by Viswanatha Satyanarayana, the greatest of all the modern Telugu writers, there is Velcheru Narayana Rao's chapter in the volume called "Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kavya Literature" (edited by Yigal Bronner, Gary Tubb, and myself)– OUP Delhi, 2014.

Whitney Cox:

I'm happy to pick up the thread of the conversation which we began over lunch in Jerusalem.  There's been a great deal of discussion about Sanskrit as a spoken language, especially of the resuscitation of it in post-Independence India. A good point of reference here is the work of the anthropologist Adi Hastings at Iowa, but there's also more Indological discussion–including articles by Rich Salomon and Albrecht Wezler–on the longer historical trajectory (references here and here). There is also a very successful spoken Sanskrit course that has been run in the summer in Heidelberg for years now (here's the website).

As for your questions:

1. How often do Sanskrit scholars speak Sanskrit this way?

For classically-trained pandits, it is possible–indeed, in a way it is easier–to do Sanskrit teaching entirely through Sanskrit, rather than English or their vernacular.  This is because Sanskrit provides such a robust set of meta-linguistic devices–e.g. techniques of analysis and glossing, extensive synonymy and hence substitutability–that it is often simpler to explain things intra-linguistically.  The pedagogical method is similar to that of prose commentarial writing (regarding which I recommend Gary [Tubb] and Emery Boose's excellent book Scholastic Sanskrit); indeed, commentaries are in many cases probably the edited and heavily revised transcripts of viva voce teaching

2. Do they actually sometimes converse in Sanskrit among themselves?

Most definitely, and not only scholars: there is an international organization called Saṃskṛta Bhāratī that seeks to revive Sanskrit as a modern spoken language.  I have had Indian-American students who have been taught in their programs turn up for classes at Chicago, only to come away disappointed that I wasn't teaching a Sanskrit-medium conversation course.  As for scholarly or academic spoken Sanskrit, it is still very much alive as a social as well as a pedagogical medium.

I once heard a story (Yigal [Bronner] or Gary [Tubb] would likely remember the details) about the great 16th-century polymath Appayya Dikshita's wife, her ability to follow her husband's Sanskrit conversations and concomitant skill at making up for his occasional slips of the tongue.  The story, of course, is likely not historically true, but it speaks to the wider domain of speaking competence that the language likely enjoyed in premodern times.

3. In what circumstances (e.g., academic workshops!) do they speak Sanskrit?

A funny anecdote: about ten years ago, I attended a conference at the University of Madras on paleography and textual criticism.  It being an Indian university, the medium of presentation was almost entirely in English; however the conversations in the audience and during the chai breaks between papers was almost totally in Sanskrit.  Also, the World Sanskrit Conference always includes one or two completely Sanskrit-medium sessions.

4. How does spoken Sanskrit differ from written Sanskrit?  Are the differences substantial?

The Salomon and Wezler articles contain some interesting historical data on this question.  For modern (non-pandit) speakers, the standard complaint from the Sanskrit-wallahs is that the language they speak is only sort-of/kind-of Sanskrit: things tend to be radically simplified, sandhi doesn't tend to be observed, only the participles are used for expressing past action, et cetera.  To some skeptics, this makes it resemble an ultra-Sanskritized form of Hindi, instead of the thing itself.  I honestly don't have too much invested in this debate–Sanskrit has always possessed a multitude of registers, from the straightforward to the baroquely complex.  This is just one more aspect of that diversity.  Of course, the proponents of modern spoken Sanskrit often hold political and socio-religious ideas with which I am in deep disagreement, but that's another matter.

Frederick Smith:

H. V. Nagaraja Rao is one of the most versatile and literate Sanskrit pandits of the last half century.  Practically no Sanskrit pandits speak as well as he does. Most of them do not resort to subtle or complex verb forms, but speak almost entirely in passive forms, with special emphasis on the past passive participle, for the simple reason that it’s an easy form in a complex language. It requires the agent to be in the instrumental, and the object to be the grammatical subject, thus in the nominative case. This is much easier than spinning out all sorts of complicated finite verbs. Much of the Sanskrit that I’ve heard spoken over the last 40+ years is either simplified in this and other ways, or just wrong. Often vocabulary is cut and pasted from Hindi or even Dravidian languages, modified with Sanskrit case endings. It’s definitely the case that Sanskrit is spoken in many situations among those so trained, including (a) classes at Sanskrit schools and universities; (b) formal debates among Sanskritists – usually pandits rather than scholars (although they do sometimes overlap), and generally in semi-religious contexts, such as debates between advocates of logic (nyāya, vaiśeṣika), Vedic exegesis (mīmāṃsā), and non-duality (Vedānta), or between adherents of various schools of Vedānta; or (c) within the context of Vedic sacrificial performances in which the priesthood consisting of individuals who have mastered different Vedic texts (Sāmaveda, Ṛgveda, Yajurveda) come from different parts of India. I have often been in the latter situation, where, for example, the Sāmaveda pandits come from Karnataka, the Ṛgvedins from Maharashtra, and the Yajurvedins from Andhra Pradesh or Tamilnadu. The only language they had in common was Sanskrit. I very much enjoyed those situations because what they discussed was crucial to what would happen in five minutes or the next day – it was not fixed or formal, nor was the quality of their Sanskrit evaluated by the others for its elegance – it was a real language of communication.

Sanskrit as a spoken language is still taught in Sanskrit colleges, such as the Maharaja’s Sanskrit College in Mysore, and a few places elsewhere.  There has also been a rather soft movement to develop spoken Sanskrit by an organization in Bangalore called Samskrita Bharati, which has dedicated itself to the perpetuation of spoken Sanskrit across India and even among NRI’s (non-resident Indians) in the US, UK, and elsewhere. This is the highly simplified form of Sanskrit, and requires very little knowledge of grammar, and is conveniently taught to Indians because of a core vocabulary that’s familiar to them, and which they can then set into a few sentence paradigms (almost always in the passive). This is a rather stumbling movement, although this organization claims that they have taught everyone in one town (Mettur, in Shimoga district of Karnataka) to speak Sanskrit on a regular basis. I have visited this town and found that it’s a false claim. At best, some of the ordinary people can ask for a kilo of tomatoes or onions in Sanskrit. That’s about it.

Shenghai Li:

I wrote the following in a blog entry and as a note to myself 8 years ago, so it doesn't take any effort for me to share it with you.

I went to learn Spoken Sanskrit because a teacher that I wanted to study with in India does not speak English. I can also attest that Spoken Sanskrit is used in classrooms in places such at Maharaja Sanskrit College in Mysore. Many of my teachers could use it to teach when I requested them to. I must say that I could only understand lectures on Buddhist contents well if I prepared beforehand; I am not good with general speech or classes not dealing with Buddhist subjects.


I came to Ak.saram, the Bangalore branch of Samskrita Bharati.

I was there for a month, attended three different kinds of classes and a shibiram (a kind of intensive Sanskrit camp), and I also benefitted from the interaction with the volunteers, all of whom converse in Sanskrit. I was told that the daily one-on-one class that I was given is what Ak.saram would offer to all Sanskrit learners who come to Ak.saram and ask for it. During this class the instructor and I went through the first of the four levels of a correspondence course (each level consists of about 12 booklets) which the organization has developed. While the grammatical aspects were not new to me at all, the materials (at least what we covered) did contain a very substantial Spoken component. Also helpful were the discussions I had with my instructor on saralasa.msk.rtam, or simple Sanskrit, which the organization promotes. At this point I am not completely clear about the position of Samskrita Bharati in relation to other elements of the Spoken Sanskrit movement, but I get the sense that it is a major force, if not the major force, with nation-wide influence. Nor am I clear as to what other varieties of Spoken Sanskrit there are, although from my limited experience elsewhere I get the sense that something akin to the kind of simple Sanskrit which Samskrita Bharati promotes is used by other Sanskrit speaking people as well. I will have more to say about simple Sanskrit below.

One week after my arrival, a month-long beginning Spoken Sanskrit course for school children also started, which I attended for about two weeks. The grammatical part again moved very slowly and repetitively, but the class was conducted in Sanskrit, which certainly helped. I also sat in on the last class of a 2nd level weekend course. There a volunteer came and spoke to the students. At that point I only got the sense of what the talk was about, but a fellow in the class told me that average students understood 70-80% of the talk. This really persuaded me to persist in the kids' class. The other thing which spontaneously happened was a class given by a young man. He was perhaps a little less than 20, and was brought up speaking Sanskrit as his mother tongue. The class was requested by a group of MA Sanskrit students who were trying to pass their exams, and it dealt with philosophical and literary texts. The class gave me a chance to get exposed to a kind of learned oral Sanskrit commentary. But it stopped after about 10 days. While in Bangalore I also visited a Sanskrit school in the city and a Sanskrit gurukula in the suburb, both of which however were not in session till the beginning of June. I knew there was much more I could explore. I feel that Sanskrit is strong in Karnataka (there is also a Sanskrit village in the state), and given that the state is also a stronghold for Tibetan learning, I wondered if there was any attempt to link the two kinds of resources together.

The best thing I had in Bangalore, however, was a 6-day shibiram which Ak.saram offered toward the end of my stay. This was a sheer coincidence because it was planned to take place elsewhere, but the other venue suddenly had problems with its water supply, and the event had to be moved to Bangalore. During those six days (there are also 10 day ones, and "you can speak Sanskrit in 10 days" is Samskrita Bharati's slogan), everyone in attendance was supposed to speak Sanskrit only, and of course the day-long classes were all in Sanskrit. The shibiram simply moved my Spoken Sanskrit to the next level. What I particularly liked were the talks given by many guest speakers. I am of course not saying that I understood that much, and I feel that my fellow students always understood more than I did, and in my mind this simply has to do with the fact that their native languages are filled with Sanskrit words, and simple Sanskrit might particularly favor that shared vocabulary. I was encouraged by the fact that I understood better the talks which were more scholastic. During some talks I felt I might have understood as much of 50% and I had a good sense of what was being said. So if you are a Sanskrit student who likes to learn the spoken language, I would certainly recommend that you go to Ak.saram (by the way, Bangalore is where Samskrita Bharati started). I also had a good experience with Samskrita Bharati people from Delhi and Chennai, but those two places are hot in the summer). You should communicate clearly that you want to have the one-on-one class, and by all means schedule your visit so that you can attend one of the shibirams, and besides these two hopefully you will stumble upon something else by accident. There is a three-week Sanskrit course planned for this coming July-August which is specifically designed for English speakers. But having had years of Sanskrit, doing the shibiram with Kanada speaking people worked fine for me. In the shibiram that I attended, there were three levels – beginning, advanced, teacher-training. I was recommended to attend the second one since I had spent some time there before the shibiram started.

The next thing I want to write about is saralasa.mskrita, this is the part you want to skip if Sanskrit or Spoken Sanskrit is not your thing. Why learn Spoken Sanskrit? Perhaps the teacher you want to study with happens to share no other language with you. Or that you want to tap into the resources of Sanskrit panditas who didn't bother to learn English. And if you don't know any other Indian language, this is the chance to experience India through one of its own languages, or rather its best.

A disclaimer: I haven't checked the spellings of Sanskrit words used below.

[VHM:  The content of the next two long paragraphs is mainly for those who are actively engaged in learning Sanskrit.]

There is a whole philosophy, and a whole strategy, of Samskrita Bharati that you will learn only by being there and going through their materials. Samskrita Bharati distinguishes between saralasa.msk.rta, or simple Sanskrit, and saraliik.rtasa.msk.rta, or simplified Sanskrit. Simplified Sanskrit implies changing grammar, e.g., it allows for forms like pitusya ("father's" instead of pitu.h), and this is what Samskrita Bharati opposes. Simple Sanskrit functions within the bounds of Paninian grammar and recommends the use of simple words, e.g., janaka as apposed to pit.r (father) if the vibhakti forms of the latter are too complicated (although I have heard at least the 1st case pitaa used). And simple Sanskrit is supposed to be a means and not the end. Simple Sanskrit occurs both in the substantive and verbal forms. In both cases, the dual forms are not recommended, the simple form encouraged instead is dvayam (a pair), which allows the use of singular in both the substantive and verbal forms concerned, e.g., gurudvayam gacchati. In the substantives, the form ta.h (tas) is recommended to take the place of fifth vibhakti-s (in all numbers). There is also talk of using k.rte (and artham, according to my observation) to replace fourth case forms, although this seems to be applicable to only limited uses of the fourth case.

I have said that dual forms of the verb are not recommended (the other explanation I heard is that Siddhaantakaumudii (818) provides for the use of plural forms in place of dual ones in phrases like puna.h milama ("let's meet again") when there are only two persons involved in the conversation). The second person forms also tend to be avoided through the use of the respectful address bhavat and bhavatii, which requires 3rd person verbal forms. (I have heard mothers using 3rd person verbal forms to their babies, which implies the use of respectful address bhavaan or bhavatii). In terms of tenses and moods, in the present tense the present indicative (la.t, e.g., bhavati) is of course used. In the past tense, perfect (li.t) and aorist (lu.ng) are certainly avoided, because li.t is distant past, and lu.ng is simply too complicated (and perfect as well for that matter ). Even the simple past (la.ng, e.g., agacchat) is not recommended. The explanation I was given is that it makes the speaker feel that it is negative because it begins with the augment "a." However, the confusion–if it is a confusion at all–rather appears to me to be a psychological one than a theoretical one. The past form really recommended is the k.rt pratyaya, or what is called past active participle, tavat (e.g., khaaditavaan in 1st person, singular, masculine). The simple past forms of the verb to be (as (e.g., asiit) and bhuu (e.g. abhavat)) are nevertheless used. Of course, the paraphrastic future forms are not recommended, the l.r.t forms like bhavi.syati are used. Two more forms are in common usage. One is imperative (lo.t, e.g., gacchatu) (I have elsewhere heard that the passive aatmanepadin form is recommended because only the third person singular form is needed, but I have heard this only once–diiyataam (used by a respectable man from Delhi)–at Ak.saram, the more common forms I've heard there were the active ones, e.g., dadatu). The other form that is used to some extent in my experience is the optative (vidhi li.ng, e.g., bhaveyu.h).

In terms of vocabulary, effort is made to use only a particular sense (out of many) of a certain word. The other recommendation is to use the vocabulary which is in common with the vernacular languages. This, for me, is what makes simple Sanskrit so easy to learn for Indians. I also get the sense that usually only one (or a very limited number) out of a large number of synonyms that mean the same thing is used. This was confirmed by my instructor in our conversation.

All in all, I feel I got as much as I could have gotten in one month at Ak.saram (I also spent perhaps 7 to 10 days on my project proposal). The volunteers at Ak.saram were friendly and helpful. And it is certainly an honor for any Sanskrit lover to be with people who are so dedicated to the cause of Sanskrit — many of them are full-time or even life-long volunteers who only get their basic expenses covered but nothing else materially.

I asked my colleague, Deven Patel (who was also at the IIAS workshop) about a certain aspect of Sanskrit that, in its spoken form, is regularly omitted.  One of the conference participants, Thibaut d'Hubert, had told me about it, but I couldn't remember the name for it, other than that I thought it began with an "s".  Deven replied:

Perhaps Thibaut was referring to "sandhi" (the euphonic coalescence of sounds) which is often left out in Spoken Sanskrit (or "sambhaashana-samskritam").  Even the pandits often undo sandhi in spoken Sanskrit.  Another feature often left out is the dual forms in spoken Sanskrit.  Questions are often uniformly asked with the "vaa na vaa" construction at the end of a sentence.  "vaa na vaa" literally means "or, not or" but holds the general interrogative sense in modern forms of spoken Sanskrit.  The pandits won't do this.

I should mention that Deven can communicate in spoken Sanskrit and, when he used to teach introductory Sanskrit, he would include a spoken component as well.

So far as I understand the relationship between them, "spoken Sanskrit" is not the same thing as "simple Sanskrit".  The two concepts, though obviously related, are not coterminous.  "Simple Sanskrit" is a transitional, simplified form of Sanskrit that may be used during the initial stages of learning the language.  It does not require learning all of the paradigms of the classical language and may be used as a bridge from the modern vernaculars to Classical Sanskrit.  "Spoken Sanskrit" may either be of the "simple" type or the "classical" type (with or without certain adjustments).  In any event, that is how I understand the relationship between "simple" and "spoken" Sanskrit, but I am willing to stand corrected.

A final word:  witnessing the free exchange of Sanskrit in the meeting hall at IIAS was one of the privileges of a lifetime.  At times I felt as though I was in a roomful of living computers.  I used to feel that way in the presence of my old colleagues, Ludo Rocher and George Cardona, but it has been a while since those early days when I became a member of the Oriental Studies Department at Penn.  It was good to hear Sanskrit spring to life again, and in a most formidable fashion.

jayatu saMskRtam!

jīvatu saMskRtam!

sāṃskr̥tabhāṣā ciraṃ jīvatu!

saṃskṛtaṃ ciraṃ jīvet

"Love live Sanskrit" would be something like ākalpaṃ saṃskṛtaṃ jīvatu (अाकल्पं संस्कृतं जीवतु). The ākalpam ("until the end of the eon") is not strictly necessary, but I think appropriate given the sentiment.  [From Whitney Cox]

[Thanks to Lawrence McCrea and Luther Obrock]


  1. turang said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 10:52 pm

    An example on extempore speech on youtube:


  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 11:54 pm

    What the scholars you're quoting is totally consistent with what I was assuming was going on after attending a short session by Saṃskṛta Bhāratī over a decade ago.

    It takes a smart person at least 1-2 years to learn a language well; no teaching methodology can make Sanskrit any easier. Note that Sanskrit is the most complex well-documented language we know.

    The same is true for the "living Latin" movement or groups centering around Polis. I don't believe, for good reason, that genuine versions of the ancient languages are used for teaching, and I don't believe one can learn them there to a non-elementary level.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 12:01 am

    From Hiroshi Kumamoto:

    Back in the '70s when I was attending a small class given by George Cardona at Penn, at the request of some students, Fred Smith among others, he conducted the entire class in Sanskrit for a semester. He is known to be one of the very few non-Indian scholars who speak Sanskrit (in addition to Gujarati and Hindi) comfortably, as he was educated by pandits in India in the early '60s. He was heard to converse over the phone in Sanskrit with Madhav Deshpande at Michigan. A few years ago at the International Conference of Sanskrit Studies in Kyoto, where I saw him again after more than 20 years, he was answering in Sanskrit questions asked in Sanskrit as usual.

  4. JB said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 2:09 am

    According to the 2001 census in India, over 14,000 people reported Sanskrit as their mother language.

  5. Natalie Solent said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 4:59 am

    In Shenghai Li's post I noticed several words written with a full stop/period in the middle, such as "Ak.saram" and "saralasa.mskrita". Does this indicate a particular sound, or is it an abbreviation, or is it something else entirely? I got the impression that the shorter words in the final paragraphs such as appeared in "perfect (li.t) and aorist (lu.ng) are certainly avoided" were abbreviations – is that correct?

  6. svat said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 5:15 am

    @Natalie: The "."s are an ASCII approximation of diacritics: those words would normally be written "Akṣaram", "saralasaṃskṛta", "liṭ", and "luṅg". They are not abbreviations.

  7. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 5:15 am

    Do these scholars apply the full sandhi rules in real time?

  8. svat said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 5:19 am

    @Pflaumbaum Yes, for the most part. (This is not surprising, as the sandhi rules are not an ad-hoc system but a formalization of actual speech of roughly Pāṇini's time, i.e. they are part of the natural language and come naturally to any speaker — even if the language hasn't changed since its formalization and was learned by the speaker.)

  9. Natalie Solent said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 7:21 am

    Thank you for that information, svat.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 7:43 am

    It wasn't so long ago (when I was a boy, at least) that Catholic priests all over the world were conducting mass in Latin. Was that only for the memorized, liturgical parts of the service? Or could they also extemporize in Latin, including deliver sermons on a variety of subjects and communicate with each other in Latin?

    How about Russian Orthodox priests? See this comment about Jerry Norman, the late Chinese linguist, learning Old Church Slavonic because of his adherence to the faith?


    Are there other examples of earlier forms of language being preserved and used in modern times, if only for ritual purposes? Pali for Theravada Buddhism? Avestan among Parsees? Persian by any groups? Coptic? Earlier forms of Greek for Greek Orthodoxy?

    Gothic anywhere?

    How many of these liturgical languages can still be used for speeches on a variety of topics, or even for daily communication?

  11. Levantine said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 8:28 am

    One could argue that Modern Standard Arabic, a modernised version of Classical Arabic, is a language that has been kept alive because of its religious associations. Almost no-one uses it for everyday speech, though it's the language of news and literature, as well as an educated lingua franca for Arabs whose native 'dialects' are almost mutually incomprehensible (imagine speakers of French and Romanian communicating in Latin). If not for the Koran and the importance of its recitation, I very much doubt that Classical Arabic would have continued to dictate the written and formal standard across the Arabic-speaking world — Malta is the exception that proves the rule.

  12. Mark Meckes said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 8:30 am

    How about ancient Hebrew?

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 9:13 am

    Judaic prayers are, with a few exceptions, in a medieval approximation to Biblical Hebrew, both prosaic and poetic, when they are not direct Biblical quotations.

    The exceptions include two of the most important prayers — <a href="Kaddish and Kol Nidrei — both of which are in Aramaic.

    It's interesting that many Ashkenazic Orthodox, especially Hassidic, Jews in Israel, who in everyday life speak modern Israeli Hebrew, say their prayers using the Ashkenazic pronunciation, making a distinction between Hebrew as Ivrit and Hebrew as loshen koydesh ("tongue of holiness").

  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 9:17 am

    Sorry about the mangled links. They should be Kaddish and Kol Nidrei.

  15. Bruce said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 9:36 am

    Considering that the event was held at Hebrew University, I'm surprised that nobody has remarked about the fact that this effort to revive Sanskrit as a spoken language is strongly to the revival of ancient Hebrew to become the spoken lingua franca of the State of Israel. I have no personal knowledge of Hebrew but I gather that the revived version of Hebrew is successful, but that its similarity to the language of ancient times is debatable.

    That raises the question of whether revived Sanskrit is to become a living language for everybody, or just for the scholastic community.

  16. Evan Hess said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 11:12 am

    People have used Latin conversationally, quite recently: I read somewhere that at the First Vatican Council, in 1869, where in fact participants from different countries could and did communicate in Latin, the English delegates could rely on the fact that their pronunciation of Latin was so unintelligible to their continental colleagues — think of the English pronunciation of vice-versa — that they could use it as a secret language.

  17. Natalie Solent said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 12:20 pm

    Victor Mair, I sometimes attended the Latin mass when I was a child. The sermon was always in English. This was in the UK in the 1970s; things might have been different at other times and places.

    One of the priests I knew was known as a great linguist. He spoke several ancient languages (sorry, couldn't resist! ) and I bet he could have given a sermon in Latin and possibly Greek or Hebrew as well. But I don't think the average RC priest of those days would have been able to generate Latin, even if they could read it adequately. Since then I suspect that the Latin skills of the Catholic clergy have declined along with the use of the Latin liturgy.

  18. Lazar said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

    I have to say, it boggles my mind to imagine that people ever spoke Latin at any length using the ridiculous English pronunciation.

  19. Levantine said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

    Natalie Solent, I could be wrong, but I believe the sermon has always been given in the vernacular, even when the Mass was said in Latin.

    Lazar, why is the English pronunciation ridiculous?

  20. Lazar said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

    Because it departs radically from any other conception of Latin phonology, based solely on the fact that English has failed to make any major revisions of its orthography for the past half-millennium. So you have absurdities like i and ae undergoing an almost perfect reversal from their original values.

  21. Levantine said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

    Fair enough, but it's not so ridiculous from the perspective of an Anglophone. I quite like the way Latin so pronounced sounds, and certainly prefer it to more pedantic renderings: "Jesu" in a hymn just seems off unless sung "jee-zoo".

  22. Arjuna said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    Hello all,

    There is a research area called Sanskrit Computational Linguistics, where many eminent scholars from India and all over the world are working to build bridges between the Ancient Indian knowledge systems and the current knowledge systems like Computer Science, Linguistics etc.
    They have come up with many interesting tools, which helps you in learning the Sanskrit, in a better way.
    Here are some of the links –

    Samsaadhanii by Prof. Amba Kulkarni – sanskrit.uohyd.ac.in/scl/
    Sanskrit Heritage by Prof. Gérard Huet – sanskrit.inria.fr
    Sanskrit Library by Prof. Peter Scharf – http://sanskritlibrary.org/

    Hope these links will be helpful for you.
    Best regards.

  23. Alon Lischinsky said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 2:17 pm

    @Victor Mair: could they [RC priests] also extemporize in Latin, including deliver sermons on a variety of subjects and communicate with each other in Latin?

    I know of at least one person (an English Education professor with a background in the Classics) who had to resort to Latin as the only shared language when chatting with a French Basque priest. He reports they could discuss the train timetable with no difficulties.

    My Latin tutor at university used to translate tango lyrics into Latin, but not impromptu.

  24. turang said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 3:55 pm

    Interestingly, Nagaraja Rao mentioned in this post figures in the Sanskrit aShTavadhAna performance by shatAvadhAni Ganesh, to which I had posted a link(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3GnorRNjXE) in one of the spelling bee blog posts earlier. Nagaraja Rao is responsible for the "niShedhAkShari" part of the performance.

  25. Bob Ladd said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

    When Pope Benedict announced his resignation a few years ago, he did it in Latin. Apparently quite a few of his audience didn't fully grasp what he was saying, and an Italian reporter who was present got a serious scoop simply by being able to understand spoken Latin. Details in any number of newspaper stories of the time, e.g. here.

  26. McComas Taylor said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

    Dear Collagues

    Following this lively conversation on Spoken Sanskrit, with your indulgence I would like to draw this to your attention:



    McComas Taylor

  27. a George said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    Probably only a few would think it worth mentioning that even modern "classics" have been rendered in Latin — Winnie the Pooh is one example. Possibly less known by the same group of people is that Cor Ligneum and other examples from the same originator were available in Latin from a Finnish publisher. A cover version?

  28. Mark said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

    Something similar was tried in Greece following their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The official language of government and education, even at the earliest levels, was an extremely archaic version of the language, and some people in power even had the stated goal of eventually reviving Ancient Greek as the living language of the country (grammatically and lexically, I don't think anyone seriously vaunted the idea of reviving Ancient Greek pronunciation).

    For a century, schoolkids were taught that their native Greek was wrong in all the ways that it differed from the archaic official version, and Demotic Greek was only seen as proper for things like folk poetry and song (which did have some level of prestige).

    Insistence on only teaching Purist Greek doubtlessly harmed the successful education of the Greek populace, and it meant that a great deal of 19th and early 20th century literature would be hard to read for any Greeks educated after the formal switch to Demotic.

    The effects can still be seen on the modern language, even though the switch to Demotic has been more or less complete – some sound and grammatical changes which make the modern language look less like the classical are still considered low-register or "improper". Some specific examples:
    /n/ at the end of some articles and grammatical endings, which as far as I know fell out of the vernacular a long time ago, are seen as more proper.
    At some point, vernacular Greek dissimulated voiceless fricative-fricative and stop-stop clusters, such that they would be fricative-stop. e.g. /fχ/ > /fk/, or /pt/ > /ft/. It's seen as more proper to undo these sound changes, and this is often reflected in the spelling, which especially often preserves the fricative-fricative sequences, which derive from Ancient aspirate clusters.
    A formerly quite common sound change in Greek was rhoticization of l before consonants, e.g. alfavit > arfavit. I think this is far more stigmatized than even keeping the cluster dissimulation – from what I picked up in class, those are acknowledged as valid, if somewhat looked down upon, while saying arfavit will quickly mark you out as a yokel.

    I'm sure there's more, but my experience with Modern Greek is two semesters at college and Wikipedia, and I don't have any particular training in Ancient Greek.

  29. David Marjanović said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 8:42 pm

    The reasons why I was so astonished to hear Sanskrit being spoken this way were that I had always thought of it as long-dead, classical language and because, from having studied it for several years, I was intimately familiar with the extraordinary complexity of its grammar, which made me think that it was not suited for quotidian purposes.

    I'm really surprised to read such a thing from a linguist. Hundreds, if not thousands of living languages are as complex as Sanskrit or, in many cases, even more so, to the extent that such things can be compared at all.* Check out the Wikipedia article Navajo language and see if you can make it to the bottom before your brain overheats!

    What very little I know about Sanskrit sandhi doesn't look harder to me than Korean morphophonemics.

    There are still a few people left who can spontaneously speak Latin for extended periods.

    * You're probably not aware of it, but English syntax is very complex and intricate. Grammatical complexity is sometimes said to "move around like a lump in the carpet" – Sanskrit has complex noun and very complex verb morphology, but word order is inconsequential, while the details of English word order took me years to learn.

    and some people in power even had the stated goal of eventually reviving Ancient Greek as the living language of the country (grammatically and lexically, I don't think anyone seriously vaunted the idea of reviving Ancient Greek pronunciation)

    That's because they were, as plenty of people in Greece are even today, in complete denial about Greek pronunciation having ever changed.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 8:53 pm

    @David Marjanović

    Of course, I know that there are many complex languages in the world, but Sanskrit is among the most complex. You seem to have missed the part about it having long been dead (that's how it was taught and explained to me), so it was amazing for me to see it come to life before my very eyes. I would feel the same way if two people stood up and started to converse freely on a variety of topics in Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (though, as I indicated above, I don't think that will ever happen.

  31. Chas Belov said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 9:31 pm

    Not conversational, but the soundtrack album of Legend of the Sacred Stone supposedly has Taiwanese rock star Wu Bai singing in Clasical Chinese.

  32. Michael Watts said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 9:43 pm

    Of course, I know that there are many complex languages in the world, but Sanskrit is among the most complex.

    As measured how?

  33. turang said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 10:26 pm

    Looks like "dead" languages may form a broad spectrum and confusion might arise in expecting aspects of one dead language in others. Apart from KNOWING that Sanskrit is not dead (since they see and have seen its use in many places), many who know Sanskrit in India would find the use of dead in describing Sanskrit offensive, since things that have to do with death are regarded as inauspicious.

    There can be ways of arriving at a gradation of complexity without measurement. Suppose X knows languages a and b, Y knows languages b and c (and are trusted to know these languages well enough to judge their relative complexity), if X says a is more complex than b and Y says b is more complex than c, one can conclude that a is more complex than c. Aggregating this over X,Y,Z,… and languages a,b,c,… can be done:)

    Translations of modern things into Sanskrit exist too. Some examples:
    Alone by Maya Angelou, Wordsworth's Solitary Reaper and Blake's Tyger, Tyger,… can be found here: https://sites.google.com/site/priyapadyadhaama/

    This site also has a poem on how the modern Gregorian calendar got the names of some of the months.

  34. Alexander Giddings said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 12:22 am

    With respect to contemporary spoken Latin, there is at least a small circle of European scholars still capable of carrying on the proceedings of an academic conference in the language with an impressive degree of fluency and accuracy.

    The following (apparently ex tempore) address by Luigi Miraglia, director of the Accademia Vivarium Novum in Rome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accademia_Vivarium_Novum), is the best recorded example I have been able to find, though there appear to be several others of similar quality (turn on captions for Latin subtitles): https://youtu.be/a61Dc_EFuI4

  35. Suhas Mahesh said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 12:48 am

    There is a full set of videos of a Samskṛta-Sambhāṣana-Śibira (Spoken Sanskrit Workshop) on Youtube, for anyone interested to take a look:
    The man in the first video, H.R. Vishwas, is one of the moving forces of Samskrita Bharati, and has also written extensively in simple sanskrit.

    You can also listen to 20 podcasts in Sanskrit on various topics, released by Samskrita Bharati's US branch this year:

  36. Suhas Mahesh said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 1:00 am

    Where exactly is Vidvān Nagarāja Rao's bit in the Workshop playlist?

  37. Bart said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 3:42 am

    @ turang
    Sure, you can estimate the relative complexity of languages by asking people and counting the answers.
    But don’t forget to keep a separate count of those whose response is ‘What do you mean by complex?'

  38. Ken Miner said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 4:37 am

    From 1999 to 2005 I was a Latin-mass Catholic, having been brought into the Church by priests of the FSSP (Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Petri, or Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter) and I taught elementary Latin at St. Marys, Kansas, for a year under their auspices. I have to say it was enormously refreshing to hear good and fluent Church Latin during those years at St. Joseph Church in Topeka. Before Vatican II mass had been said for centuries hurriedly and in such mangled Latin that it resembled no human language. No wonder they dumped it. But now there was respect for it.

    There was a tiny movement then toward spoken Latin revival. But it didn't really take off. Church Latin is quite easy Latin; Latin the language is something else again.

    I later gave up, conceptually, on the whole idea of language revival. What are you actually doing, for example, when you create a Latin or Sanskrit word for "computer science", etc.? You are, to adapt Marianne Moore, trying to create real gardens with imaginary toads in them.

  39. Vanya said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 5:50 am

    My Latin teacher in high school used to scoff at the idea that anyone could ever really speak Classical Latin fluently. Actually the idea that the Latin of Cicero and Vergil was never a spoken language seems to be fairly widely held. To my mind if people can walk around speaking Russian today, certainly people in Rome at some point used to speak something fairly close to classical Latin, and one could learn to speak a decent approximation of it today if one cared enough. Is Sanskrit considerably more complex and artificial than Latin?

    Speaking in a literary register would be difficult even for native speakers, which may make the bar for languages that survive primarily as literary languages like Classical Latin, Sanskrit and Classical Arabic seem artificially high. If you had to learn German from reading Lessing, Goethe's Faust, Robert Musil, Hegel, Heidegger and some random 19th century bureaucratic prose you would probably conclude that no one ever really "spoke" German.

  40. Ken Miner said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 6:19 am

    Quite so. This is why I argued some time ago here (sort of defending Derrida's De la grammatologie) that language, as an object of thought, is necessarily writing. Spoken language is fleeting, gone in an instant. Linguistics has for a long time unconsciously acknowledged this by treating the sentence as the unit of syntax (despite its minor role in actual conversation, especially in unwritten languages), by ignoring intonation in theory-building, and so on.

  41. Dr Kuldip Dhiman said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 7:54 am

    I read this post about spoken Sanskrit with great interest. May I add that these days Sanskrit is not only spoken by scholars but many non-scholars too. I can myself speak Sanskrit fairly well, and I have met many who speak it fluently. There are families that speak Sanskrit, and because of this their children also speak Sanskrit. There is a renewed interest in Sanskrit as people are beginning to appreciate its beauty and significance.

  42. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    There are various 19th century travelers' tales about Englishmen finding themselves in the more obscure reaches of the Austro-Hungarian empire — the Victorian gentleman didn't know Slovak or Romanian or what have you, and the innkeeper didn't even speak German as a second language. What to do? Solution: find the village priest and have at least a rudimentary/pidgin/good-enough-under-the-circumstances dialogue in conversational Latin. Note the implication that the traditional English-schoolboy pronunciation of Latin was not completely incomprehensible on the other side of the Channel.

    It would be interesting if there were a corpus of recordings of informal/not-working-from-notes conversations in Latin among ecclesiastics / academics / whoever in Europe in the 18th or 19th century, just to test the hypothesis that, as with spoken Sanskrit as described above, impromptu conversation may have systematically avoided some of the more complex constructions (even though the speakers could read and write them), may have had patterns of word order etc. reflecting the influence of the relevant speakers' L1's etc etc.

    Contrary to Ken Miner's experience, the one time I went to a celebrated-in-Latin mass (maybe 25 years ago, at St. John Cantius in Chicago, which is well known in such circles) it was very pre-Vatican-II "authentic" in the sense that most of the Latin was murmured inaudibly — I had been naively expecting the clergy to "keep up appearances" by chanting the Latin boldly and clearly as if the congregation might be able to follow it word for word and it would be impolite to assume the contrary, but as I said it became clear in the event that that expectation had been naive and the actual style of celebration made eminent sense historically. (By contrast, the problem for a classically-educated outsider with Greek Orthodox liturgies celebrated in Greek is not inaudibility so much as that the priests and chanters go much too fast for those of us who learned our Greek in U.S. college classics departments to keep up — there is also the significant difference between the vaguely-medieval church pronunciation and the conjecturally-reconstructed-Attic pronunciation taught in secular classics departments, but that's a secondary factor.)

  43. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

    Maybe what I mean is "corpus of transcripts" as opposed to "recordings" in a sense of the word which would be separately interesting because the relevant technology had on the standard account not yet been developed.

  44. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    I remember dropping into churches in Europe in the 1950s and early 1960s to hear Latin spoken and chanted in the various local pronunciations — Spanish, French, Italian and German — though the difference was mainly in how c and g were pronounced before e and i. I don't know how it was in Britain then; in the television series "Father Brown", which takes places in the 1940s, it seems to be neoclassical, but I wonder how authentic that is.

  45. cameron said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

    Coincidentally, this interview, published just yesterday, includes a bizarre anecdote about a conversation in Latin:


  46. Ken Miner said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 4:29 pm

    Contrary to Ken Miner's experience …most of the Latin was murmured inaudibly

    Ah, but were these priests of the FSSP? :)

  47. dw said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 5:56 pm

    @Lazar Taxon

    The traditional English pronunciation of Latin basically treats Latin words as pre-Great Vowel Shift loans that followed regular developments of English phonology thereafter. Why is it any more "ridiculous" than English pronunciation of English itself?

    Do you feel "ridiculous" when you say regular English words like census, circus, citrus, fetus, Jesus, oasis, placebo, radius, and virus? Because when you say them, you are pronouncing Latin loanwords with the "ridiculous" traditional pronunciation.

  48. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 6:26 pm

    Ken Miner: well, this was 1990 or '91 and I'm not sure if the then-quite-recently-founded FSSP even had a presence in the US at the time. I see from the internet that the St. John Cantius parish is now associated with a group called the Canons Regular of [… drumroll …] St. John Cantius, who may have a slightly different view of the world than the FSSP. Plus I expect the clergy I saw/heard celebrating were not self-conscious young revivalists, but middle-aged (as of 25 years ago) fellows who had been ordained during the closing years of the old dispensation and just wanted to keep on doing it the way they'd been taught as seminarians thirty years previously. Perhaps this sort of contrast between the aging final generation of true native speakers and younger (and inherently self-conscious) revivalists occurs in other sociolinguistic contexts as well?

  49. David Marjanović said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 8:31 pm

    You seem to have missed the part about it having long been dead (that's how it was taught and explained to me), so it was amazing for me to see it come to life before my very eyes. I would feel the same way if two people stood up and started to converse freely on a variety of topics in Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (though, as I indicated above, I don't think that will ever happen.

    I didn't miss that part; that's why I mentioned Latin. I find nothing mind-blowing about the video Alexander Giddings has linked to, and in fact I understand maybe half of what I've watched (the first two minutes). I had six years of Latin in school (ending in 2000), but we treated it as a purely written language and read it aloud in a German rather than Italian pronunciation.

    Literary Sinitic is different from most other "classical languages" in two ways. First, and correct me if I'm wrong, speaking it to an audience doesn't seem to have any religious function, so there's no tradition of doing it. Second, it is so terse that in Mandarin pronunciation it would be simply impossible to understand, and most other extant Sinitic sound systems would hardly help either.

    Morphology-wise, Sanskrit is (as far as I know) noticeably more complex than Latin or any kind of Greek, but not by a factor of two or more. There really are lots of languages which surpass that, just not in Europe – except Basque (and if you don't count the Caucasus, home to a long list of such languages, as part of Europe).

  50. Ken Miner said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 12:20 am

    @ J. W. Brewer Yes, you're probably right about this. My priests were indeed young revivalists.

    Perhaps this sort of contrast between the aging final generation of true native speakers and younger (and inherently self-conscious) revivalists occurs in other sociolinguistic contexts as well?

    No doubt. I have heard radio broadcasts in Cornish – with unmistakable English accents! (Don't remember where or when.) Enthusiasm can compensate for much.

  51. prcchaka said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 4:39 am

    Has anyone found the Youtube links mentioned by Prof. Shulman for Prof. Arindam Chakrabarti's lectures in Tirupati?

  52. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 8:13 am


    I looked for those YouTube links but was unsuccessful in finding them.

  53. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 8:16 am

    @Suhas Mahesh

    Nagarāja Rao did not deliver a prepared lecture. His spoken Sanskrit was delivered completely extemporaneously in the Q & A periods.

    @David Marjanović

    Alexander Giddings was talking about Latin, which was still going strong as an international language of the educated until the 14th century, in universities still later, and in the Roman Catholic Church till the 20th century

    I was talking about my reaction to Sanskrit spoken spontaneously in a secular setting. As someone who studied several years of Sanskrit half a century ago and have used it as a scholarly language from time to time ever since then, it was a jaw-dropping experience. That was my genuine reaction.

    Your discussion of complexity is highly impressionistic and imprecise:


    "Hundreds, if not thousands of living languages are as complex as Sanskrit or, in many cases, even more so, to the extent that such things can be compared at all.",

    "What very little I know about Sanskrit sandhi doesn't look harder to me than Korean morphophonemics."

    "Morphology-wise, Sanskrit is (as far as I know) noticeably more complex than Latin or any kind of Greek, but not by a factor of two or more."


    You talk about the absence of a "religious function" for Literary Sinitic, but the Confucian classics were memorized and discussed with elaborate exegesis and commentary by countless generations of literati as a system of orthodox thought. The word for "classic" (sometimes now translated as "canon") is jīng 經, which is used to render Sanskrit sūtra into Chinese. Jīng 經 is also used in terms for scripture (e.g., jīngwén 經文, jīngdiǎn 經典, and, indeed, shèngjīng 聖經 ["Bible]). The whole question of the religious dimensions of Confucianism has become one of the major topics in Chinese Studies of recent decades.

  54. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 8:32 am

    From Asko Parpola:

    What David Shulman pointed out about spoken Sanskrit, i.e. that it is left-branching like all other South Asian languages (Dravidian as well as Indo-Iranian) while Vedic Sanskrit is right-branching like other Indo-European languages, is interesting and important. It attests to the typological/syntactic assimilation of the immigrating Indo-Iranian superstratum to the Dravidian substratum. Other features pointing to the same conclusion have been accumulating, and are mentioned on page 168 of my new book The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization, where I argue that the language of the Indus Civilization was Dravidian. Already in my 1994 book, Deciphering the Indus script, in chapter 6.1 ("Typological linguistics as a tool of decipherment"), I discussed word order typologies, and pointed out that the clear "numeral + head word" order of the Indus script points to an OV language, i.e., a left-branching language.

  55. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    From Don Ringe:

    Vedic Sanskrit prose is "head-final": verb follows objects, noun follows things modifying it, postpositions rather than prepositions. I think Hindi is still much the same, though I'm not sure about noun phrases. As you know, English isn't like that–it's mixed, with the verb *preceding* the object and with prepositions, though the noun still follows some of its modifiers (not prepositional phrases modifying it, though). German is more nearly still head-final (think about where the verb goes in subordinate clauses), but it does have lots of prepositions; same with Latin. But in any case it's easy to believe that in speaking Skt. you use the word-order of whatever your native lg. is; mediaeval Latin is pretty much like that too.

  56. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 8:40 am

    From Hiroshi Kumamoto:

    Well, actually no language is completely left-branching or right-branching; some are predominantly either, and others are less so. I would think that Classical Sanskrit (especially prose) and many modern Indic languages are in this respect closer to Japanese (or Korean, Mongolian) than some familiar Western European languages. I would say that Farsi is a bit further from us.

    Vedic is a difficult matter. I've heard that some Sanskritists feel the Rigveda to be non-Indian. But you have to consider the fact that the oldest layers of Vedic are all in verse, and are extremely artificial at times. The oldest prose that has come down to us is the prose part of some Black Yajur Vedas (Maitrayani Samhita and Kathakam), and we have too few systematic studies in this area.

    For Medieval colloquial Sanskrit I regret that there are no follow-ups to Salomon's article on the Ukti-vyakti in IIJ. Wezler's article in Houben's volume mentions the"Sanskrit-Khotanese conversation manual" that I worked on 30 years ago. You should not forget an excellent recent work on the letter-writing in Sanskrit.

    Also Harunaga Isaacson has published useful corrigenda to Tubb and Boose at Academia.edu.

  57. Francois Lang said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 10:43 am

    I remember well both George Cardona and Ludo Rocher from my days at Penn lo these many years ago. I never took a course from either of them, but I did take Sanskrit from his wife Rosane. What a blast from the past…thanks for the memories!

  58. CG Krishnamurthi said,

    January 13, 2016 @ 5:02 am

    There are many scholars in India who can teach complex Sanskrit shastra through Sanskrit medium – it is indeed the best approach. Sri. Nagaraja Rao was one of the visiting faculty member for Sahitya during my M.Phil days. Similarly there are scholars who can teach Vyakarana (my subject) Nyaya, Mimamsa, Ganita, Ayurveda, Jyotisha, etc. Most of the classes in Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan University campuses, RSVP, KSU, etc. are taught only through Sanskrit medium.

  59. Doctor Science said,

    January 13, 2016 @ 1:51 pm

    I, too, am a little surprised that y'all aren't talking more about parallels (or lack thereof) with Hebrew, the gold standard of language revival. To what degree are the Sanskrit-revivalists modelling their efforts on Hebrew's success?

    I was under the vague impression that Sanskrit has always had a few native speakers, children from very high-caste Brahmin homes. Do native speakers have any particular prestige or influence over the Sanskrit spoken at conferences, etc?

  60. Michael Watts said,

    January 13, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

    Vedic Sanskrit prose is "head-final": verb follows objects, noun follows things modifying it, postpositions rather than prepositions. I think Hindi is still much the same, though I'm not sure about noun phrases. As you know, English isn't like that–it's mixed, with the verb *preceding* the object and with prepositions

    There's an interesting implication here that a language will have either prepositions or postpositions. Mandarin Chinese has both.

    To be more detailed, chinese has two — very distinct — categories of word that would both be prepositions in english. One category modifies a noun to produce a location: 床 chuáng "bed", 床下 chuángxià "under [the] bed". Those appear after the noun being modified.

    The other category marks verb phrase complements. For example: 我为我女儿买了一条裙子 wǒ wèi wǒ nǚ'ér mǎile yì tiáo qúnzi "I bought a skirt for my daughter" breaks down as follows:
    我 I 为 for 我女儿 my daughter 买了 bought 一条裙子 a skirt. But 为 wèi, the benefactive marker, appears before its object, 我女儿.

    The other possibly odd thing about these verb-complement prepositions is that one of them, 把, is used to mark the direct object of the verb (in cases where the speaker wants the object to precede the verb rather than following it).

  61. Ken Miner said,

    January 14, 2016 @ 7:25 am

    I, too, am a little surprised that y'all aren't talking more about parallels (or lack thereof) with Hebrew, the gold standard of language revival.

    Me too. The religious view seems to be "it's a modern miracle". The linguistic view seems to be "it's sui generis". My view is the same: there are no parallels. (I have not kept up with the subject; there may be books I don't know about. But the majority of the 8.059 million citizens of Israel now speak, every day, a language that was once "dead". The usual observation that "it was never really dead" would apply to other cases.

  62. zythophile said,

    January 14, 2016 @ 3:57 pm

    "You can also hear the news in Sanskrit every morning on All-India Radio; it's called "Vaartaa," and tends to focus on the results of cricket matches."

    Excellent! How does "silly mid-on" translate into Sanskrit?

  63. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    From Ron Kim:

    I'm not at all surprised to hear that the syntax of contemporary spoken Sanskrit reflects the native languages of its speakers, which was certainly the case in medieval and early modern western Europe for spoken Latin, but Shulman's and Parpola's description of Vedic as "right-branching" does not square with my (admittedly limited) experience. As Don observes, Vedic prose is head-final, and Kumamoto is right to emphasize that poetic texts such as the Rigveda are "extremely artificial at times", as ritual verse so often is (and even elaborate non-verse; nobody would take the notoriously tortured syntax of Cicero's speeches as evidence for Latin vernacular!) There's pretty universal agreement today that Proto-Indo-European was SOV and left-branching, given the agreement among Hittite, Indo-Aryan (Vedic prose and later stages), Homeric Greek (SOV; classical Attic is in transition, and by the New Testament it's almost entirely SVO), Germanic (SOV with the V2 constraint in main clauses, as still in modern German), and Celtiberian. That Dravidian languages exerted significant influence on Indo-Aryan is undisputed, but this is one feature that doesn't need to be ascribed to a non-IE substrate, just as the solidly left-branching syntax of the Tocharian languages can also be a simple inheritance rather than an "exotic" feature acquired through contact in Central Asia.

  64. John Cowan said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

    The English pronunciation of Latin, though quite properly no longer taught in Latin classes, is not unnatural or artificial. The Great Vowel Shift affected the spoken Latin of the English monasteries just as much as the contemporaneous variety of English. It may have been regularized and cleaned up a bit since then, but spelling pronunciations are hardly unknown in English either.

  65. PeterL said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 2:09 am

    A Lithuanian friend told me that when he heard chanted Sanskrit, he could sort of understand it.

  66. David Marjanović said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 5:39 pm

    Your discussion of complexity is highly impressionistic and imprecise:

    True. Your discussion of complexity, on the other hand, is… nonexistent. You mentioned "the extraordinary complexity of its grammar", and that's it. In which ways exactly do you think it's extraordinary to the point that most motivated people couldn't learn Sanskrit as a foreign language? Number of inflected forms per stem? Fusion vs. agglutination? Number of features marked on a verb? Number of inflection classes? Amount of suppletion? (I tried to account for all of these, though only in an impressionistic way. It would be interesting to quantify them.)

    I take your point, of course, about the study and exegesis of the Confucian classics.

    Germanic (SOV with the V2 constraint in main clauses, as still in modern German)

    The V2 constraint was not yet absolute in Old High German, especially in the older attestations where V1 and V3 main clauses are pretty common.

    To finish picking this nit, modern German indeed has an absolute constraint that places the finite verb in the second position in main clauses* and wh-questions, but it's hard to say that this is synchronically more or less basic than the absolute constraint that places the finite verb last in subordinate clauses or the absolute constraint in yes/no questions that puts the finite verb at the beginning. The common OV construction consisting of an object, an infinitive and nothing else has often been taken as decisive evidence that SOV is basic, but these are interpreted today (and I agree as a native speaker) as the second half of an SVOV main clause with the finite verb in the second and the infinite verb in the last position. "Don't step on the lawn" = (Rasen) nicht betreten = [Sie dürfen/sollen den] Rasen nicht betreten; "What shall we do?" "[We shall] wait to see what happens, and drink tea" = [Was sollen wir tun? Wir sollen] abwarten und Tee trinken. Keep calm and carry on. :-)

    * Except that initial demonstrative pronouns are often dropped colloquially, so that V1 main clauses express demonstrative meanings.

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