Sanskrit [key], language belonging to the Indic group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Indo-Iranian). 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 Veda, 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 literature). 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 Jones, 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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