Features of Sanskrit that make it an extra-ordinary language

This is the first of a series of articles explaining what separates out Sanskrit from rest of the languages. This will make you realize how under-developed, regressive and full of redundancies are most of the modern languages. In fact, by the end of the series you will have generated a feeling of dissatisfaction towards the languages you speak currently. Let’s start off.

The first inefficiency that creeps into the modern languages, originates from the very idea  these languages (English, Hindi, German, Japanese etc) are based upon.

That principle is Words represent objects/entities.

This seems to be a very innocent and trivial fact and absolutely harmless. But, we will see later that it is this basic principle that is responsible for many inefficiencies in the modern communication protocols (aka languages). Sanskrit, however, is not based upon the above principle. Rather, in Sanskrit, Words represent properties of objects/entities and not objects/entities themselves.

Let’s see now with the help of examples in the Question and Answer format, what does all this mean.

Q) What is a tree called in English and Hindi ?
A) In English, a tree is called Tree.
     In Hindi, a tree is called  पेड़.

Q) What is a tree called in Sanskrit ?
A) There is no word in Sanskrit for a tree!

Q) Are you kidding me ?
A) No! Let me explain in greater detail. As said above, Words in Sanskrit represent properties of objects and not objects themselves. And, since a tree is an object, there is really no word in Sanskrit for a tree. In fact, there is actually no word in Sanskrit for any object (barring some exceptions, which are finite in number).

Q) What then, is वृक्ष ? I heard that वृक्ष in Sanskrit means a tree.
A) Ah! now you asked the proper question. वृक्ष is a Sanskrit word that may be used to represent a tree. As said and repeated earlier, Words in Sanskrit represent properties, so वृक्ष also represents a property.

वृक्ष = something that is cut and felled down

The word वृक्ष can be used to denote any object that has this property. If something is usually cut and fell down, then it can be called वृक्ष. That object need not be a Tree.
Similarly,  there are many other words in Sanskrit that can be used to denote a tree. For example, तरु and पादप also may denote a tree. But even these words don’t necessarily mean a tree.

A tree drinks water by using its roots. Hence, also called pAdapa.

तरु = something that floats
पादप = something that drinks using its feet

Since a tree has the above properties, i.e. a (fallen) tree floats on water and also a tree absorbs water from the ground by its roots(feet), the above words can be used to denote a tree because a tree possesses the properties represented by these words. Not to mention that the above words may be used for other objects also, if they satisfy the above properties.

Q) Oh! I get it. So a trunk of a tree can also be called वृक्ष because, like a tree, even a trunk can be cut and felled.
A) Absolutely! You are a genius.

Q) So can you summarize ?
A) Sure! In most of the modern communication protocols, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the words and the objects they represent. But, in Sanskrit, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the words and properties.

Q) Great insight! But I still don’t understand something. Though what you told is interesting, how is it helpful ? I mean, why mess with properties of objects, when words can simply represent objects themselves. What is the use of all this ?
A) This is the question I was waiting for. Here is the answer. Take, for example English. Today English has approx. 5 lakh words (as in Oxford Dictionary), bulk of which is borrowed from other languages.
Before a car was invented, the word Car did not exist in the dictionary. But once the car was invented, somebody coined the word Car and we happily started using it. A new word which is coined has to be put in a dictionary, for new people to be able to look at its meaning. This has to be done because a word, say Car, represents an object viz. a car. In future, a new mode of transportation will be invented and then we would have to coin some new word for that new invention. By then, cars would become obsolete and possibly the word Car would get extinct (because the cars themselves got extinct). Again, the word for that newly invented mode of transportation, would have to be put in a dictionary. This has to be  done  because the words in English represent objects. In Sanskrit, even if a word is coined, it need not be put in a dictionary. A person with knowledge of Sanskrit grammar can guess the meaning of the word with reasonable accuracy, without looking into a dictionary! This is because that new word which has been coined would represent a property that a car would possess. And using the algorithms of Sanskrit Grammar (called व्याकरण), one can decode and find out exactly what property a word represents. So a Sanskrit dictionary is really redundant (in most of the cases), if one is well-versed in Sanskrit grammar!

Q) Hmmm, intriguing! So you mean to say that, if one knows Sanskrit grammar well, then he won’t need to look in a dictionary for word meanings. Any other advantage ?
A) Yes! There are other advantages as well. At any given time, there will always be a finite/fixed number of words in English. Currently, it is 5 lakh words. But, in Sanskrit, there are as many words as properties in the universe. Assuming that there are infinite properties in the universe that objects exhibit, there are virtually infinite words in Sanskrit! There are words in Sanskrit, even for the objects not discovered yet. Because the properties that those undiscovered objects will exhibit, will not be new.  For example, a fan has some properties viz. it rotates, it throws air, it has blades etc. When the fan was invented, the fan was a new object but these properties in themselves were not new.  Hence, even if a new object is invented/discovered anyone with the knowledge of Sanskrit grammar can coin a word for it, based on any property of that object and anyone with the knowledge of Sanskrit grammar can decode its meaning with reasonable accuracy!

Q) This is really COOL! But it’s too much to take in one go. Can you recapitulate ?
A) Yes. Due to the principles it is based upon, there are virtually infinite words in Sanskrit (and we do not need a dictionary in spite of this, for most of the words). The Sanskrit grammarians realized that grammar and semantics are not separate water-tight entities, but rather, are one coherent unit. In probably all the other languages, Grammar and Semantics are independent entities, but not so in Sanskrit.

Whenever you think of an object, you actually think of the properties of that object, since it is the properties that distinguish that object from rest of the universe. So if you can think of an object, you can think of its properties, so you can coin a word for it based on these properties, whether or not the object be known a priori.

This is just the surface. In later articles, we will dive deeper into what really makes Sanskrit the shortest, the most beautiful, highly sophisticated, highly systematic, highly   computer-friendly and highly admirable language. We will also analyse the mechanism by which one can form new words by using the properties of objects.

We will end this article with a subhASita that I had studied in school.
भाषासु मुख्या मधुरा दिव्या गीर्वाणभारती तस्माद्धि काव्यं मधुरं तस्मादपि सुभाषितम् ॥ which means…
The speech of India(Sanskrit), is the foremost, the sweetest and the divine among all languages. The poetry becomes sweet because of it and even the sayings become eloquent.

PS: The features mentioned in this article are not unique to Sanskrit. Property-based derivations are found in many languages. But in those, they are embryonic and need a lot more development. In Sanskrit, this feature is so much developed that it forms the bulk of it which is not the case with other languages.

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147 Responses to Features of Sanskrit that make it an extra-ordinary language

  1. anurag deep says:

    acha prayas hai, shubhkamna v badhai

  2. Harish says:

    If you look at Hindu God’s names, they are the same. They are Sanskrit words with a description/property of the diety. A very different paradigm.

  3. Jitendra Desai says:

    Great ! let us keep propagating this idea.and also usage of Sanskrit words in our day to day life.

    I am interested in the etymolgy of Sanskrit words.There is a book called NIGHANTU by some sage.Can some one pl mail me more info on this volume?

  4. Dinesh says:

    Many thanks for the nice article Mr Shah.

    As a kid we also have to remember the ‘vibhakit’ in all 8 forms and have developed a simple way to remember it’s meaning. It was something like –

    “प्रथम का” “द्वितीय को” “तृतीया से” “चतुर्थी ..” “.. के लिए” etc. Can anybody please complete the rest?

    • gshah says:

      The mnemonic is प्रथमा ने द्वितीया को तृतीया से चतुर्थी के लिये पन्चमी से अलग होने के अर्थ मे षष्ठि का/की/के सप्तमी मे/पे अष्टमी को बुलाया ।

      But this mnemonic highly underestimates the utility of Vibhakti. Vibhakti is a very powerful concept and has much more to it than this silly mnemonic.

      For example, the sentence मूर्खः परिहर्तव्यः प्रत्यक्षः द्विपदः पशुः | means मूर्ख से दूर रहना चाहिये । वो प्रत्यक्ष दो पैरो वाले पशु जैसा होता है ।
      But if we use the above mnemonic to translate this sentence, it would give परिहार योग्य मूर्ख ने, प्रत्यक्ष दो पैर वाले ने पशु ने ।
      Simply meaning less.So remembering this mnemonic actually limits one’s understanding.

      If you haven’t had a look, here are 2 articles explaining the nitty-gritties of vibhakti.
      Similarities between Sanskrit and Programming Languages
      How Vibhaktis shorten Sanskrit

  5. Pingback: Features of Sanskrit that make it an extra-ordinary language « Tamilbrahmins

  6. S.Jagannatha says:

    Since the topic raised by gshah is very interesting I can not control myself from adding some more. This is the letter in response to the personal query of Srikantan Krishamachari.
    Every language/culture/tradition has its ups and downs. Sanskrit is not an exception. Even during Muslim rule and British rule, very good works were written. Even today it is not stopped. While interacting with Sanskrit scholars, I use nothing but Sanskrit.In the workshops I teach the students in Sanskrit. At present, there are thousands of scholars in India(in every nook and corner) who write IN Sanskrit.
    It is quite natural that we employ what ever the language the people understand while we transact in practical world . Since they are comfort with the language they know, we have to use the same. The development of various Indian languages caused gradual diminishing of the spoken status of Sanskrit. Now a days, writing in the languages other than Sanskrit give the writers name, fame, moreover, money. Thousands of writers are available in the languages other than Sanskrit who have their livelihood because of their writing. This caused even Sanskrit writers to turn towards the languages other than Sanskrit. It definitely caused minimization of Sanskrit writing. No language is uplifted by teaching alone. Upliftment of any language does depend upon writing profusely. But Sanskrit can be heard in some Gurukulas, traditional Pathashalas etc. In the Sanskrit Universities, the teaching medium is Sanskrit. Thesis for the Vidyavaridhi(equivalent to Ph.D) shall be written in Sanskrit. A Jain Scholar, Vijayasheelachandra is editor of a good Sanskrit Magazine Nandana-vana-kalpataru (Paldi, Gujarat).Even the translation works are being done in Sanskrit from other Indian languages. In the nutshell, I must say that Sanskrit is not dead. It is very much alive. It did not die after it took birth. Only the thing is sometimes its heart beat could be heard clearly, and sometimes unclearly. EVERY CENTURY century produced great Sanskrit works in our country. The authors are from almost all parts of the country.
    Regarding the word Devavani. Simply by a praising (to the sky), no person becomes God. Simply by a blaming no person becomes devil. Even in Kannada, Kannada ABHIMANA is prevailing. It does not mean that it caused downfall of Kannada! Fans of Sanskrit might have praised Sanskrit by calling it Devavani. It did not cause downfall of Sanskrit. Downfall of any language is caused by non-use(either in literature or colloquial transaction). As I said earlier, Sanskrit was and is used profusely for writing. This writing is of Shastras and Sahitya(pure literature). It did not stop even in colloquial use, albeit the quantity is lesser Thanks to the effort of Samskrita Bharati which is conducting Samskrita Sambhashana Shibiras.

  7. अत्युत्तमः लॆखः । बहूनां नॆत्रॊन्मीलनः च । अतीव मॊदितॊ॓ऽस्मि ।

  8. pAdapa is an important word in pAdukA sahasram of vedAanta dEsika .A full sloka contains the same word but different meaning.

  9. Rangarajan says:

    Sentiments apart, I do not thinkthat the term vrksha is used anywhere in sanskrit to signify the branch of a tree. Even if was, this can only be a source of confusion.
    Sorry to strike a discordant note but I would welcome a proper answer to my poser.

    • gshah says:

      Dear Rangarajan, the Monier williams dictionary gives meanings of vRkSa. http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/monier/ It does not give a branch as the meaning. But yes, it gives “trunk of a tree” as the meaning. I may be wrong in that it a branch is denoted by the word vRkSa. (I am changing a branch to a trunk in my article as well. Thanks for bringing it to my notice.) However, my intention with article was to highlight the fact that while interpreting the meaning of a Sanskrit word it is very important to analyse its property-based meaning and the context rather that to guess the object which that word might represent.

      BTW, most of the words in Sanskrit represent multiple objects. And this does not cause confusion in people well versed in Sanskrit. It may be confusing for newbies. This feature of Sanskrit wherein one word may represent multiple objects depending on context has lead to improper translations of Sanskrit texts by many European Indologists.Their lack of knowledge is evident from their translations. In the process, they have even defamed the Vedas by creating false translations. Eg) “go” may mean (1)Cow (2) Sense Organs. In the context of Vedas at one place, “go” represents Sense organs but Max Muller translates it as Cow. And his translation of RigVeda proclaims that eating cow meat was a trend in ancient India. But this is false and the reason for this anomaly in his translation is possibly that he assumes that “go” means a cow always.

      So instead of holding that this special feature of Sanskrit causes confusion, I think one should try to learn Sanskrit in a gurukul, then one can understand how to properly interpret Sanskrit texts.

  10. dhananjaya says:

    It is clear that sanskrit is not a language invented by humans. It is a language made by demi-gods or more appropriately language of the nature.

    • gshah says:

      We exactly do not know how Sanskrit originated and developed. But definitely it was a vastly spoken language in the Indian SubContinent.

    • S.Jagannatha says:

      Dear Dhananjaya, how it is clear to you that Sanskrit is invented by demi-gods and not humans ? Please note that Sanskrit is language of human beings, for human beings and by human beings.

  11. Sreedhara says:

    Sir
    Thanks for this wonderful article and discussions on the same.
    is there any email facility to receive daily to learn Sanskrit?
    We do not learn as we do
    not use it everyday so this request.

  12. Vishvaksenah says:

    Lekhanam uttamam asti .

    Shubhaashayaah!

  13. S.Jagannatha says:

    Please add: Availability of idiomatic expressions and proverbial statements in abundance in Sanskrit is very strong evidence of its spoken language status.

  14. suresha says:

    Very Nice,

  15. msdbet says:

    great stuff! I hope you post more in this series. We (me and my friends) have all got interested in your blog. We hope to see more from you. We’re sharing it among all of our friends. You never know facebook is quite powerful and sharing on it can create interest among people and can cause a revival movement 🙂

    • gshah says:

      Thanks for the help. That is the vision I too have. Generate interest among people regarding a lost but astonishing language.

  16. S.Jagannatha says:

    Sorry for some typos. Please read disease for decease. Since I had written hurriedly some grammatical blunders are remaining. I sincerely apologize all the readers for the same.

  17. S.Jagannatha says:

    If the other languages belong to the Indo-European language group like Latin, Greek etc., were spoken languages then what made some people to think that Sanskrit alone had not similar nature? If it was not spoken, Linguists would have placed it in the category of artificial language group. A language created by single person is called artificial language. Esperanto is creation of single person and not Sanskrit. In the entire literature of Sanskrit there is no iota of hint that it is created by single person. Sanskrit has all the calibers of spoken language. All the natural languages have modifications in their word structures, alternations in the meanings, pronunciation variations, different meanings of words according to usage of different context, time and regions. Sanskrit is not an exception to these common phenomena. Language structure of Vedas is very ancient. In later literature- Brahmanas for example, the language shows total change albeit some ancient forms and words of Vedic usage were retained. Ramayana is written in classical language of somewhat modern Sanskrit. The poets like Bhasa handle the language according to their creative intellectuality. As you have already known, Panini records the usages of his own time. But some changes gradually occurred in course of time. Those changes were carefully supplemented by Katyayana. His supplementary aphorisms are called Varttikas. Patanjali, who was analyzer and critic of both Ashtadhyayi and Varttika, provides proof that the usage of Sanskrit did have some variants according to various regions. Words of agriculture, grains, herbs, civil administration, limbs, legends, living beings,(birds, insects, mammals) deceases, treatments, trees, shrubs grains, plants, music instruments , utensils of daily use, domestic instruments, war equipments, various occupations, business , transactions adjectives describing human nature do provide ample evidence of spoken status of Sanskrit . It is not correct to say that Sanskrit was created purely for the writing treatises on scholarly subjects. Existence of so many Shastras does not deny the spoken state of Sanskrit. Even English has thousands and thousands of books on Logic, Philosophy, Theology, Aesthetics and even Grammar. So you can safely argue that English was created for only for the purpose of writing literature on these subjects. That means English is and was never a spoken language. How rubbish! Pali(A language in which all most all original Buddhist works were written) and Prakrita (Another language in which most of the standard classics of Jainas were written) have thousands of scholarly works on logic and philosophy.Can we conclude that not only Sanskrit but also Pali and Prakrita were not spoken languages? Sanskrit has thousands of popular stories. What do Juvenile stories of Sanskrita suggest? Why did the words of dolls (dittha and davittha)come into existence in Sanskrit? Why are the treatises on the diseases, treatment and medicines of elephants and horses written in Sanskrit? Why are treatises on stage techniques, music, dance, drama, wrestling, painting, sculpture, architect available in Sanskrit? Why are domestic arts like making perfumes described in Sanskrit?
    Ramayana and Mahabharata are written on the basis of folklore literature. It is clearly mentioned in Ramayana that two singers went on singing the Ramayana for recreation of the masses. Since they used Sanskrit for telling the stories of Ramayana,it is obvious that Sanskrit was a language of the folks.
    While documenting donations of land on inscriptions the writers did not suspect that this kind of arguments may be born in future regarding the spoken status of Sanskrit. While taking down the accusations of the petitioners in the courts in Sanskrit the then clerks of our country did not raise topics like whether Sanskrit is or was a spoken language. Dharmashastra (treatise on law) clearly says that the grammatical blunders in petitions of the petitioners shall not be considered. It clearly shows that the language had so many peculiarities of folks and that were not correct grammatically.

  18. Anish Anand says:

    Good 1 !! Where is the like button 😛 😀
    Though i guess sanskrit did not became language of masses for 2 reasons:
    1 . it was a language meant for elites (Read brahmins) & some other , only once who were allowed to study the books.while other languages which were mostly derived from “Sanskrit” became popular with masses.
    2. The usage of sanskrit requiresa certain expertise as it allows the user to give a layer of understanding , giving the reader a diff meaning with diff perspectiveSince that unique ability is limited to few, others found usage of other language preferable.

    • gshah says:

      according to what I have come to k now during my informal research, Sanskrit was taught to everybody who joined gurukuls and the literacy rate in pre-british India was 97%. I am not sure of the info but this is probably correct so even in pre-british India Sanskrit was a mass language. Every educated person could speak it.

  19. Pingback: Similarities between Sanskrit and Programming Languages | uttiSTha bhArata

  20. S.Jagannatha says:

    A clarification from my side. I did not mean to say that THIS IS THE CORRECT PLACE to blog in Sanskrit. What I wanted to say is there is no occasion for disappointment by thinking that we were not taught to write in Sanskrit while we were studying in High school/College/University. उद्धरेदात्मनाऽऽत्मानं is the correct way of thinking. That was my intention.

  21. S.Jagannatha says:

    Dear Shikhar Yadav,
    Unfortunately, Sanskrit teaching does not concentrate on training the students to write fresh articles on Sanskrit. You may say English is most unscientific language by showing thousands of examples. But we have to learn a lot from English teaching world. Usually English teaching means training on writing afresh. In general, (barring a few exceptions), Sanskrit teaching means(In High schools, Colleges and Universities) memorizing texts plus analysis. Education of Sanskrit in Pathashalas is superior than that of University . But there is way to learn writing in Sanskrit.
    1. Hundreds of good essays (for the students) are available. There is gradation.(Please check the price list of Chokhamba Sanskrit series for प्रबन्ध/निबन्ध works) Start to read them. Start to write simple essays like मम गृहम्, पक्षी, भारतमाता so on and so forth imitating them.
    2. Start to write even verses imitating the famous ones . For example, Imitating the famous verse वागर्थाविव संपृक्तौ वागर्थप्रतिपत्तये। जगतः पितरौ वन्दे पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ।।, one can write वाण्यर्थाविव संयुक्तौ वाण्यर्थप्रतिपत्तये। विश्वस्य जनकौ सेवे शर्वाणीशशिशेखरौ।। This imitation is shown by क्षेमेन्द्र.
    3.Make a habit of reading Sanskrit Ramayana everyday. It is mere redundancy to say the importance of Ramayana in Indian culture. I do not want to stress the thing all of us have already known. My purpose of mentioning Ramayana is to say that, since the language is very beautiful (from the side of literature ) and very practical(from practical transactions) in Sanskrit Ramayana, one may have clear picture about what is Sanskrit by reading the same.
    4.Start to read Sambhashana Sandesh, a monthly Sanskrit Magazine published by AKSHARAM, BENGALURU.
    Please read the following:
    This is a nursery rhyme namely, कोऽहम् (on elephant’s simple life) written by me.

    कोऽहं कोऽहं कोऽहं कोऽहं कोऽहम्

    इक्षोर्दण्डं शुण्डया झटिति खण्डयामि कोऽहम्

    स्नात्वा मृत्स्नां शिरसि क्षिप्त्वाऽऽनन्दितोऽस्मि कोऽहम्
    पत्रं शष्पं मृदुलकिसलयं भक्षयामि कोऽहम्

    यूथे निवसन् कलभैः क्रीडाम् आचरामि कोऽहम्
    सङ्घे वासः क्षेमप्रद इति घोषयामि कोऽहम्

    शष्पं means tender grass.
    कलभैःmeans “with young elephants”

  22. शिखर यादव says:

    hey all! firstly i have never seen such an insightful and meaningful disscussions in “COMMENTS” before. so sanskrit effect-this must be!
    secondly-writing in sanskrit is all fine and for the good of our language and culture, but i have a serious objection- WORKS LIKE THIS, MUST CARRY OUT IN MAIN STREAM LANGUAGES LIKE ENGLISH ONLY AS PEOPLE-MASSES WHOM WE ARE TARGETING , WONT BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND EVEN A BIT IF ARTICLES LIKE THIS WERE WRITTEN IN SANSKRIT. i am myself a sanskrit student- i studied sanskrit till 10th. but i cant read big articles using complex sanskrit as that is far too difficult as per my knowledge. so only a selected few- 0.00000001% or so , of all bhartiyas(indians) will be able to read these articles .
    THIRDLY , i want to point out something- in english, while on one hand they dont even have seperate words for addressing elders and young persons- all are you, nothing like आप तुम etc. on the other, they are so obsessed with forming rules like capital and small words, capital “I”(signifying great ego, according to me)-while there is no need to differentiate small and capital alphabets.
    moreover B U T-बट, P U T-पट? i mean to say the sound itself is not represented by the alphabet, but each new word has to be mastered all over again in english. on the other hand both of these things are not there in devnagri.
    A GREAT ARTICLE, KEEP GOING! 🙂

  23. piyush says:

    Very well written in an interesting way .And the message is delivered clearly.

  24. Radha says:

    Very nice article and very interesting.

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