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The Sanskrit language (saṃskṛtā vāk संस्कृता वाक्) is among the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family and is not only the premier classical language, but also an official language of India. It enjoys much the same position in Indian culture as Latin and Greek do in Europe. Its vast religious and literary tradition is most famously seen in its Hindu/Vedic traditions.

The first Sanskrit text known to us is the Rig-veda (ṛgveda ऋग्वेद), part of the early canon of Hinduism, the Vedas. Most Sanskrit texts available today were composed in ancient and medieval India.

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Devimahatmya manuscript on palm-leaf, in an early Bhujimol script, Bihar or Nepal, 11th century. The word saṃskṛta- means "put together or constructed well, completely formed, perfected", also "purified, consecrated, sanctified". The language referred to as saṃskṛtā vāk "the refined language" has by definition always been a 'high' language, used for religious and scientific discourse and contrasted with the languages spoken by the people. The oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar is Pạ̄nini's Ạṣtādhyāyī ("Eight-Chapter Grammar") dating to ca. the 5th century BC. It is essentially a prescriptive grammar, i. e. an authority that defines (rather than describes) correct Sanskrit, although it contains descriptive parts, mostly to account for Vedic forms that had already passed out of use in Panini's time.

Virtually every Sanskrit student in India learns the traditional story that Sanskrit was created and then refined over many generations (traditionally more than a thousand years) until it was considered complete and perfect. When the term arose in India, "Sanskrit" was not conceived of as referring to a specific language set apart from other languages (the people of the time regarded languages more as dialects), but rather referred to a particularly refined manner of speaking, bearing somewhat the same relation to common language that "Standard" English bears to commonly spoken dialects in many regions of the United States. The knowledge of Sanskrit was a marker of social class and educational attainment, and was closely governed by the analyses of grammarians. This form of the language evolved out of the earlier "Vedic" form, and scholars often distinguish Vedic from Classical as separate languages. However, they are extremely similar in most regards, differing only in a few points of phonology, vocabulary, and grammar.

Vedic is the language of the Vedas, the earliest sacred texts of India and the base of the Hindu religion. The earliest of the Vedas, the Rigveda, was composed in 2nd millennium BC. The Vedic form survived until the middle of the first millennium BC. It is around this time that Sanskrit made the transition from a first language to a second language of religion and learning, marking the beginning of the Classical period. A form of Sanskrit called Epic Sanskrit is seen in the Mahabharata and other Hindu epics. This includes more "prakritisms" (borrowings from common speech) than Classical Sanskrit proper. There is also a language dubbed "Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit" by scholars, which is actually a prakrit ornamented with Sanskritized elements, perhaps for purposes of ostentation.

There is a strong genetic relationship between the various forms of Sanskrit and the Middle Indo-Aryan "Prakrits", or vernacular languages, (in which, among other things, most early Jain and Buddhist texts are written) and the modern Indo-Aryan languages. The Prakrits are probably descended from Vedic, and there is mutual interchange between later forms of Sanskrit and various Prakrits. There has also been reciprocal influence between Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages.

The Vedic form of Sanskrit is a close descendant of Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed root of all later Indo-European languages. Vedic Sanskrit is the oldest attested language of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. It is very closely related to Avestan, the language of Zoroastrianism. The genetic relationship of Sanskrit to modern European languages and classical Greek and Latin can be seen in cognates like Eng. mother/Skt. मतृ matṛ or Eng. father/Skt. पितृ pitṛ. Other interesting links are to be found between Sanskritic roots and Persian (the language of modern-day Iran), present in such a striking example as the generic term for 'land' which in Sanskrit is sthaan and in Persian staan.

European scholarship in Sanskrit, initiated by Heinrich Roth and Johann Ernest Hanxleden, led to the proposal of the Indo-European language family by Sir William Jones, and thus played an important role in the development of Western linguistics. Indeed, linguistics (along with phonology, etc.) first arose among Indian grammarians who were attempting to catalog and codify Sanskrit's rules. Modern linguistics owes a great deal to these grammarians, and to this day, key terms for compound analysis are taken from Sanksrit.


Modern-day India

Sanskrit's greatest influence, presumably, is that which it exerted on languages that grew from its vocabulary and grammatical base. Especially among elite circles in India, Sanskrit is prized as a storehouse of scripture and the language of prayers in Hinduism. Like Latin's influence on European languages, Sanskrit has influenced most Indian languages. While vernacular prayer is common, Sanskrit mantras are recited by millions of Hindus and most temple functions are conducted entirely in Sanskrit, often Vedic in form. Most higher forms of Indian vernacular languages like Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi, often called 'shuddha' (pure, higher) are much more heavily Sanskritized. Of modern day Indian languages, while Hindi tends to be, in spoken form, more heavily weighted with Arabic and Persian influence, Bengali and Marathi still retain a largely Sanskrit vocabulary base. The two national songs, Jana Gana Mana (anthem) and Vande Mataram are both higher forms of Bengali, so Sanskritized as to be archaic in modern usages. Malayalam, which is spoken in Kerala, combines a great deal of Sanskrit vocabulary with Tamil (Dravidian) grammatical structure. Kannada, another South Indian language also contains Sanskrit vocabulary. But as a medium of spiritual instruction for Hindus in India, Sanskrit is still prized and widespread.

Sanskrit words are found in many other present-day non-Indian languages. For instance, the Thai language contains many loan words from Sanskrit, and ranged as far as the Philippines, e.g., Tagalog 'gurĂ²' from 'guru', or 'teacher', with the Hindu seafarers who traded there.

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