Today’s post is a myth-busting post. And the myth we’ll be busting today is that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages in the world. Let me summarize what I’ll be writing below in a few words: It’s not. It’s the mother of a small percentage of the world’s language, but even that depends on what kind of Sanskrit you are talking about. Let’s see what the truth is.
One often hears in India that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages, that it is the oldest language in the world. It is probably a statement which stems from Hindu nationalism. However, this statement is not exactly true.
The truth is something like this. There are thousands of languages spoken in the world. Many of these languages can be grouped into languages families such as the Dravidian language family, the Indo-European language family, the Tibeto-Burman language family, the Uralic language family etc. Sanskrit belongs to the Indo-European language family, which as I might have previously mentioned includes English, French, Latin, Romanian, Russian, Persian (but not Arabic), Urdu, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, just to name a few. In fact, the Indo-European language family has the most number of speakers in the world. Now, other than some common words due to borrowing from one language to another, Sanskrit shares absolutely no relation with non-Indo-European languages; therefore, there is no scope of these languages having originated from Sanskrit.
Now, let’s come to the Indo-European language family itself. The Indo-European languages come from a common source called the Proto-Indo-European (once again, previously mentioned). We don’t have any written records of this language, but it can be reconstructed on the basis of similarities found in its daughter languages. From Proto-Indo-European descend many other languages which include (but are not limited to) Proto-Germanic (the mother of languages such as German, English), Proto-Italic-which later developed into Latin, which is the mother of French, Italian, Spanish and the likes- and Proto-Indo-Iranian ,which split into Proto-Iranian (the ancestor of Iranian languages, of which Persian is the most known and Proto-Indic. This Proto-Indic also goes by the name of Vedic Sanskrit, the Sanskrit in which the Rig Veda, the oldest piece of Hindu and Indian literature, is written.
Hence, we see that Vedic Sanskrit is not the mother of languages such as English or Spanish, but rather their aunt. Vedic Sanskrit’s mother- Proto-Indo-European had quite a few other daughters, and from these daughters, we get the non-Indian Indo-European languages.
Now you might be wondering how we can be sure that this so-called ‘Proto-Indo-European’ was not Vedic Sanskrit to begin with, and all other branches of the Indo-European family diverged from it by evolving. Well, there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary, and I’ll list only one of them. Firstly, Proto-Indo-European had three basic vowels (a, e and o) and their long versions (à, è and ò). Vedic Sanskrit merged these into two: a and à. ‘A’ and ‘e’ became ‘a’, and ‘à’, ‘è’ and ‘ò’ became ‘à’. ‘O’ became either ‘a’ or ‘à’ based on a law called Bruggman’s Law.
(Those familiar with Sanskrit will point out that Sanskrit does have an ‘e’ and an ‘o’, but in Vedic Sanskrit these were actually diphthongs. e was pronounced a+ i (ai) and o was pronounced a+u (au). Moreover, the current Sanskrit diphthongs ‘ai’ and ‘au’ originate from à+i (ài) and à+u(àu).)
We don’t need the technicalities of the change but what I’m pointing out is Vedic Sanskrit lost some information that the older language (Proto-Indo-European) had. And we know that this older language had an ‘a’/’e’/’o’ distinction because the other daughter languages such as Latin, Greek etc. maintain this distinction. Thus, Vedic Sanskrit could not have been the real deal because it simply doesn’t have those features, which the other languages possessed.
There are various other features which Vedic Sanskrit has lost, which the older language must have possessed to clearly establish that Proto-Indo-European is not the same as Vedic Sanskrit, and therefore Vedic Sanskrit could not even have been the mother of all Indo-European languages.
Also, you might have noticed that all this time I was talking about Vedic Sanskrit, not simply Sanskrit. When someone says Sanskrit, most people understand it to mean Classical Sanskrit. Classical Sanskrit or Paninian Sanskrit is the Sanskrit used long after it had ceased be a spoken language. Classical Sanskrit is a codified language which was based on Vedic Sanskrit, but was standardized by certain rules by Panini. These rules can be found in Panini’s work called Ashtadhyayi. At the time of Panini, people did not speak Vedic Sanskrit but various languages which had descended from Vedic Sanskrit (called Prakrits). Panini’s Sanskrit, was in fact a language which was never spoken and therefore, it could not have been the mother of any language.
Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi- all of these languages come from the Prakrits, which had come from Vedic Sanskrit. Classical Sanskrit- the Sanskrit that is taught in schools- doesn’t even come anywhere in this tree.
Additionally, the reason that Classical Sanskrit is so ‘scientific’ is because it was an artificially created language. One more point worth noting is that the greatest works of Sanskrit (such as Abhijnanashakuntalam) are in Classical Sanskrit, much like the greatest Latin works are in Classical Latin (and not the original Latin of Rome, from which modern Romance languages come). Ironically, these works were composed at the time when the natural Sanskrit and the natural Latin had ceased to be spoken.
Thus, in conclusion, Sanskrit is not the mother of all languages in the world. It is not even the mother of all Indo-European languages, though it’s related to them. It is only the mother of North Indian languages (also called Indo-Aryan languages), and that is only when you use Sanskrit to mean Vedic Sanskrit and not Classical Sanskrit.