Sanskrit, an Indo-European language

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Sanskrit is a member of the Indo-European family of languages to which most of the languages of Europe (including, for instance, English, Welsh, Latin and Greek) also belong.
These have all evolved from a single language (or, more immediately, a group of closely related dialects), namely 'Primitive Indo-European' or just 'Indo-European', spoken in about the third millenium BC, of which no direct record remains.

The original Indo-European speakers seem to have been tribes inhabiting the plains of Eastern Europe, particularly the area north of the Black Sea (archaeological remains in the South Russian Steppes are in harmony with this supposition), from where migration subsequently occurred in many directions. With the discovery of Hittite, Sanskrit has ceased to be the oldest recorded Indo-European language: but for many reasons, including the fact that Hittite separated early from the main Indo-European stock, Sanskrit remains of central importance to the student of the history of the Indo-European language.

Sanskrit belongs, more specifically, to the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European. The other most important member of this branch is Persian. The earliest Indo-Iranian speakers are conveniently known as Aryans, from the name which they gave themselves (Sanskrit arya, Avestan airya - from the latter the modern name Iran is derived, while the name "Eire", at the other end of the Indo-European spectrum, may also be cognate). Although it is reasonable to assume that the original homeland of the Aryan tribes was the north of the Caucasus, our earliest record of them comes neither from this region nor from the Indo-Iranian area but from south of the Caucasus, from the Mitanni kingdom of Northern Mesopotamia, where a ruling dynasty bearing Aryan names and worshipping Aryan gods such as Indra had established itself in the first half of the second millenium BC.

Sanskrit, an Indo-European language

However, the main movement of Aryan migration was not south but east into Central Asia, and from there by separate penetrations into Iran and India. Thereafter the Aryans of Iran and the Aryans of India went their separate ways both culturally and linguistically. The oldest stage of Iranian is represented by Avestan, the sacred language of the Zoroastrians, and by Old Persian, the dialect used in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Achaemenian kings.
In India, a highly evolved and urbanised civilisation had existed long before the coming of the Aryans. This was the 'Indus Valley Civilisation', known to us in particular from excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and dating from at least the middle of the third millenium. The culture was stable over a long period, and literate. It came to a sudden end, and it is tempting in the extreme to attribute its destruction to the coming of the Aryans. However, an awkward time gap exists, and has not yet been successfully explained, for the Indus civilisation seems to have perished in about 1700 BC and there is no evidence that the Aryans reached India before the latter half of the second millenium.
The survival in Baluchistan up to the present day of a Dravidian language, Brhui, so far from what is now the main Dravidian area in Southern India, makes it reasonable to conclude that before the arrival of the Aryans Dravidian was spoken over a much wider area, and the suggestion has naturally been made that the inhabitants of the Indus cities spoke a Dravidian language. At present this remains unproved, unless recent claims of successful decipherment of the Indus script are accepted, and other non-Aryan language families do exist in India, most notably the group of Munda languages. Although the language of the Aryans established itself over most of Northern India, it seems that in the long run the Aryans were affected both culturally and linguistically by the peoples they conquered, and Dravidian and Munda influences (particularly the former) can be traced in the development of Sanskrit itself.
The speech introduced by the Aryans into India developed and diversified, and the major modern languages of Northern India (like Hindi, Bengali, Panjabi, Gujarati, Marathi etc.) are descended from it. The generic term for such languages is Indo-Aryan. One may conveniently divide the development of Indo-Aryan into three stages: Old, Middle and Modern.

Old Indo-Aryan is equivalent to Sanskrit only in the widest sense of the latter term, and is divided principally between Vedic and the later Classical Sanskrit. Our record of Old Indo-Aryan begins with the hymns of the Rgveda, which date back to at least 1000 BC and are the product of a considerable literary skill. That they were composed a fair time after the arrival of the Aryans in India is shown both by the absence of any reference to a homeland outside India and by divergences, principally phonetic, in the language itself from what can be reconstructed as the common Indo-Iranian tongue. Intermediate between the language of the Rgveda and that of the Classical period is the language of the Brahmanas, prose works which seek to interpret the mystical significance of the Vedic ritual, the earliest of them written well before the middle of the first millenium BC. The Upanishads are a part of the Brahmana literature.

With the passage of time the language of even the educated priestly class diverged more and more from that of the sacred hymns themselves, and it became increasingly a matter of concern that the hymns should be transmitted without corruption, in order to preserve their religious efficacy. Consequently, a study began to be made of the principles of linguistic, and more particularly of phonetic, analysis. from this developed a grammatical science which concerned itself not only with the sacred language but also with contemporary educated speech. The grammar of Panini, the Astadhyayi, usually attributed to the fourth century BC, is evidently the culmination of a long and sophisticated grammatical tradition, though the perfection of his work caused that of his predecessors to vanish. In less than 4000 sutras, or brief aphorisms (supplemented on points of detail by the grammarian Katyayana), he analyses the whole phonology and morphology of Sanskrit.
By Classical Sanskrit is meant essentially the language codified by Panini.
The Sanskrit of Panini´s time had the cachet not simply of being the dialect of the educated classes but also of being much closer than was the popular speech to the language of the sacred scriptures themselves.
The beginnings of Middle Indo-Aryan antedate Panini, for the speech of the ordinary people had been evolving faster than that of the educated classes. The term samskrta means 'polished, (grammatically) correct', and is in contrast with prakrta '(speech) of the common people'. Just as Sanskrit interpreted in a wide sense may conveniently stand for Old Indo-Aryan, so Prakrit, interpreted equally widely, may stand for Middle Indo-Aryan (morphological simplification accompanied by drastic phonological simplification, including a reduction in the number of vowels and a simplification of consonant groups).
As Middle Indo-Aryan developed and its various dialects drew further apart, the role of Sanskrit as a lingua franca grew increasingly important, and at a time when brahmanical influence was increasing. In the early centuries AD, first in the north and later in the south, Sanskrit became the only acceptable language both for administration and for learned communication. With the Buddhist Asvaghosa (second century AD), a master of Sanskrit literary stile, begins the great period of Classical Sanskrit, and it lasted for something like a thousand years. Part of the reason for Asvaghosa´s literary importance is that he is very nearly the only significant predecessor of the poet Kalidasa whose work has suvived. Kalidasa is commonly dated to the early fifth century, and on reading his poetry one cannot doubt that it represents the culmination of a great tradition; yet he is the earliest of the major classical poets. Perhaps, like Panini, Kalidasa eclipsed his predecessors and made their work seem not worth preserving.
By now Sanskrit was not longer a mother tongue but a language to be studied and conciously mastered.

Before the introduction of printing into India in the eighteenth century, the script in which Sanskrit was written and taught varied from place to place in India, and was the same, or almost the same, as that used in writing the local vernacular language. Well-travelled pandits might understand many forms of the alphabet, but the basis of Sanskrit tradition lay in recitation and oral communication. The widespread dessimination of printed Sanskrit texts, however, encouraged the predominance of one form of writing, the nagari (or devanagari) script of central India, in which the modern languages Hindi and Marathi are also written. Today even the most traditionally minded pandits are familiar with it, and Sanskrit publications of more than local interest are printed in no other script.
All the Indian scripts, however much elaborated in their forms, are developments over the course of centuries fro a single source. This was the brahmi script, written from left to right, first known to us from the inscriptions of the emperor Ashoka (third century BC). Its origin in unknown. Many suppose it to be an adaptation of the Semitic alphabet, but by the time of the Ashokan inscriptions the adaptation is already too thorough for positive identification. It reflects with considerable accuracy the phonetic structure of the Indo-Aryan languages. All later Indian scripts inherit its unusual graphic system; they differ from it and from each other selely as to the shapes into which the individual letters have evolved.

Literature: Sanskrit - An Introduction to the Classical Language, Michael Coulson, Hodder & Stoughton, 1992



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