An ancient Indo-European language, that was studied and "refined" by the ancient grammarians, the most renowned of whom is Panini. It has Vedic, epic, and classical forms and is the language of much of India's literature. Most of the modern north-Indian languages are said to be distant descendants of Sanskrit. The language had no exclusive script in the past. It was written in any convenient phonetic script. Nowadays, many people like to use Devanagari.

The term "Sanskrit" literally means "artificial", a reference to the deliberateness with which its structure and grammar were crafted.

A very ancient, very complex Indo-European language. It remains a 'living' second language and is one of the official languages of India.

Writing System

Sanskrit has been written by many phonetic scripts at different times. It is now commonly written in the syllabic Devanagari script.


Sanskrit is typically said to have 36 sounds, though there is some debate over whether certain sounds are separate phonemes or allophones of one phoneme.

The sounds are described here in their traditional order: vowels, stops and nasals (starting in the back if the mouth and moving forward), and finally the liquids and sibilants.

(Note: The long vowels are held about twice as long as their short counterparts)

Vowels (with approximate English equivalents)

a - gut
aa - father
i - pin
ii - tweak
u - push
uu - moo
r^i = r + i
long r^i = r + ii or r + uu, depending on the region
l^i = l + r^i
e - hay
ai - aisle
o - snow
au - pow

Vowels can be nasalized.


Sanskrit has a voiceless, voiceless aspirate, voiced, voiced aspirate, and nasal stop at each of the following places of articulation:

It also has four semivowels: y,r,l,v. All of these but r have nasalized forms. Sanskrit also has palatal, retroflex, and alveolar sibilants. Rounding out the consonants are the voiced and voiceless h (the voiceless h, called the visarga, tends to repeat the preceding vowel after itself) and the anusvaara, which often appears as nasalization of the the preceding vowel or as a nasal homorganic to the following consonant.

Vedic Sanskrit had a pitch or tonal accent, but it was lost by the Classical period.

Sanskrit has an elaborate set of phonological rules called sandhi which are expressed in its writing (except in so-called pada texts). This makes Sanskrit very hard to read without a great deal of practice. It also creates ambiguities which clever poets have exploited to perform such feats as writing poems which can be interpreted in multiple, unrelated ways depending on how the reader chooses to break apart the sandhi.

Morphology and Syntax

Sanskrit is a heavily inflected language with three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) and three numbers (singular, plural, dual). It has eight cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, and locative. It has over ten noun declensions.

Sanskrit has ten classes of verbs divided into in two broad groups: athematic and thematic. The thematic verbs are so called because an a, called the theme vowel, is inserted between the stem and the ending. This serves to make the thematic verbs generally more well-behaved. Exponents utilized in verb conjugation include prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and reduplication. Also extremely common is vowel gradation; every root has (not necessarily all distinct) zero, guna, and vrdhii grades. If V is the vowel of the zero grade, the guna grade vowel is traditionally thought of a V + a, and the vrdhii grade vowel as V + aa. (Sanskrit is very fond of a)

One other notable feature of the nominal system is the very common use of nominal compounds, which may be huge (10+ words).

The verbs tenses (a very inexact application of the word, since more distinctions than simply tense are expressed) are organized into four 'systems' (plus gerunds and infinitives, along with such creatures as intensives/frequentives, desideratives, causatives, and benedictives derived from more basic forms). Each verb is also active, passive, or middle. (Middle indicates actions done to something other than the speaker for the speaker's own benefit. The distinction between middle and passive is not maintained throughout). The four systems are:

Word order is free with tendency toward SOV.


Sanskrit is the oldest member of Indo-Aryan sub-branch of Indo-Iranian. It and Avestan are the oldest memebers of the Indo-Iranian sub-branch of the Indo-European family. The oldest form of Sanskrit is Vedic, in which the Vedas, the earliest Sanskrit texts, were composed. The earliest of the Vedas, the R^igveda, was composed in the middle of the second millennia BC. The Vedic form survived until the middle of the first millennia BC. Around this time, as Sanskrit made the transition from a first language to a second language of religion and learning, the Classical period began. The intense study of the structure of Sanskrit at this time led to the beginnings of linguistics. The oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar is Paanini's c. 500 BC Astaadhyaayii ("8 Chapter Grammar"). A form of Sanskrit called Epic Sanskrit is seen in the Mahaabhaarata and other epics. Vernacular Sanskrit developed into the Prakrits (in which, among other things, early Buddhist texts are written) and the modern Indic languages. There has been much reciprocal influence between Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages. Contact with Sanskrit and the realization of its similarities with Greek and Latin led to the development of historical linguistics in the mid-19th century.

Editorial comment: Beware: Sanskrit will fry your brain. It did mine.

(Sources: A Sanskrit Primer, Madhav Deshpande and Linguistics 520: Sanskrit Lectures, Greg Stump, University of Kentucky)

San"skrit (?), n. [Skr. Samsk&rsdot;ta the Sanskrit language, literally, the perfect, polished, or classical language, fr. samsk&rsdot;ta prepared, wrought, made,excellent, perfect; sam together (akin to E. same) + k&rsdot;ta made. See Same, Create.] [Written also Sanscrit.]

The ancient language of the Hindoos, long since obsolete in vernacular use, but preserved to the present day as the literary and sacred dialect of India. It is nearly allied to the Persian, and to the principal languages of Europe, classical and modern, and by its more perfect preservation of the roots and forms of the primitive language from which they are all descended, is a most important assistance in determining their history and relations. Cf. Prakrit, and Veda.


© Webster 1913.

San"skrit, a.

Of or pertaining to Sanskrit; written in Sanskrit; as, a Sanskrit dictionary or inscription.


© Webster 1913.

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