Panini, possibly the greatest linguistic
genius to ever live, was born sometime around the 6th century BCE
, and died sometime in the 5th century BCE. The dates of his birth and death are somewhat hard to pin down; experts seem to place him anywhere between the 4th and 7th centuries. The problem of placing his life in history is compounded by the fact that, like Hermes Tresmegistus
, people may have written things in his name to lend credence
to their own ideas, or to pay homage
to a great master. This in turn makes it hard to determine exactly which of his later works are indeed his own. What is positively known is that he is one of the greatest innovators of language
that the world has ever seen.
Panini's work was in the ancient Indian language Sanskrit. The name, when de-sandhi-fied (saM - skRta HKST) means "without flaw," and was considered the language of the gods themselves. He is considered the founder of the language and the literature it encompasses, as he wrote the highly scientific rules of phonetics, phonology, and morphology that define the language. It should also be noted that as he was doing this, he was creating those disciplines from scratch.
Panini's masterwork was Astadhyayi (or Astaka), a work in eight chapters with each chapter divided into four subsections. The work was so expertly crafted that, to this day, the grammar remains almost totally unchanged. Combined with the ridiculously logical devanagari alphabet in which the language was written, we can today speak a Sanskrit nearly identical to the Sanskrit spoken by the great pundits from the time of Buddha. With elegant simplicity, Panini sets down the production rules and definitions for Sanskrit, separating vowels, consonants, nouns and verbs into classes, and giving rules for the construction of complex nouns and sentences based on their underlying forms. The work looks like a mathematical treatise - so much so that G. G. Joseph argues (in The Crest of the Peacock) that "algebraic reasoning, the Indian way of representing numbers by words, and ultimately the development of modern number systems in India, are linked through the structure of language (Sanskrit)."(1)
Looking at Panini's grammar is like looking at a programming language specification in BNF, and the St. Andrew's page goes so far as to suggest that Panini should be thought of as the forerunner of modern programming languages, a claim with quite a bit of merit. In 1989, Dr. P. Ramanujan presented a paper at the 24th Annual Convention of Computer Society of India in Bangalore entitled "A Case for Sanskrit as Computer Programming Language," in which he claimed that Sanskrit is indeed the most appropriate language in which to write computer programs. Also, the Multilingual Systems group at IIT Madras has written a PERL module for use with Indian scripts (including devanagari).
Along with mathematics, the linguistic ramifications of Panini's work cannot be understated. His Sanskrit specification was the first known descriptive grammar. Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics, was heavily influenced by Panini when he first forayed into the formal study of language. In fact, when addressing the Special Convocation of the University of Calcutta, he said, "My professional field, as I am sure you know, was in large part created in India, 2,500 years ago. The first 'generative grammar' in something like the modern sense is Panini's grammar of Sanskrit." (2) Research is still being done on the intricacies of Panini's grammar, shedding ever more light on how human language as a whole works.
2: Frontline, Volume 18 - Issue 25, Dec. 08, 2001
The University of St. Andrew's Mac Tutor History of Mathematics Website (http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Panini.html)
Katre, Sumitra M. Astadhyayi of Panini: In Roman Transliteration
IIT Madras, "Use of Indian Scripts with PERL" (http://acharya.iitm.ac.in/perl_enhance.html)
Frontline, Volume 18 - Issue 25, Dec. 08, 2001
Notes from Dr. James Powell's Beginning Sanskrit 1 class