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Monday, April 18, 2011

Should a Sanskritist learn Spoken Sanskrit?

The morphology and syntax of spoken Sanskrit are a simplified version of that of Classical Sanskrit. Basically:
  1. 1. no dual endings. Instead, one uses paraphrases such as etad pustakadvayam atirucikāram.
  2. 2. no past endings beside ppp. Instead, one uses the sma paraphrase, e.g., sadānandamahodayaḥ māṃ saṃskṛtasambhāṣaṇam adhyāpayati sma.
  3. 3. (almost) no second person ending. Instead, one addresses people with bhavān/bhavatī + III person ending.
  4. 4. shorter compounds (as obvious, in a spoken language).
  5. 5. hardly any sandhi at all.

As for vocabulary, all the everyday vocabulary is either made up (vidyutpatra for email), imported (seba or sebaphala for apple) or re-adapted (vimāna for airplane). One will not need it in one's Classical Studies.
However, in many Spoken Sanskrit classes one reads many subhāṣitas, and hence gets a chance to learn some metrics and get in touch also with classical Sanskrit.
Most important, one has to figure out which style of learning suits oneself most: do you remember things because you heard them or because you read them? If the former, the course will terribly enhance your understanding of Sanskrit. You will start reading texts autonomously, instead of having to look for every single word on the dictionary. If you keep on working on it, the ultimate result is to start questioning texts in Sanskrit. And Sanskrit texts tend to reveal more to the one who questions them in the appropriate way;-)


S said...

I know this is not the point of your post, but I'd like to clear some misconceptions some others have about "spoken Sanskrit".

Firstly, spoken Sanskrit as spoken by those who have learnt Sanskrit traditionally -- the Sanskrit spoken by paṇḍits and in pāṭhaśālās -- is the same as classical Sanskrit (with full sandhi and all that). At most, a few influences from vernacular languages may be present, such as using plural forms for respect.

What you're referring to is the style of teaching Sanskrit that some organisations (mainly Samskrita Bharati) have been carrying out in recent times, with the revolutionary (:p) idea of teaching Sanskrit the way every other language is taught: by starting with speaking simple sentences, in contrast to the old way that was influenced by classical Greek and Latin teaching (of forcing students to memorise at the start all declension and conjugation tables, etc.) which students naturally find boring.

Although these organisations, in their enthusiasm and love for the language have been carrying out free classes and so on, and may be prominent, in most educational institutions it is still the old method that is predominant.

Anyway, even these new organisations only start with simple work-arounds to avoid dual endings, the second-person, etc., just to keep the language simple at the beginning. Eventually, even in these "spoken Sanskrit" classes, those who got far enough would use the style more natural for (classical) Sanskrit.

As for vocabulary, making up and importing new words is what every language does, and what Sanskrit has been doing for centuries, so there's nothing odd there (except by those who want to insist that Sanskrit should only be treated as a dead language!).

Anyway, I agree with your point: learning to speak and think in Sanskrit can help some people read texts more fluently. Especially since it seems that most commentaries are written as if someone were talking to you, rather than in the more "formal" style of the works being commented upon. So spoken Sanskrit (in the general sense) can make those seem more natural, I think.

elisa freschi said...

Dear S,

thanks a lot, I was indeed hoping to receive a comment from someone knowing the teachers'/advanced students' point of view.
The only point I tend to disagree about is that I think Spoken Sanskrit could be a good device even if Sanskrit were a dead language, just because it is didactively effective, for people who tend to have an oral/aural approach to languages.
Do you write in Sanskrit? I tried many time to have a Sanskrit forum started (see "Orientalia" for the last time), but it never worked. Perhaps because writing contradicts this oral/aural stress?

S said...

I agree with you actually. I just mentioned the "dead language" label because there are some people (usually not in India!) who feel that there is something criminal about making up new words, or even talking about everyday things in Sanskrit. (For an extreme—I hope—example, see comments here linking spoken Sanskrit with violence and fundamentalism, which I find disturbing).

Anyway, I have forgotten all the Sanskrit I used to know! When I was learning Sanskrit in high school I could write essays and stories easily enough, but now that I've lost touch I can only read, and that too with difficulty. I don't think the problem is the difference between writing and oral/aural, but simply that there are really very few people who are fluent enough at either writing or speaking Sanskrit (as opposed to reading/listening)... or rather, very few among those who are fluent (say, contemporary Sanskrit poets and authors) are casual internet users. :-)

elisa freschi said...

Dear S,
well, I think prof. Stella Sandahl is right in pointing out the distance between Spoken Sanskrit and Classical Sanskrit (in the first comment you refer to). I am just puzzled by the sudden shift in the last three lines. Why should all Spoken Sanskrit have to do with the political usage of "Hinduism"? And why should the latter unavoidably mean destroying mosques?

And you are right, probably there is nothing specific about Spoken Sanskrit, and the lack of success of forums is just due to the fact that we are all too busy and too lazy to interact without any immediate advantage. Still, I think this is somehow irritating, since we are all happy to read wikipedia (etc.) and appreciate *other people's* efforts…

S said...

Yes, exactly... the sudden "jump" and non sequitur politicisation is what I found disturbing.

True, the style of language spoken in a beginner's "Spoken Sanskrit" classroom is different from Classical Sanskrit. (It is grammatically correct, but the style is simplistic.) The students know it, and the teachers know it. But this is obvious to anyone: the language used by students who have still only begun learning will obviously be not the same as those of people who have already learnt the language fluently! No one would expect first-year students of English to correctly use the subjunctive, say. :-) So I don't see the fuss. It's only a pedagogical device. As I said, they start with some workarounds like "pustakadvayam asti", but after the students have learnt the dual-number declensions, they switch to the more natural "dve pustake staḥ". And so on. Neither the students nor the teachers are under any impression that they have "learned" or "taught" Sanskrit; everyone knows that in Sanskrit one is forever a student. :-)

Academic Sanskritists are interested in Sanskrit because of an interest in history, and that is fine. But not everyone needs to have the same reason. Some students just think it's cool to learn a language. Or an ancient language, or a language reputed to be difficult, or whatever. Some Hindus may want to be better able to understand the Sanskrit content of the rituals they perform, or the ślokas they recite. And some may even want to read classical literature, eventually. If in the meantime they want to have fun while learning the language, it's unreasonable to insist that there's something wrong with the idea.

Those remarks are like insisting that the English spoken on the streets is a fundamentally different language from English written by university professors, and that those who learn English not necessarily to read Shakespeare but for some other "trivial" reason are committing a crime against humanity.

BTW, another problem with Sanskrit on the internet is (perhaps) that everyone is too afraid of making mistakes in writing. :-)

elisa freschi said...

Dear S, of course, spoken Sanskrit is a good idea for many purposes, such as the ones you mentioned. I assumed that these were obvious and, hence, decided to address the specific point of whether someone interested in *Classical* Sanskrit should learn also Spoken Sanskrit.

I tend to think that being able to also speak Sanskrit is an advantage, but more because it helps one thinking in Sanskrit (and, hence, along the lines of the texts one reads) than because of its own sake. In other words, I tend to think that one can be a great Sanskrit scholar even without being able to speak it. What do you think?


Very often my Samskŗta Bhāratī friends (whose aim of revolutionising the use of Sanskrit as a spoken language in present times is most appreciable) complain that it’s the extensive use (by scholars of Sanskrit alone?) of the passive voice (karma and bhāva vācyas) that prove to be a formidable obstacle to the realisation of their aim of convincing the mass about the truth of the contention that Sanskrit is an extremely easy-to-learn, facile and docile language. Without commenting a word on this issue, I leave it to you all to put forward your valued opinion. Elisa’s idea of starting a Sanskrit forum (Orientalia?) will indeed be a welcome enterprise. I commit to extend my full support to it, if started.

Sudipta Munsi

अश्वमित्रः said...

Wonderful discussion that I had not found in the archive. It says it all, and well. I had not previously seen Stella Sandahl's unbelievably disgusting and stupid pronouncement, and am rather surprised to find that I am still capable of being surprised by such things, coming from her.

elisa freschi said...

@Sudipta, I tried again and again to have a forum where one could write and discuss in Sanskrit, but the attempts always failed (part of the story is told here:
and here:
). Thus, I am sort of hopeless now. What could be done is to have some Sanskrit posts in a blog, with Sanskrit commments and so on. I am planning to have my blog re-organised and it could have a Sanskrit section… What do you think?

elisa freschi said...

I do not know Stella Sandahl personally, but *I* am surprised by your rash comment… The first part of her argument (re. sebaphalam) did make sense, to me at least. Don't you think?


Elisa, your idea of re-organising your blog with a Sanskrit section makes sense to me. Yes, instead of an exclusive Sanskrit website or blog with hardly any participation or unexpectedly sub-standard contributions, it is better to have a small Sanskrit section with few but valued and seminal contributions to the study and cultivation of Sanskrit in general and Indian philosophy in particular. All best wishes, Sudipta.

Anonymous said...

No, as some respondents pointed out, it makes no sense to decry adoptions of non-Sanskrit words into Sanskrit, and to treat the language like an archaeological artefact preserved behind glass lest we should have a living interaction with it. And I don't believe my comment was rash. At this point in history, outrageous statements like Sandahl's do tremendous damage to sanskritists and indologists, and to relations between Hindus and non-Hindus, by reinforcing the worst stereotypes of a bygone era, and providing a ready caricature of an attitude that reasonable sanskritists want to repudiate but which naturally continues to haunt Hindus' minds (and indeed the discussion was quoted precisely to demonstrate that this attitude is still alive and well). Did you find Adheesh Sathaye's response "rash"? As another respondent suggested, what is really surprising is that there were not more responses like Sathaye's. Where did this discussion come from? Indology Liverpool? (अ)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful idea, a Sanskrit section of the blog. I'm glad that someone is thinking like this, and I admire you for having the spirit to respond in Sanskrit to Sudipta's Sanskrit comments, not worrying about writing with a perfection that western sanskritists, forced as we are to acquire and use the language in such extremely limiting conditions, cannot be expected to attain. (अ)

elisa freschi said...

Dear Aśvamitra,
I think that Adheesh's answer was fair, but that Sandahl's initial point was also worth consideration. I enjoyed learning about egg-plants and so on in Sanskrit, but I would have enjoyed much more speaking about philosophical texts through their "natural" medium, i.e., Sanskrit.
And, yes: the whole discussion started on Indology (Liverpool).

elisa freschi said...

@Re. my poor command of Sanskrit: the less I speak or use actively Sanskrit, the poorer it will become (this is happening already, since I hardly ever use Sanskrit in an active way). Thus, I cannot but welcome every chance to use it.

elisa freschi said...


thanks for your opinion about it. I hope my limited command of html will not make things too difficult!


asyaarambhah shubhaaya bhavatviti praarthaye.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting, what you say about eggplants in Sanskrit. What finally made Sandahl realize that I had no future as a scholar was an independent study project I did on a text that she was obsessed with at the time, named Manasolla, which was certainly more oriented towards the level of eggplants than philosophy ("bugs and rocks Sanskrit", as I called it at the time). Almost all of us videshi sanskritists lack fluency, even those of us who have had the privilege to learn to speak or write the language to some extent, since we cannot make that practice a part of our regular work. Even I, who live in India, just don't have time to get involved in Samskrta Bharati, and my wife only speaks Marathi and Hindi.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I looked up and read the several threads on spoken Sanskrit that happened on Indology Liverpool in August 2008. As was to be expected, the website which later quoted Sandahl's post had selected only the worst of that conversation, namely Sandahl and a bit besides. Most of the rest (including even Sandahl's own postscript) was much more reasonable, or even dead right, from my point of view. The characteristic, often hilarious definitive statement is by Robert Zydenbos:

elisa freschi said...

Yes, the discussion was not at all as terrible as it looks like in its decontextualised excerpts. And as for eggplants, I am not into realia (in any language), thus I can't remember neither the English, nor the Sanskrit (or German, and so on) name of more than two kinds of flowers/rocks/trees, etc. But this does not mean that the topic is uninteresting in itself. The point with eggplants and apples, is that they have been later imported to India and, thus, that there is no classical Sanskrit word for them.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, REALIA. That was the word she was always using, forgotten till now. I actually love bug-and-eggplant language, but am hampered by a very poor memory, which means that I will never be able to read vocabulary-rich works like the Kadambari, since if you have to look up nineteen out of twenty words in a single samasa you will never get anywhere.

nOe said...

I see your point. And this might be part of the reason why I do not enjoy kāvya.

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