The Third Classical Language

By Milana Carse

When studying “The Classics,” Ancient Greek and Latin often come to mind. However, Sanskrit should also be included in this group. Sanskrit began 4,000 years ago (some scholars say it was widely spoken as long as 6,000 years ago) as an oral language, with its written script, Devanagari, developed over 2,000 years later. Like Ancient Greek and Latin, Sanskrit is not used by modern speakers, but it carries such cultural significance that it was included in the list of official languages in the modern constitution of India. William Jones, an English philologist,
remarked that “Sanskrit is more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more refined than either.

Scholars such as 19th-Century German linguist Franz Bopp recognized that Sanskrit and Ancient Greek shared many similarities. Words such as mother (‘matr’ in Sanskrit, ‘matr’ in Greek, and
‘mater’ in Latin) or even boat (‘nav’ in Sanskrit, ‘nau’ in Greek, and ‘nav’ in Latin) share similar roots, leading to similar-sounding words for similar ideas and objects across multiple languages in Europe and India. Bopp and other scholars compared the similarities between European languages and Sanskrit to understand if major modern and ancient languages across Europe,
Central Asia, and South Asia might stem from a common source. This work led to the theory that all Indo-European languages had originated from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), a Central Asian language which was spoken before 3000 BC before it split into several branches, including the major ancient languages of Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Latin.

From the beginning, Sanskrit was highly-structured, with predictable syntax, easily-identified parts of speech, and strict rules of pronunciation that have not varied much since its foundation
millennia ago. Similar to Latin, Sanskrit is widely used by several major religious groups, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, in rituals, hymns and chants. A modern Sanskrit reader can still accurately understand these writings as they were originally intended, meaning that while the language itself may not be in wide use, its rich history is still accessible. In sharing so
much of its origins and history with Ancient Greek and Latin, I believe Sanskrit should indeed be considered an honorary member of the Classics curriculum.