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Chapter 5 – Language


The Shanscrit language has been pronounced by one whose extensive acquaintance with those of other ancient and modern nations entitles his opinion to respect, to beof a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either512.”

The language so highly commended seems always to have received the attention it deserved. Panini, the earliest extant writer on its grammar, is so ancient as to be mixed up with the fabulous ages. His works and those of his successors have established a system of grammar the most complete that ever was employed in arranging the elements of human speech.

I should not, if I were able, enter on its details in this place; but some explanation of them is accessible to the English reader in an essay of Mr. Colebrooke513.

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Besides innumerable grammars and dictionaries, there are, in Shanscrit, treatises on rhetoric and composition, proportioned in number to the extent of Hindu literature in every branch514. Shanscrit is still carefully cultivated; and, though it has long been a dead language, the learned are able even now to converse in it, probably with as much ease as those of Europe found in Latin before the general diffusion of the knowledge of modern tongues. It would be curious to ascertain when it ceased to be the language of the people, and how far it ever was so in its highly polished form.

Shanscrit has of late become an object of more interest to us, from the discovery of its close connection (amounting in some cases to identity) with Greek and Latin. This fact has long been known to Shanscrit scholars, who pointed it out in reference to single words; but it has now been demonstrated by means of a comparison of the inflexions, conducted by German writers, and particularly by Mr. Bopp515.

It is observed by Mr. Colebrooke, that the language, metre, and style of a particular hymn in

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one of the Vedas, furnishes internal evidence “that the compilation of those poems in the present arrangement took place after the Shanscrit tongue had advanced from the rustic and irregular dialect in which the multitude of hymns and prayers of the Veda was composed, to the polished and sonorous language in which the mythological poems, sacred and profane, have been written.”

From the Vedas to Menu, and from Menu to the Puranas, Sir W. Jones conceives the change to be exactly in the same proportion as from the fragments of Numa to those of the twelve tables, and from those to the works of Cicero.

The Indian names introduced by the historians of Alexander are often resolvable into Shanscrit in its present form. No allusion is made by those authors to a sacred language, distinct from that of the people; but, in the earliest Hindu dramas, women and uneducated persons are introduced, speaking a less polished dialect, while Shanscrit is reserved for the higher characters.

Other languages of India

Some conjectures regarding the history of Shanscrit may be suggested by the degree in which it is combined with the modern languages of India.

The five northern languages, those of the Panjab, Canouj, Mithila (or North Behar), Bengal, and Guzerat, are, as we may infer from Mr. Colebrooke, branches of the Shanscrit, altered by the mixture of local and foreign words and new inflections, much as Italian is from Latin516; but of the

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five languages of the Deckan, three, at least, (Tamul, Telugu, and Carnata,) have an origin totally distinct from the Shanscrit, and receive words from that tongue in the same manner that Latin has been engrafted on English, or Arabic on Hindi. Of these three, Tamul is so much the most pure, that it is sometimes thought to be the source of the other two. Telugu, though it preserves its own structure, is much mixed with Shanscrit words.

Of the remaining two, the language of Orissa, though probably of the Tamul family, is so much indebted to Shanscrit as to lead Mr. Wilson to say that “if the Shanscrit vocables were excluded, it could not pretend to be a language.” It is, indeed, often counted (instead of Guzerati) among the five languages of the north.

Maharashtra, or Maratta, is considered by Mr. Wilson to belong to the northern family, though always counted among those of the south. The people must therefore be a branch of those beyond the Vindya mountains, but no guess can be made at the period of their immigration517.


512. Sir W. Jones, Asiatic Researches, vol. i. p. 422.

513. Asiatic Researches, vol. vii. p. 199. Among many marks of high polish, is one which must have particularly promoted the melody of its versification. This consists in what Mr. Colebrooke calls its euphonical orthography, by which letters are changed, not only so as to avoid harsh combinations in particular words, but so as to preserve a similar harmony throughout the whole length of each of their almost interminable compounds, and even to contribute to the music of whole periods, which are generally subjected to those modifications, for the sake of euphony, which in other languages are confined to single words.

514. Colebrooke, Asiatic Researches, vol. vii. p. 205, &c.

515. See a very succinct account of his comparison in the Edinburgh Review, vol. xxxiii. p. 431.; and a more copious one in the Annals of Oriental Literature.

516. Asiatic Researches, vol. vii. p. 219. See also Wilson, Preface to the Mackenzie Collection, p. li.

517. The remarks on the southern languages are taken, with a very few exceptions, from Mr. Wilson’s preface to the Mackenzie Papers, and from the writings of Mr. Ellis and Mr. Babington quoted in that dissertation.

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