The Sanskrit Language -- By: W. D. Whitney

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 006:23 (Aug 1849)
Article: The Sanskrit Language
Author: W. D. Whitney

The Sanskrit Language

W. D. Whitney

On the Grammatical Structure of the Sanskrit

The language in which are written the classic works of the ancient Hindoos bears the name Sanskrita literally composite, concrete (from sam together, and kri to make), but in its common acceptation signifying perfect, as distinguished from the popular dialects, which have grown out of it. In some districts of India it has entirely passed out of knowledge, so that in the Deccan, for instance, it is enough to say of any illegible inscription, “it is Sanskrit,” to put a stop to all attempts at deciphering it. It may be regarded as extinct throughout the whole country ever since the times of the Mohammedans, although still learned by the Brahmins, in order to the understanding of the sacred books, and even occasionally made use of in learned composition. And had nothing come down to us from Ancient India saving the grammar of their admirable language, and of this only the verb,

with its regularity of structure, its copiousness in respect to moods and tenses, the multitude of meanings it can convey with the help of a few prefixes, and its capability of being stripped of all adjuncts down to the naked root, we should still have been in a condition to judge with considerable accuracy of the spirit of the old Hindoo people. But apart from its value as an index of the intellectual character of those who spoke it, and as affording means for tracing historically the development of that character, the circumstance which gives to the study of the Sanskrit in our eyes its crowning importance is this: it is, to a remarkable degree, the most perfect and complete of a rich family of languages, embracing the Greek, Latin, Gothic, Lithuanic, and Persian. Analytical investigations by Bopp, Humboldt, and others, have led to the following conclusions: the Sanskrit must have already attained its philosophic precision and elegance when the Grecian, German, and Italian colonies were sent forth, for it exhibits regular forms analogous to most of the irregular and obsolete cases and inflections of the other languages named; but, on the other hand, as the latter have retained much that has become obsolete in the Sanskrit, we should not be justified in considering this the mother of the family. In order that the proof of these propositions may be placed within the reach of those who are not versed in philological analysis, I will endeavor to present a brief sketch of the structure of the Sanskrit, so far as it is possible to do so without offering a great array of examples. But first of all, to lay firm ground for further progress, we must consider the written character, and the classification of the sounds. Of hieroglyphi...

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