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Sanskrit’s Relation with the European Languages and India

Even though Sanskrit has a common ancestry with many other European and Iranian languages, it has borrowed a lot from many pre-existing Indian languages. With the appointment of William Jones as the Judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in 1793 considerable changes surfaced in Bengal. He took keen interest in the study of ancient Indian language and culture and established as the authority on this new field of study. His obsession with the linguistic past of the subcontinent led him to propose that there is close relationship between Sanskrit and other European languages. His claims were based on the cases of similarities between many Sanskrit, Greek and Latin words. For instance, the Sanskrit word in ‘three’ i.e, ‘thrayas’ is similar to the Greek ‘ treis’. Likewise, ‘sarpa’ the Sanskrit word for ‘snake’ shares phonetic link with ‘serpens’ in Latin. Through further studies it became clear that besides Greek and Latin, Sanskrit words could be found in many other European languages. For instance, ‘mata’ or mother in Sanskrit is ‘mutter’ in German. ‘Dan’ or ‘to give’ in Sanskrit is ‘donor’ in Spanish. Similarly, ‘pita’ or father in Sanskrit has phonetic relations with ‘pater’ in Greek and Latin, ‘padre’ in Spanish and ‘pere’ in French.

Jones’ hypothesis was further studied and carried on by many linguists in the coming decades. Thomas Young, an English scholar coined the term ‘Indo- European’ to name this family of related languages. But the questions regarding the common ancestral homelands of these Indo-European languages and their subsequent migrations across the world intrigued scholars. These issues question the very basis of the theories of racial supremacy. Yet, newer scholarships signify that even though Sanskrit has ancestral links to many European languages, it has borrowed much from the pre-existing Indian languages too.

The migration

It was in the mid-19th century, new assumptions related to the Indo-European languages began to arise. The linguists at that time assumed that these languages are the branches of a common ancestral language. ‘Proto-Indo-European’ (PIE) was the name of that parent language. This language was derived based on theories only, no one know who spoke this or even the structure of the language.

During the mid-20th century, certain theories were evolved in the lights of the advancements in the linguistics and archeology. The Kurgan theory of 1950 claim that PIE was spoken by the people of the fourth millennium BCE, they were supposed to be lived in the Pontic steppe, north of the Black sea. The Kurgan theory was formulated by Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian-American archaeologist.

The speakers of PIE were having an advantage over the other settled societies of Europe and Asia, with the invention of wheeled carts and domestication of animals like horses they were able to liberate from places to places. These assumptions were cited in ‘The horse, the wheel, the language’, a book by anthropologist David Anthony. “As the steppes dried and expanded, people tried to keep their animal herds fed by moving them frequently. They discovered that with a wagon you could keep moving indefinitely,” he wrote.

This backs up the Kurgan theory, that claimed that the PIE language expanded through their speakers to different parts in the third millennium BCE. Thus, their branches could be spotted in various parts of the world including India, Iran and Europe.

Even though other theories have emerged that have suggested the homeland of the proto-Indo-European speakers in Armenian highlands and in Asia Minor, scholars have largely refuted these claims and the Pontic steppe continues to be the most widely accepted region from where the source of Sanskrit and European languages emerged.

Adolf Hitler was greatly influenced by Indo-European relocation theory and he considered it as a foundation and brought out Aryan supremacy theory. In India, Hindutva ideologues have long held the view that the Indo-European language speakers or the Aryans spread out from the subcontinent elsewhere.

The various migrations to India

Hindutva ideologies were having strong faith in its roots and didn’t accept the migration theories which says Sanskrit was a product of migration. But the researches from 2010 was mostly based on genetics. This one caused headaches for many, why because the study clearly says that the South Asian language and culture is a artefact of different kinds of external and internal influences. The study has also shown that the Indo-European migration was preceded by several other rounds of migration.

In a book titled ‘Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From’, the writer Tony Joseph who is also a journalist, claims that during the second millennium BCE, there was a large scale of migration of Indo-European language people to the South Asia. An American geneticist David Reich in 2018 published his book ‘Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past’, in which the author repeats how several rounds of migration resulted in the formation of modern man.

“The formation of South Asian populations parallels that of Europeans. In both cases, a mass migration of farmers from the Near East nine thousand years ago mixed with previously established hunter-gatherers, and a second migration from the European steppe after five thousand years ago brought a different kind of ancestry and probably Indo-European languages as well,” he writes.

“Sanskrit arrived in the subcontinent around 1800 BCE at a time when there were already pre-existing languages here. These pre-existing languages were fairly developed, capable of producing philosophy and poetry,” says Devy.

Devy elucidates the development of ancient Sanskrit in India with collaboration to other pre-existing languages. The linguist says that Sanskrit was molded with the contribution of other languages too. The sound ‘ri’ was added to Sanskrit from the ancestor language of Assamese, which already existed in India.  

G N Devy says that Sanskrit did use compound words, by borrowing from pre-existing languages in India. A lot of new words could be seen in the latest version of Sanskrit, which was not there in the pre-Sanskrit version of the language.

The new words were formed with the influence of compound words and with that influence there happened a phonetic change to the pre-Sanskrit. Devy is unable to say that whether Sanskrit acquired it from an earlier version of Tamil or Pali, but it is evident that certain changes had happened to it after coming to the sub-continent. He also said that the new version of the Sanskrit language is a gift that pre-existing languages in India gave to Sanskrit.

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