Vedic Sanskrit is an Old Indo-Aryan language. It is an archaic form of Sanskrit, an early descendant of Proto-Indo-Iranian. It is closely related to Avestan, the oldest preserved Iranian language. Vedic Sanskrit is the oldest attested language of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family.
Vedic Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, texts compiled over the period of early-to-mid 2nd to mid 1st millennium BC. Vedic Sanskrit has been orally preserved as a part of the Śrauta tradition of Vedic chanting, predating the advent of alphabetic writing in India by several centuries. For lack of both epigraphic evidence and an unbroken manuscript tradition, Vedic Sanskrit can be considered a reconstructed language. Especially the oldest stage of the language, Rigvedic Sanskrit, the language of the hymns of the Rigveda, is preserved only in a redacted form several centuries younger than the texts’ composition. Recovering its original form is a matter of linguistic reconstruction.
From about the 6th century BC, in the classical period of Iron Age Ancient India, Vedic Sanskrit gave way to Classical Sanskrit as defined by the grammar of Pāṇini.
In spite of being comparatively close to the reconstructed form of Proto-Indo-Iranian, Vedic Sanskrit is already clearly marked as a language of the Indic group. Among the phonological changes from Proto-Indo-Iranian is the loss of the /z/ and /ž/ phonemes, and the introduction of a series of retroflex stops. For example, Proto-Indo-Iranian *nižda- “nest” gives Vedic nīḍa- “resting-place, seat, abode”, involving both the loss of *ž (accompanied with a lengthening of the *i to ī) and the substitution of the retroflex ḍ for*d . On the side of vocabulary, Rigvedic Sanskrit shows a considerable number of loanwords taken from an indigenous Indian source. This substratum influence on early Vedic Sanskrit also extends to phonetic, morphological and syntactical features, and is variously traced to the Dravidian or Munda language families.
Rigveda manuscript in Devanāgarī
The separation of Indo-Aryans proper from the undifferentiated Proto-Indo-Iranian ancestor group is commonly dated, on linguistic grounds, to roughly 1800 BC. The composition of the oldest hymns of the Rigveda is dated to several centuries after this division, or to roughly 1500 BC. Both Asko Parpola (1988) and J.P. Mallory (1998) place the locus of the division of Indo-Aryan from Iranian in the Bronze Age BMAC culture. Parpola (1999) elaborates the model and has “Proto-Rigvedic” Indo-Aryans intrude the BMAC around 1700 BC. He assumes early Indo-Aryan presence in the Late Harappan horizon from about 1900 BC, and “Proto-Rigvedic” (Proto-Dardic) intrusion to the Punjab as corresponding to the Swat culture from about 1700 BC. According to this model, Rigvedic Sanskrit within the larger Indo-Aryan group is the direct ancestor of the Dardic languages. The hymns of the Rigveda are thus composed in a liturgical language which was based on the natural language spoken in Gandhara during the early phase of the Swat culture, at the end of the Indian Bronze Age. This liturgical language over the following centuries came to be separated from spoken vernaculars and came to be known as the “artificial” or “elaborated” (saṃskṛta) language, contrasted to the “natural” or “unrefined” prākṛta vernaculars by the end of the Vedic period.
Five chronologically distinct strata can be identified within the Vedic language (Witzel 1989).
Around 500 BC, cultural, political and linguistic factors all contribute to the end of the Vedic period. The codification of Vedic ritual reached its peak, and counter movements such as the Vedanta and early Buddhism emerged, using the vernacular Pali, a Prakrit dialect, rather than Sanskrit for their texts. Darius I of Persia invaded the Indus valley and the political center of the Indo-Aryan kingdoms shifted eastward, to the Gangetic plain. Around this time (4th century BC), Panini fixes the grammar of Classical Sanskrit.
Sound changes between Proto-Indo-Iranian and Vedic Sanskrit include loss of the voiced sibilant z.
Vedic Sanskrit had a bilabial fricative [ɸ], called upadhmānīya, and a velar fricative [x], called jihvamuliya. These are both allophones of visarga: upadhmaniya occurs before p and ph, jihvamuliya before k and kh. Vedic also had a retroflex l, an intervocalic allophone of ḍ, represented in Devanagari with the separate symbol ळ and transliterated as ḷ or ḷh. In order to disambiguate vocalic l from retroflex l, ISO 15919 transliterates vocalic l with a ring below the letter, l̥. (Vocalic r is then also represented with a ring, r̥, for consistency and to disambiguate it additionally from the retroflex ṛ and ṛh of some modern Indian languages.)
Vedic Sanskrit had a pitch accent. Since a small number of words in the late pronunciation of Vedic carry the so-called “independent svarita” on a short vowel, one can argue that late Vedic was marginally a tonal language. Note however that in the metrically restored versions of the Rig Veda almost all of the syllables carrying an independent svarita must revert to a sequence of two syllables, the first of which carries an udātta and the second a (so called) dependent svarita. Early Vedic was thus definitely not a tonal language but a pitch accent language. See Vedic accent.
Pāṇini gives accent rules for the spoken language of his (post-Vedic) time, though there is no extant post-Vedic text with accents.
The pluti vowels (trimoraic vowels) were on the verge of becoming phonological during middle Vedic, but disappeared again.
Principal differences from Classical Sanskrit
Vedic Sanskrit differs from Classical Sanskrit to an extent comparable to the difference between Homeric Greek and Classical Greek. Tiwari ( 2005) lists the following principal differences between the two:
Vedic had a subjunctive absent in Panini’s grammar and generally believed to have disappeared by then at least in common sentence constructions. All tenses could be conjugated in the subjunctive and optative moods, in contrast to Classical Sanskrit, with no subjunctive and only a present optative. (However, the old first-person subjunctive forms were used to complete the Classical Sanskrit imperative.) The three synthetic past tenses (imperfect, perfect and aorist) were still clearly distinguished semantically in (at least the earliest) Vedic, although not at all with the semantics that would be implied by their name. Rather, the imperfect was a narrative tense, similar to the Greek aorist; the perfect was often indistinguishable from the present tense, although possibly with a stative meaning; and the aorist had a meaning similar to the Greek perfect. A fifth mood, the injunctive, also existed.
Long-i stems differentiate the Devi inflection and the Vrkis inflection, a difference lost in Classical Sanskrit.
Published - August 2013
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