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Source: United Nations Information Centre, India


Native Name

Total Speakers
194,433 (1961)

Usage By Country
Official Status: India

It belongs to the Indo-European family, Indic group and is the sacred language of about 700 million Hindus. Sanskrit, "the Latin of India", is spoken by a number of priests and is still used for literary purposes. It may have ceased to be a spoken language as early as 400 BC, but remained for many centuries the language of culture and administration in the Indian subcontinent, in a way similar to Latin in medieval Europe. Sanskrit functioned for over two thousand years as the basic vehicle of classical Indian literature. It is the key to a first-hand understanding of the vast field of classical Hindu religion and philosophy, being the language of the Vedas and Upanishads, the great epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavadgita), and the texts of Vedanta and Yoga. Brought to India from the north-west about the middle of the second millennium B.C., Sanskrit (which means "refined," "perfected," or "elaborated") eventually gave rise to the Prakrit ("natural" or "common") languages. These in turn gave rise to the modern Indian languages such as Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, and Gujarati, as well as Nepali, and Sinhala. The oldest form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, after the Vedas, the ancient hymns of the sacred Hindu scriptures. The later stage is known as classical Sanskrit, whose writings deal chiefly with secular subjects. The Indo-European origin of Sanskrit was established only in the 18th century , when the striking similarity of Sanskrit to Latin and Greek was first noted in detail. Thus were set in motion the investigations that led to the discovery of the interrelationship of all the Indo-European languages, which in turn laid the foundation of the science of modern comparative and historical linguistics. Sanskrit is written in an alphabet known as Devanagari. To trace its origin is to trace the development of writing in India. The source of most of the Indian alphabets is an ancient script known as "Hrahmi" which, according to most scholars, is of Semitic origin, probably Aramaic. One of its many offshoots was the "Gupta" script, used throughout the powerful Gupta empire in the 4th-6th centuries A.D. The Devanagari characters developed from a variety of Gupta, the earliest inscriptions appearing in the 7th century. The alphabet, which is written from left to right, consists of forty-eight signs, of which thirty-four are consonants and fourteen are vowels or diphthongs. It is considered one of the most perfect systems of writing ever devised.

Received 11/12/1998
Posted 11/12/1998
Checked 11/12/1998