Category Archives: Sanskrit

The lesser-known W. Sidney Allen

Any student of classical languages with a linguistics bent will delight at discovering W. Sidney Allen’s books Vox Latina and Vox Graeca that reconstruct the pronunciation of Classical Latin and Greek, respectively. Cambridge University Press has published them in relatively cheap paperbacks. However, there are two more works by this scholar that that don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve, even though they are logical next steps.

The first is Accent and Rhythm: Prosodic Features of Latin and Greek (Cambridge University Press, 1973). Here W. Sidney Allen takes the linguistic reconstruction of Greek and Latin one step further from Vox Latina and Vox Graeca to encompass suprasegmental aspects of these languages. This book does demand a greater understanding of theory (whereas the earlier books expected little more than some knowledge of IPA), and it takes some work to apply Allen’s insights to one’s own enunciation.

The second book treats what is historicaly the third important classical language for Indo-European studies, Sanskrit. Allen’s Phonetics in Ancient India (Oxford University Press, 1953) was published years before Vox Latina and Vox Graeca, and is organized somewhat differently in that it is mainly a retelling of the already very detailed ancient Indian sources for Sanskrit pronunciation. However, Allen does engage in some detective work to clarify matters obscure in the ancient grammarians, such as the pronunciation of the visarga.

Classical philology is dead in India

Sheldon Pollock, one of the most prominent scholars of Sanskrit literature today, has contributed a jeremiad entitled ‘Crisis in the Classics’ to the journal Social Research Vol. 78 No. 1 (Spring 2011) on the decline of classical philology in India. The article is available as a PDF and its 28 pages have so much good material that I can hardly decide what to quote here, but here’s the heart of Pollock’s observations:

Indeed, there have been no successors to any of the pre-independence generation of Sanskrit scholars, the sort who mastered their discipline and thought conceptually about it and wrote for an international audience: S. N. Dasgupta, S. K. De, Mysore Hiriyanna, P. V. Kane, S. Radhakrishnan, Venkata Raghavan, C. Kunhan Raja, V. S. Sukthankar, are the first in a long and distinguished list from across India (I leave aside the loss of the great tradition of pandit learning, which is now virtually extinct). There have been no major Sanskrit projects in India since the completion of the critical edition of the Ramayana at Baroda more than 30 years ago. All the great classical series (such as Anandasrama, Trivandrum, Gaekwad, Madras) have been more or less discontinued, and as a result the manuscripts in those collections are no longer being published. Indeed, there have been few new Indian editions of complex Sanskrit texts at all from among the scores of important manuscripts that lie unpublished in archives. In the area of hermeneutics (Mimamsa), for example, I know of no one in India today capable of editing works like those edited just a generation ago by P. N. Pattabhirama Sastry or S. Subrahmanya Sastry. (The same holds for many other areas of classical studies; with the death of A. N. Upadhye in 1975 and H. C. Bhayani in 2000, the editing of Prakrit and Apabhramsha works seems to have died too.) I have not encountered a single PhD dissertation on Sanskrit in India—and I have seen many—worthy of publication by a Western university press.

The situation is no different in the other classical languages, as I learned in the late 1990s when I organized a project on the histories of South Asian literary cultures (Pollock 2003). Our core group of colleagues was looking for others to join us who possessed a deep historical understanding of a regional language, conceptual skills, and the capacity to communicate their knowledge effectively. We were able to locate only four qualified scholars in India, and identified no one for a host of languages, including Assamese, Marathi, Newari, Oriya, and Panjabi.

I suspected as much when I visited university bookshops in India: almost no publications from the last 30 years, and heaps of decaying old editions that evidently no one wanted to buy. Online language discussions are so often overrun by Hindu fundamentalist claims that Sanskrit is a divine language and India’s literature the oldest and wisest in the world, but for all the prominence of such views on the internet, this heritage is neglected in India.

More evidence that Edgerton’s Law is bogus

It’s not often I learn anything on Wikipedia, reference to current scholarship being so rare, but an addition today to the article on Siever’s Law suggests an interesting recent development:

A second difficulty has emerged much more recently (Sihler 2006): the actual passages from the Rigveda cited in Edgerton’s two large articles in 1934 and 1943 cited as examples of the effects of his theory in action seriously misrepresent the facts in all but a handful of cases. No more than three Rigvedic passages cited in the 1934 article, and none at all in 1943, actually support the claims of Edgerton’s Law, well within the operation of pure chance. And it has been shown also that the apparent success of Lindeman’s more modest claims are not without troubling problems too, such as the limitation of the reliable examples to vocalic semivowels (the glides *y and *w) even though such alternations in the other four semivowels should have left much more persistent traces; and that the syllabified alternants (e.g. *diyēws) are very much rarer than they should be: they account for only fifteen to twenty percent of the total, when they should account for at least eighty percent. Further, only the diyēws alternants have a “distribution”: the dyēws shape shows no sensitivity to phonetic environment at all.

The work by Andrew Sihler cited here is Edgerton’s Law: The Phantom Evidence (Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006) ISBN 3-8253-5167-X. What a delightfully polemic title. I’ll have to add this to my wishlist.

Sanskrit ends at Cambridge, Mahabharata text online

LingNews.net, a conglomeration of language-related links founded by Bridget Samuels, recently linked to a Times of India article reporting the end of Sanskrit studies at Cambridge. Sad news, although I never thought before that there even was significant scholarship in Sanskrit there, since Oxford and SOAS get all the attention.

The article mentioned an online critical text of the Mahabharata, so I went ahead and searched for it. This electronic text unfortunately isn’t freely redistributable, although anyone can register to view it and save the text files to disk. Anyone interested in the Sanskrit text of the Mahabharata probably has access to a university library and can read the work more comfortably from a fine print version. What this electronic text may be useful for, I suspect, is allowing people to copy and paste needed lines into another document if they don’t want to learn the complexities of UTF-8 Devanāgarī input.

Updates at EIEOL

The Early Indo-European Languages Online series of short introductions put up by the A. Richard Diebold Center for Indo-European Language and Culture, Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, has a couple of new offerings.

Introduction to the Ancient Sanskrit Texts cannot really compete with the traditional primers, but it does provide useful supporting material for the language of the Vedas. Even for those who don’t want to intend to reach proficiency in Sanskrit at this time, authors Karen Thomson and Jonathan Slocum give an engaging critique of the various interpretations and translations (including the popular Penguin edition) of the Rigveda. Their polemic tone is quite refreshing compared to the dry style of the traditional handbooks.

The innumerable texts of the Veda continue to be the subject of extensive study. However, from the point of view of understanding the Rigveda itself, this vast body of derivative material has always been, and continues to be, crucially misleading … Because the poems were put to ritual use by the ancient priests, much of their vocabulary was assumed by the authors of the later texts to refer in some way to ritual activity. The word paśú ‘beast, cattle’ came to designate a sacrificial victim in texts of the Brāhmaṇas, for example, and juhū́ ‘tongue’ was thought to mean ‘butter ladle’. Abstract words of sophisticated meaning particularly suffered. The compound puro-ḷā́ś ‘fore-worship’ (from purás ‘in front’ and √dāś ‘worship’) acquired the specific sense ‘sacrificial rice cake’, despite the fact that the word vrīhí ‘rice’, found in later texts, does not occur in the poems of the Rigveda. The complex noun krátu ‘power, intellectual ability’ was misunderstood to mean ‘sacrifice’ by the authors of the commentaries … With major pieces of the jigsaw firmly in the wrong place, the rest, inevitably, refuses to fit.

Even it doesn’t really deal with an “early IE language”, in the sense of the first language attested in a branch, there’s also Introduction to the Old French Texts. It’s a pity that while it mentions the Strasbourg Oaths, it doesn’t give the text and an analysis of it, though the other staple of early Old French, St Eulalie, is present.