A post by Victor Mair at the Log discusses the phenomenon of Sanskrit as a spoken language. I was surprised that this “astonished” Mair, but I have an old friend who spent time in India learning the language that way, so I have long been aware that it has as widespread a spoken tradition as, say, Latin. At any rate, there are extraordinarily interesting contributions by David Shulman, Whitney Cox, Frederick Smith, Shenghai Li, and Devin Patel; I found Smith’s particularly enlightening:
H. V. Nagaraja Rao is one of the most versatile and literate Sanskrit pandits of the last half century. Practically no Sanskrit pandits speak as well as he does. Most of them do not resort to subtle or complex verb forms, but speak almost entirely in passive forms, with special emphasis on the past passive participle, for the simple reason that it’s an easy form in a complex language. It requires the agent to be in the instrumental, and the object to be the grammatical subject, thus in the nominative case. This is much easier than spinning out all sorts of complicated finite verbs. Much of the Sanskrit that I’ve heard spoken over the last 40+ years is either simplified in this and other ways, or just wrong. Often vocabulary is cut and pasted from Hindi or even Dravidian languages, modified with Sanskrit case endings. It’s definitely the case that Sanskrit is spoken in many situations among those so trained, including (a) classes at Sanskrit schools and universities; (b) formal debates among Sanskritists – usually pandits rather than scholars (although they do sometimes overlap), and generally in semi-religious contexts, such as debates between advocates of logic (nyāya, vaiśeṣika), Vedic exegesis (mīmāṃsā), and non-duality (Vedānta), or between adherents of various schools of Vedānta; or (c) within the context of Vedic sacrificial performances in which the priesthood consisting of individuals who have mastered different Vedic texts (Sāmaveda, Ṛgveda, Yajurveda) come from different parts of India. I have often been in the latter situation, where, for example, the Sāmaveda pandits come from Karnataka, the Ṛgvedins from Maharashtra, and the Yajurvedins from Andhra Pradesh or Tamilnadu. The only language they had in common was Sanskrit. I very much enjoyed those situations because what they discussed was crucial to what would happen in five minutes or the next day – it was not fixed or formal, nor was the quality of their Sanskrit evaluated by the others for its elegance – it was a real language of communication.
Sanskrit as a spoken language is still taught in Sanskrit colleges, such as the Maharaja’s Sanskrit College in Mysore, and a few places elsewhere. There has also been a rather soft movement to develop spoken Sanskrit by an organization in Bangalore called Samskrita Bharati, which has dedicated itself to the perpetuation of spoken Sanskrit across India and even among NRI’s (non-resident Indians) in the US, UK, and elsewhere. This is the highly simplified form of Sanskrit, and requires very little knowledge of grammar, and is conveniently taught to Indians because of a core vocabulary that’s familiar to them, and which they can then set into a few sentence paradigms (almost always in the passive). This is a rather stumbling movement, although this organization claims that they have taught everyone in one town (Mettur, in Shimoga district of Karnataka) to speak Sanskrit on a regular basis. I have visited this town and found that it’s a false claim. At best, some of the ordinary people can ask for a kilo of tomatoes or onions in Sanskrit. That’s about it.
I recommend the whole thing, and of course the comments are well worth reading as well.
Addendum. “India’s Sanskrit speakers seek to revive ‘dead’ language” (thanks, Kobi!).