Linguistics in Premodern India
- Émilie AussantÉmilie AussantDepartment of History of Linguistic Theories, University of Paris Diderot
Indian linguistic thought begins around the 8th–6th centuries bce with the composition of Padapāṭhas (word-for-word recitation of Vedic texts where phonological rules generally are not applied). It took various forms over these 26 centuries and involved different languages (Ancient, Middle, and Modern Indo-Aryan as well as Dravidian languages).
The greater part of documented thought is related to Sanskrit (Ancient Indo-Aryan). Very early, the oral transmission of sacred texts—the Vedas, composed in Vedic Sanskrit—made it necessary to develop techniques based on a subtle analysis of language. The Vedas also—but presumably later—gave birth to bodies of knowledge dealing with language, which are traditionally called Vedāṅgas: phonetics (śikṣā), metrics (chandas), grammar (vyākaraṇa), and semantic explanation (nirvacana, nirukta). Later on, Vedic exegesis (mīmāṃsā), new dialectics (navya-nyāya), lexicography, and poetics (alaṃkāra) also contributed to linguistic thought.
Though languages other than Sanskrit were described in premodern India, the grammatical description of Sanskrit—given in Sanskrit—dominated and influenced them more or less strongly. Sanskrit grammar (vyākaraṇa) has a long history marked by several major steps (Padapāṭha versions of Vedic texts, Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini, Mahābhāṣya of Patañjali, Bhartṛhari’s works, Siddhāntakaumudī of Bhaṭṭoji Dīkṣita, Nāgeśa’s works), and the main topics it addresses (minimal meaning-bearer units, classes of words, relation between word and meaning/referent, the primary meaning/referent of nouns) are still central issues for contemporary linguistics.