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Vedic Sanskrit
RegionBronze Age India, Iron Age India, Greater Iran
Extinctevolved into Classical Sanskrit by the sixth century BC
Language codes
ISO 639-2inc
ISO 639-3

Vedic Sanskrit is an Old Indic 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 BCE. 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 unboken 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, and recovering its original form is a matter of linguistic reconstruction.[1]

From ca. 600 BCE, in the classical period of Iron Age Ancient India, Vedic Sanskrit gave way to Classical Sanskrit as defined by the grammar of Pāṇini.


Prehistoric derivation

Further information: Substratum in Vedic Sanskrit

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 (accompanied with a lengthening of the *i to ī) and the substitution of *d with the retroflex . 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.

The separation of Indo-Aryans proper from the undifferentiated Proto-Indo-Iranian ancestor group is commonly dated, on linguistic grounds, to roughly 1800 BCE.[2] The composition of the oldest hymns of the Rigveda is dated to several centuries after this division, or to roughly 1500 BCE.[3] 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 BCE. He assumes early Indo-Aryan presence in the Late Harappan horizon from about 1900 BCE, and "Proto-Rigvedic" (Proto-Dardic) intrusion to the Punjab as corresponding to the Swat culture from about 1700 BCE. According to this model, Rigvedic Sanskrit within the larger Indo-Aryan group is the direct ancestor of the Dardic languages.[4] The hymns of the Rigveda are thus composed in a liturgical language which was based on the natural language spoke 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).

  1. Rigvedic. The Ṛgveda retains many common Indo-Iranian elements, both in language and in content, that are not present in any other Vedic texts. Its creation must have taken place over several centuries, and apart from the latest books (1 and 10), it must have been essentially complete by around 1200 BCE.
  2. Mantra language. This period includes both the mantra and prose language of the Atharvaveda (Paippalada and Shaunakiya), the Rigveda Khilani, the Samaveda Samhita (containing some 75 mantras not in the Rigveda), and the mantras of the Yajurveda. These texts are largely derived from the Rigveda, but have undergone certain changes, both by linguistic change and by reinterpretation. Conspicuous changes include change of viśva "all" to sarva, and the spread of kuru- (for Rigvedic kṛno-) as the present tense form of the verb kar- "make, do". This period corresponds to the early Iron Age in north-western India (iron is first mentioned in the Atharvaveda), and to the kingdom of the Kurus, dating from about the twelfth century BCE.
  3. Samhita prose (roughly 1100 BCE to 800 BCE). This period marks the beginning collection and codification of a Vedic canon. An important linguistic change is the complete loss of the injunctive and of the grammatical moods of the aorist. The commentary part of the Black Yajurveda (MS, KS) belongs to this period.
  4. Brahmana prose (roughly 900 BCE to 600 BCE). The Brahmanas proper of the four Vedas belong to this period, as well as the Aranyakas (Āraṇyakas) oldest of the Upanishads (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chāndogya Upanishad, Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana).
  5. Sutra language. This is the last stratum of vedic Sanskrit leading up to 500 BCE, comprising the bulk of the Shrauta and Grhya Sutras, and some Upanishads (E.g. Katha Upanishad, Maitrayaniya Upanishad. Younger Upanishads are post-Vedic).

Around 500 BCE, 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 BCE), Panini fixes the grammar of Classical Sanskrit.


This section treats the distinguishing features of Vedic Sanskrit — see Classical Sanskrit for a general account.

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 for retroflex l[clarification needed], an intervocalic allophone of , represented in Devanagari with the separate symbol ळ and transliterated as or ḷh. In order to disambiguate vocalic l from retroflex l, ISO 15919 transliterates vocalic l with a ring below the letter, . (Vocalic r is then also represented with a ring, , for consistency and to disambiguate it additionally from the retroflex 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 to Classical Sanskrit

Vedic Sanskrit differs from Classical Sanskrit to an extent comparable to the difference between Homeric Greek and Classical Greek. Tiwari ([1955] 2005) lists the following principal differences between the two:


Main article: Vedic Sanskrit grammar

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.

See also


  1. ^ Restoring historical language of the vedas from attested vedic
  2. ^ Mallory, J.P. (1989). "In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth". London: Thames & Hudson: 38f. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ e.g. EIEC, s.v. "Indo-Iranian languages", p. 306.
  4. ^ Parpola, Asko (1999), "The formation of the Aryan branch of Indo-European", in Blench, Roger & Spriggs, Matthew, Archaeology and Language, vol. III: Artefacts, languages and texts, London and New York: Routledge.