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Vol 39  No 1
Aug. 10, 2006


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Ancient language a key to cultural understanding

By Leslie Vryenhoek

Dr. Vit Bubenik will introduce students to the ancient language of Sanskrit this fall.
(Photo by Leslie Vryenhoek)

Students interested in ancient languages can become familiar with one of the oldest in the Indo-European family this fall as Dr. Vit Bubenik, professor of linguistics, offers a two-semester course in Sanskrit.

According to Dr. Bubenik, Sanskrit dates back about 3300 years, when it was the language of chanting and Rigvedic hymns in India. Hymns ­ as many as 10,000 of them ­ were memorized and passed along orally before being written down around 400 BC.

“The cultural importance of Sanskrit is enormous. You cannot approach medieval and ultimately modern India without it,” he explained, noting that all four of the major religions born on the subcontinent ­ Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism ­ have scriptures in languages that arose from Sanskrit.

Spoken now by perhaps 70,000 people, it’s still a language of ritual and religion. “If your father is a Brahmin, you might learn it today,” Dr. Bubenik said, adding that more and more women are becoming the keepers of this traditionally male-held language.

While being able to recite Sanskrit retains significance in certain conservative circles, it’s fallen out of favour among younger generations. “People have to make a living. There aren’t so many jobs in Sanskrit.”

Still, the study of this ancient language can draw a crowd. In fact, Dr. Bubenik was among the more than 450 people who attended the 13th World Sanskrit Conference in Edinburgh last month.

Sanskrit gave birth to the Indic languages just as Latin bore the Romantic languages. Dr. Bubenik, who is currently working on his 11th book, a follow-up to the 1997 text he and linguist Dr. John Hewson co-authored on Indo-European languages, is a proponent of learning these parent languages as a way to more readily grasp modern languages. He teaches his students to see the connections between languages. “The more sophisticated your understanding of the origins is, the better equipped you are to learn related languages.”

Learning Sanskrit for those without a solid grounding in other classical languages, or in other Indic languages, is not easy. “At first, students have to memorize some grammatical forms or nothing can be done. Then there is a lexicon they have to know.”

That hard work pays off, however, because understanding languages is really a means to understanding the societies in which they developed. “Language, culture and society cannot be divorced,” Dr. Bubenik asserted. “You open the door to a culture with the key called language.”

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