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Is Sanskrit the Oldest Language in the World?

The often mis-quoted idea in Yoga is that Sanskrit is the oldest language in the world. When I ask students, “What is their understanding of Sanskrit?” Someone will often say confidently, “Sanskrit is the oldest language in the world.” Though Sanskrit is very old. It is not the oldest language.

One of the oldest forms of written language is called Cuneiform. The word Cuneiform means wedge shaped. It was created by the Sumerians in 4000 B.C. Initially, Cuneiform writing was a series of pictograms, which according to Wikipedia “were derived from a series of tokens used for accounting” or adding up etc. A way to think of it is the accounting was used to show what was one group of people’s goods versus another people. The cuneiform system is: Logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic and syllabic signs. The definition of a logophonetic language is: “In written language, a logogram or logograph is a written character that represents a word or phrase. Chinese characters and Japanese kanji are logograms; some Egyptian hieroglyphs and some graphemes in cuneiform script are also logograms. The use of logograms in writing is called logography.” Furthermore, a logophonetic writing system is one that uses logographic symbols, and at the same time can also include symbols or elements that signify sounds.

Cuneiform expresses the Semitic language. Later the script morphed and adapted and was used for the writing system of many languages. From the Indo-European family it was used to write Hittite and Luwian. Over time it got replaced by the Phoenician alphabet which English is descended from.

The writing script of Sanskrit is called Devanāgarī, which is a meeting of deva (of the gods) and nāgarī (script). Thus, Devanāgarī means script of the gods. It is syllabic in nature. You read and write the letters in syllables from left to right. It is not pictographic as many think. The Devanāgarī script derives from the ancient Brāhmī script. And is sister to Gurmukhi one of the two scripts used to express the Punjabi language. Devanāgarī in use by the 7th CE. The Devanāgarī script is used to write many languages. There are no lowercase or capital letters for Devanāgarī. There are 49 Devanāgarī letters that make up the Sanskrit alphabet (for other languages two are often lost leaving 47 letters). Sanskrit is a phonetic language, which means that its orthography is that it’s written as its said and said as it’s written. There exists a couple of discrepencies to the general statement above, but these are exceptions.

Sanskrit’s great gift to the world is that she is primarily a vibrational and spiritual language. The more you go into the study of Sanskrit, the more the mystery of the Yogic journey, and the value of understanding sound as vibration, will open up.

Copyright 2018 Luminous Shabda, Manorama & Sanskrit Studies

Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY