Saturday, January 9, 2010

In Love with Sanskrit

A while ago, a very good and long-time friend told me that she had realized how important Sanskrit was for her, and how she was thinking of going back to learning it. She quickly got me all excited: I offered to learn it together with her and immediately asked advise about textbooks--and indeed about the viability of the whole undertaking--from two experts. Unfortunately, and I feel terribly sorry about this, I seemed to have overwhelmed my friend a bit, as we haven't spoken about Sanskrit since, although we see each other all the time.

But the idea is still on my mind, and as I'm reading this wonderful new book Latin Alive (by Joseph Solodow, just out from Cambridge University Press), I hit upon these utterly beautiful lines about Sanskrit. I've sent them to my friend, but I thought I'd post them here for everybody else to read. It's actually prose, but of such a poetic nature that I couldn't resist starting a new line with every new part of a sentence. That way, with lines of almost identical length, the fragment almost looks like two stanzas of a sonnet:
The Sanskrit language,
whatever be its antiquity,
is of a wonderful structure;

more perfect than the Greek,
more copious than the Latin,
and more exquisitely refined than either.

These words were first said by Sir William Jones, addressing the Asiatic Society of Bengal at Calcutta in 1786. In that very lecture, Jones became the first scholar ever to suggest a common ancestry for Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. In other words, he started the study of what is now called Indo-European, the pre-historic language we only know by ever-more precise reconstruction.

That's all very exciting stuff. But isn't it beautiful how, in a few simple lines, Jones tells you about what--I suppose-- must have been the love of his life: Sanskrit.

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