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Post Info TOPIC: What is so ‘scientific’ about Sanskrit? #SeriousQuestion


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What is so ‘scientific’ about Sanskrit? #SeriousQuestion

@zeusisdead posted this query on twitter, and that finally prompted me collate all the material I could find on this topic; because this topic has bothered me for a long time.

“Sanskrit is the ideal language for computer science” is a view that is so widespread in India, that my mother, who is 70, and knows little about Sanskrit, and even less about computer science, passionately believes this, and I can’t convince her otherwise. Indians are in love with the concept that things invented in India 2000 years ago are still better than the best that the western world can throw at us today.

A broader question is the one that ZeusIsDead asked: what is so ‘scientific’ about Sanskrit?

As far as I can tell, there are two interesting aspects to Sanskrit:

  • Sanskrit is the first language to have a formal grammar defined; and there is evidence that Pāṇini’s work in this area influenced modern linguists like de Saussure and Chomsky. (And oh, Devanagari is awesome)
  • One guy in NASA in the 80s tried to push Sanskrit as an ideal language for Artificial Intelligence applications; he was neither able to convince the AI community of this, nor was he able to make much headway in this himself. This approach is largely dead, but Indian media and the ancient-Indians-were-the-best crowd did not get the memo.

In short: Pāṇini’s Grammar for Sanskrit was a phenomenal work that probably influenced modern linguists, but it is not particularly useful in Computer Science.

Influence of Sanskrit on Modern Linguistics

From the Wikipedia page on Pāṇini:

Pāṇini’s work became known in 19th-century Europe, where it influenced modern linguistics initially through Franz Bopp, who mainly looked at Pāṇini. Subsequently, a wider body of work influenced Sanskrit scholars such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, and Roman Jakobson. Frits Staal (1930-2012) discussed the impact of Indian ideas on language in Europe. After outlining the various aspects of the contact, Staal notes that the idea of formal rules in language – proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure in 1894 and developed by Noam Chomsky in 1957 – has origins in the European exposure to the formal rules of Pāṇinian grammar

How exactly did this influence modern linguists?

In particular, de Saussure, who lectured on Sanskrit for three decades, may have been influenced by Pāṇini and Bhartrihari; his idea of the unity of signifier-signified in the sign somewhat resembles the notion of Sphoṭa. More importantly, the very idea that formal rules can be applied to areas outside of logic or mathematics may itself have been catalyzed by Europe’s contact with the work of Sanskrit grammarians

Here, an important connection to computer science also can be seen:

Pāṇini’s grammar is the world’s first formal system, developed well before the 19th century innovations of Gottlob Frege and the subsequent development of mathematical logic. In designing his grammar, Pāṇini used the method of “auxiliary symbols”, in which new affixes are designated to mark syntactic categories and the control of grammatical derivations. This technique, rediscovered by the logician Emil Post, became a standard method in the design of computer programming languages. Sanskritists now accept that Pāṇini’s linguistic apparatus is well-described as an “applied” Post system. Considerable evidence shows ancient mastery of context-sensitive grammars, and a general ability to solve many complex problems. Frits Staal has written that “Pāṇini is the Indian Euclid.”

Sanskrit as an ideal language for AI applications

In 1985, Rick Briggs wrote a paper for the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence titled Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence. At that time, AI researchers were focused on trying to construct artificial languages that could be used in AI so that computers would not have to deal with the ambiguities of real languages. Briggs argued that instead of constructing artificial languages, we could simply use a highly structured language like Sanskrit.

Here is what he wrote in the abstract:

In the past twenty years, much time, effort, and money has been expended on designing an unambiguous representation of natural languages to make them accessible to computer processing. These efforts have centered around creating schemata designed to parallel logical relations with relations expressed by the syntax and semantics of natural languages, which are clearly cumbersome and ambiguous in their function as vehicles for the transmission of logical data. Understandably, there is a widespread belief that natural languages are unsuitable for the transmission of many ideas that artificial languages can render with great precision and mathematical rigor.

But this dichotomy, which has served as a premise underlying much work in the areas of linguistics and artificial intelligence, is a false one. There is at least one language, Sanskrit, which for the duration of almost 1,000 years was a living spoken language with a considerable literature of its own. Besides works of literary value, there was a long philosophical and grammatical tradition that has continued to exist with undiminished vigor until the present century. Among the accomplishments of the grammarians can be reckoned a method for paraphrasing Sanskrit in a manner that is identical not only in essence but in form with current work in Artificial Intelligence. This article demonstrates that a natural language can serve as an artificial language also, and that much work in AI has been reinventing a wheel millenia old.

The fact that someone from NASA (NASA!!!!) wrote this, and he claimed that Sanskrit is better than the efforts of modern researchers, gave the ancient-India-was-awesome crowd, and Indian media a collective orgasm. The web is full of people claiming that Sanskrit is the ideal language for computers, and if you follow the trail of references, all roads lead to this one paper by Briggs. (It is important to note that NASA itself has no official position on this; also, random rumors on the web about some “Mission Sanskrit” by NASA are hoaxes.)

Unfortunately for Briggs and for Sanskrit, this effort never did pan out. Looking at modern AI and natural language processing research, one is hard pressed to find any papers that reference Sanskrit in anything other than simple translation of Sanskrit or other Indian languages.

Vague Ramblings from the Internet

There’s this speech by Justice Markandey Katju titled “Sanskrit as a Language of Science. It rambles on for pages, but makes only two semi-relevant points:

  • [Sanskrit] enabled scientific ideas to be expressed with great precision, logic and elegance.
    • This is just proof by assertion. There is no real support provided for this statement.
    • Also, this is in direct contradiction to another article by a Sanskrit lover which claims that one of the great attributes of Sanskrit is that the same sentence can have two or more completely different meanings. (Scroll down on that page to “Sanskrit is a Context based Language”, and the next section.)
  • The alphabet of Sanskrit is arranged in a very logical and scientific manner.
    • This is certainly true. I’ve blogged about it here.
    • While this fact is pretty cool, it has no relation to the use of Sanskrit as a Language of Science

The rest of the article rambles on about ancient Indian philosophy, and the achievements of our ancestors in the fields of Science and Maths and Astronomy and Medicine and Engineering – all of this, while being interesting and impressive, does not really throw any light on the topic being discussed.

Overall, the internet is full of articles like this and this which go on for pages describing the various interesting features of Sanskrit. And people somehow list this as proof that Sanskrit is the ideal language for Science. A careful reading of the articles usually shows that there is no connection between the various cool features of Sanskrit and its suitability for Science.

Many people also point out that European languages are derived from Sanskrit. That is slightly inaccurate. Linguists have hypothesised the existence of a language called Proto Indo European which is the common ancestor of Sanskrit and most European languages. In any case, that has nothing to do with Sanskrit’s suitability for Science.

The best comment I got was this:

Vedas are in Sanskrit and Vedas are eternal. Hence, Sanskrit is the oldest language.

Sadly, that is the level of 90% of the discourse on this topic on the internet.

Follow-up Reading

Antariksh Bothale, who studies Computational Linguistics at the University of Washington, Seattle has this interesting answer to the question “Is Sanskrit over-rated as a language in India”. Lots of good nuggets of information.

Also, if you don’t know how awesome the Devanagari script is, check this out

Conclusion

In short, one guy thought Sanskrit might be a good language for AI applications, but that turned out to be a dead end. Sorry.

But, Pāṇini rocked!

Note: I am not an expert in this field, and this is just information I’ve collected from the internet. So if anyone is able to uncover any additional information, or even information that contradicts what I’ve said, please leave comments below. I’d love to be mistaken on this point.

Update: There are lots of comments below – some agreeing with me, and some disagreeing. None of the disagreeing comments have caused me to change my mind – so I’m sticking with my opinions above. Read on below if you want to see the alternative viewpoints.



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Gurudevsays:

Incorrect, pIz read this http://www.hitxp.com/articles/sanskrit-lessons/dhatu-root-verbs-samskrit-grammar-dictionary/

In short, for a language to be used as a programming language it needs to have context free grammar which then can be compiled into machine understandable binary code by a compiler.

Sanskrit is the only human spoken language which has a context free grammar which means while you cannot write a compiler which can read and understand (parse) english sentences bcoz of the ambiguous nature in English sentences, you can definitely write a compiler for Sanskrit which can understand sanskrit and compile the instructions into binary.

If all the geeks behind computer software were sanskrit speakers instead of english then all languages like java, sql etc would not have had their own syntax, instead they would be simply parsing sanskrit sentences. Bcos there would have been no need to reinvent new context free grammar for new programming languages.

Infact the BNF notation used to develop programming languages is based on Sanskrit notations described by Panini in his Ashtadhyayi. See http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Backus%E2%80%93Naur_Form.html



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Gurudevsays:

Guess you have not gone through this link in its entirety.
http://www.hitxp.com/articles/sanskrit-lessons/dhatu-root-verbs-samskrit-grammar-dictionary/
If sanskrit was the prominent language in computer science instead of english then there would be no need to invent languages like sql bcos sanskrit itself is structured like sql or c. One just has to write the compiler to parse sanskrit sentences and normal sanskrit language sentences can b used to query databases.
Also sanskrit never needs loan words no matter what new technology or concepts get invented or discovered. Sanskrit language has in built mechanism to create meaningful new words based on attributes. See http://www.hitxp.com/articles/sanskrit-lessons/sanskrit-lesson-1-secret-science-sacred-sanskrit/
Sanskrit is the best language to store information which is a key requirement in IT. To understand this one has to understand dhatu and how data is stored in sanskrit sentences. Any way the true power of sanskrit in AI and NLP will be appreciated the day it gets successfully applied in these fields.



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Gurudevsays:

Also PIE is a language born out of pure imagination of linguists who refused to probe further into the antiquity of Sanskrit, just bcoz the pointers show sanskrit somewhere at the root of indo European languages. Why does Lithuanian for instance is filled with sanskrit words as is?
Read about Pie below. Can anybody answer who spoke pie, any literature in pie or any reference to a language like pie in other ancient texts worldwide?http://www.hitxp.com/articles/culture/sanskrit-greek-english-latin-roman-words-derived-pie-proto-indo-european-language/



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navinsays:

@Gaurav,

  • India wasn’t big on writing; we had more of an oral tradition. So “Vedic Sanskrit” (more accurately called Old Indo Aryan, or Old Indic) was used to compose and orally recite the Vedas for probably a 1000 years before it was first written down in any form that has survived.
  • Because of the oral tradition, and the lack of writing in general, it is difficult to get reliable evidence of when this language was first used.
  • This language was rather different from what we now know as Sanskrit.
  • In 5th century BC, Panini standardized and codified the grammar of Old Indic. It is estimated that some variation of this language was in use for a 1000 years before that (i.e. the oldest evidence for the existence of “Vedic” compositions is from 1500BC.)
  • By contrast, there is solid evidence for various forms of writing from Egypt, Sumer, and the Akkadian empire that are older than 2500 to 3000 BC. So chances of Old Indic being the oldest language are difficult to justify.

However, Panini’s grammar is pretty impressive for its time, and there doesn’t seem to be anything comparable to it in that time frame.



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Kameshsays:


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 K Sridharan
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Navin,

I applaud you for giving pen to the thoughts – Any effort to bust myths must be encouraged. So that we we can establish whether something is truth or myth.

But apart from providing a summary of what you searched and found in the internet, what exactly are you seeing/saying that disproves or proves anything? To be fair, shouldn’t your reasonable conclusion, if based solely on the ‘evidence’ you gathered be that you couldn’t conclude that Sanskrit is more particularly suited for it; but there is nothing you have presented here that says otherwise either.

Now, to the point of being suited to be a computer language, what all does it take? You admit you do not know. That being the case on what basis and credence do you dismiss the published findings of the NASA scientist? Because what he said has not become reality, is that the only reason for you rejecting it? If that is sufficient, wouldn’t the plate be still flat and not having been rolled up into an imperfect ball as it has recently?

I know 7 real programming languages, three distinct assembler levels machine interpreters and over a dozen ‘scripting’ ‘languages’. I also know English, Tamil, a wee-bit of Sanskrit and some colloquial Hindi. Instinctively I have felt and realized a few things which I will share:

1) there is a more natural and un-halting formation in Sanskrit than the others. Because with only a few readings of Sanskrit letters and very basic grammar, I am able to generate meanings for other words; I can do that in several ‘computer’ languages too – but NOT in English (which in fact is where I have most fluency in!); to a much lesser degree in Hindi and Tamil as well even though though and likely because they borrow a lot of Sanskrit words
2) When I look at organization of data (whether traditional data architectures or the recent concepts of big data to mean unstructured and voluminous collections) it is very clear that schemata that are being used even after 50+ years of modern computer science, have still not gotten to a stable plateau.

To me that is indication that Mr.Briggs may have been on to something

But by all means, if I have missed any of your counter-evidence or even if it is just thoughts based on an hypothetical or instinctive premise, please highlight.

Sans that, it is unfair on yourself and all others for you write what sounds like a logical paper but is actually based on a subjective collection of internet missives. BTW I know you are seeking, rather than rejecting out of any malice because you have honestly stated the source and limitations of what information you used.

Here is one final request: however ‘uneducated’ and ‘illiterate’ our grand mothers may seem like to us by our standards, it has been my experience that they are every bit as smart and questioning and seeking as we are and our children are.



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navinsays:

@Sridharan, what you’re saying is literally true. I don’t have evidence to disprove that Sanskrit is more suited for computer processing.

However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And considering that nobody is using Sanskrit for computer processing, nobody has written papers on this topic other than one guy, who did not continue this work, nor did anyone else, I think the burden of proof is on the people who claim that Sanskrit is more suited for computer processing.

I mean, I can make the claim that every night when he’s absolutely alone in his room, Narendra Modi converts into an Ogre, and converts back to a human in the morning, or when someone else comes into the room. Would you be able to disprove it? Would you then claim that “based solely on the ‘evidence’ gathered you couldn’t conclude that Modi converts into an ogre; but there is nothing you could gather that says otherwise either.” No. You’ll say it’s a ridiculous claim and unless I provide some evidence, my statement should not be taken seriously. The burden of proof is on me because I am making a tall claim.



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Ashishsays:

Sanskritians are not obliged to “prove” that it is or is not a language for AI. It is a stupid proposition because the problem is not Sanskrit – it did what it was designed to do – be scientifically sound, aesthetically appealing and spiritually enlightening.

The problem is AI. It is one of the “hard” problems in Science (like consciousness in neuro science and Grand Theory in Physics). There is no general intelligence in sight for machines regardless of the language or syntax. In simple words, AI researchers have no clue on what gives rise to “intelligence” . The notion that it is an “emergent property of matter” has not gotten us anywhere in 60 years.

So “Is Sanskrit the language of AI ” is a moot point. The question should be – “what is the most scientific natural language and can it be applied to computational problems” and the answer without a doubt is Sanskrit and it holds a lot of promise. Sure it could use some funds and interest through inter-disciplinary research.

Paninian Sanskrit, inspired the “Backus Naur form” which forms for basis of context free and generative computer grammars of today. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Paul Kiparsky have applied Paninian notions in their research. There is a great new book “Geek Sublime” which touches this subject in slightly greater detail.

As I suggest, lets be researchers, not skeptics. Here is a great lecture about Sanskrit’s spirit, aesthetics and scientific principles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZ8lox0Bulc

Namaste.



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Diwakar Mishrasays:

In earlier comments, I had mentioned about a “small but significant proof” for Sanskrit as “most suitable language for computational processing”. I also mentioned that “assuming the rules are correct, the Grapheme-to-Phoneme (G2P) converter for Sanskrit that is used in Sanskrit speech synthesis gives perfect output. This is a fully rule based system”. No other language (as per my knowledge, any Indian, Western and east Asian languages) has used fully rule based system for this purpose. They highly depend on pronunciation lexicon.

The two updates in this regard are:
The Sanskrit speech synthesis system – Samvacaka, in which the mentioned G2P module is used is now live at http://sanskrit.jnu.ac.in/samvacaka/ You can try and use it. You may be not satisfied with synthesis quality because implementation of proper prosody has not yet been done.

Another update is that, after this made live, I received some feedback about some errors in the G2P conversion. The solution found in the modification of some of the rules. Even after this change, the facts remains the same – “it is the only fully rule based G2P converter for any language, and gives perfect output”, because the required changes are some regular patterns. The implementation of the new version of G2P is still due.



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Jalajsays:

Navin,
I guess, you are playing devils advocate to bring out facts in favor of Sanskrit. 🙂
Anyway, from different perspective, based on the work that I am doing now (as programmer by hobby), to work on Devanagari and other languages, I think it is very difficult to come out with working computer model to verify supremacy of Sanskrit now.
1. Crux- We are 30 years*x million workforce=30x million work hours ahead of that time when challenge to figure out best language was posed. Alternatives are already built. Adaption happened!
– As I dig deep, I find a lot to be addressed – encoding, performance because of multi-byte, availability and knowledge of tools, semantic issues, graphical representation etc… the entire ecosystem from keyboard to compilers to research to linguist… doesn’t exist. Essentially, we should come out of that Utopia where Sanskrit exist ( I am just talking about existence of Sanskrit not even it’s supremacy as computer language shockingly, we have now ~10k native Sanskrit speakers out of billion population!!). Its too late, nationalists like me have lost it by huge margin of time, knowledge, commercial investment.

Bit Digression, Well I am afraid, it should not happen to other derivative languages… and therefore I established a github repo (https://github.com/jalajc/bhasha, plez help me scale it ) while researching for Hindi particularly, I found derivative languages to be far more flexible(read ambiguous but powerful) even in general reading and writing to suit any kind of programming language. Derivatives are mostly (e.g. Hindi) are sound based… what you speak is what you write, so same word in writing never remains same because people have different tones (so the rise of dialects). Someone pointed this tonal difference in comments about Nepali language.

Finally,
Note to commentators who support the article because of ‘context shortcoming’:-
Contextual reference – we need understand why and when “Context” is relevant e.g. “You are Ok” (“Asking” vs “Asserting” vs Irony) cannot be unambiguously resolved until you know the context. Another example, matrix inverse ([A]^-1)= [A]*([I]^-1) because we know ‘by definition’ [A]*[A]^-1=[I], but does it exists?

In nutshell, contextual reference should only be discussed if something cannot be unambiguously determined. For an statement for which if exists any ‘ruleset’ that can resolve ambiguity of missing information does not have contextual canonical.



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