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Language, Indian theories of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F048-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Language is a much debated topic in Indian philosophy. There is a clear concern with it in the Vedic texts, where efforts are made to describe links between earthly and divine reality in terms of etymological links between words. The earliest surviving Sanskrit grammar, Pāṇini’s intricate Aṣṭādhyāyī(Eight Chapters), dates from about 350 bc, although arguably the first explicitly philosophical reflections on language that have survived are found in Patañjali’s ‘Great Commentary’ on Pāṇini’s work, the Mahābhāṣya (c.150 bc). Both these thinkers predate the classical systems of Indian philosophy. This is not true of the great fifth-century grammarian Bhartṛhari, however, who in his Vākyapadīya (Treatise on Sentences and Words) draws on these systems in developing his theory of the sphoṭa, a linguistic entity distinct from a word’s sounds that Bhartṛhari takes to convey its meaning.

Among the issues debated by these philosophers (although not exclusively by them, and not exclusively with reference to Sanskrit) were what can be described as (i) the search for minimal meaningful units, and (ii) the ontological status of composite linguistic units. With some approximation, the first of these two issues attracted more attention during the early period of linguistic reflection, whereas the subsequent period emphasized the second one.

Citing this article:
Bronkhorst, Johannes. Language, Indian theories of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F048-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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