Panini the Grammarian

Pāṇini was a grammarian, and revered scholar in ancient Bharat variously dated between the 6th and 4th century BCE.

Since the discovery and publication of his work by European scholars in the nineteenth century, Pāṇini has been considered the “first descriptive linguist “, and even labeled as “the father of linguists.”

Pāṇini’s grammar was influential on such foundational linguists as Ferdinand de Saussure and Leonard Bloomfield.

Pāṇini is known for his text Aṣṭādhyāyī, a sutra-style treatise on Sanskrit grammar, 3,959 verses or rules on linguistics, syntax and semantics in “eight chapters” which is the foundational text of the Vyākaraṇa  branch of the Vedanga, the auxiliary scholarly disciplines of the Vedic period. His aphoristic text attracted numerous bhashya (commentaries), of which Patanjali’s Mahābhāṣya is the most famous in Hindu traditions.His ideas influenced and attracted commentaries from scholars of other Indian religions such as Buddhism.

Pāṇini’s analysis of noun compounds still forms the basis of modern linguistic theories of compounding in Indian languages. Pāṇini’s comprehensive and scientific theory of grammar is conventionally taken to mark the start of Classical Sanskrit.His systematic treatise inspired and made Sanskrit the preeminent Indian language of learning and literature for two millennia.

Pāṇini’s theory of morphological analysis was more advanced than any equivalent Western theory before the 20th century. His treatise is generative and descriptive, uses metalanguage and meta-rules, and has been compared to the Turing machine wherein the logical structure of any computing device has been reduced to its essentials using an idealized mathematical model.

The most important of Pāṇini’s works, the Aṣṭādhyāyī is a grammar that essentially defines the Sanskrit language. Modeled on the dialect and register of elite speakers in his time, the text also accounts for some features of the older Vedic language.

The Aṣtādhyāyī is a prescriptive and generative grammar with algebraic rules governing every aspect of the language. It is supplemented by three ancillary texts: akṣarasamāmnāyadhātupāṭha and gaṇapāṭha.

Growing out of a centuries-long effort to preserve the language of the Vedic hymns from ‘corruption’, the Aṣtādhyāyī is the high point of a vigorous, sophisticated grammatical tradition devised to arrest language change. The Aṣtādhyāyī’s preeminence is underlined by the fact that it eclipsed all similar works that came before: while not the first, it is the oldest such text surviving in its entirety.

The Aṣṭādhyāyī consists of 3,959 sūtras in eight chapters, which are each subdivided into four sections or pādas. The text takes material from lexical lists (dhātupāṭhagaṇapātha) as input and describes algorithms to be applied to them for the generation of well-formed words.

The Aṣṭādhyāyī, composed in an era when oral composition and transmission was the norm, is staunchly embedded in that oral tradition. In order to ensure wide dissemination, Pāṇini is said to have preferred brevity over clarity – it can be recited end-to-end in two hours. This has led to the emergence of a great number of commentaries of his work over the centuries, which for the most part adhere to the foundations laid by Pāṇini’s work.

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. 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 are outside of logic or mathematics may itself have been catalysed by Europe’s contact with the work of Sanskrit grammarians.