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About Sanskrit Language

Sanskrit (संस्कृता वाक् saṃskṛtā vāk, for short संस्कृतम् saṃskṛtam), is an historical Indo-Aryan language, one of the liturgical languages of Hinduism and Buddhism, and one of the 22 official languages of India. It is a classical language of India, others being Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

Classical Sanskrit is the standard register as laid out in the grammar of Pāṇini, around the 4th century BCE. Its position in the cultures of South and Southeast Asia is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India and Nepal.

The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, with the language of the Rigveda being the oldest and most archaic stage preserved, its oldest core dating back to as early as 1500 BCE. This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

The corpus of Sanskrit literature encompasses a rich tradition of poetry and drama as well as scientific, technical, philosophical and Hindu religious texts. Sanskrit continues to be widely used as a ceremonial language in Hindu religious rituals in the forms of hymns and mantras. Spoken Sanskrit is still in use in a few traditional institutions in India, and there are many attempts at revival.

History

Sanskrit is a member of the Indo-Iranian sub-family of the Indo-European family of languages. Its closest ancient relatives are the Iranian languages Old Persian and Avestan. Within the wider Indo-European language family, Sanskrit shares characteristic sound changes with the Satem languages (particularly the Slavic and Baltic languages), and also with Greek.

In order to explain the common features shared by Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages, many scholars have proposed migration hypotheses asserting that the original speakers of what became Sanskrit arrived in what is now India and Pakistan from the north-west some time during the early second millennium BCE. Evidence for such a theory includes the close relationship of the Indo-Iranian tongues with the Baltic and Slavic languages, vocabulary exchange with the non-Indo-European Finno-Ugric languages, and the nature of the attested Indo-European words for flora and fauna.

The earliest attested Sanskrit texts are Hindu texts of the Rigveda, which may be located in the Greater Punjab region and adjacent Afghanistan, and dated to the mid-to-late second millennium BCE. No written records from such an early period survive. However, scholars are confident that the oral transmission of the texts is reliable: they were ceremonial literature whose correct pronunciation was considered crucial to its religious efficacy.

From the Rigveda until the time of Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BCE) the development of the Sanskrit language may be observed in other Hindu texts: the Samaveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda, Brahmanas, and Upanishads. During this time, the prestige of the language, its use for sacred purposes, and the importance attached to its correct enunciation all served as powerful conservative forces resisting the normal processes of linguistic change.

The oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar is Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī ("Eight-Chapter Grammar"). It is essentially a prescriptive grammar, i.e., an authority that defines (rather than describes) correct Sanskrit, although it contains descriptive parts, mostly to account for some Vedic forms the use of which had become rare in Pāṇini's time.

The term "Sanskrit" was not thought of as a specific language set apart from other languages, but rather as a particularly refined or perfected manner of speaking. Knowledge of Sanskrit was a marker of social class and educational attainment in ancient India and the language was taught mainly to members of the higher castes, through close analysis of Sanskrit grammarians such as Pāṇini. Sanskrit, as the learned language of Ancient India, thus existed alongside the Prakrits (vernaculars), which evolved into the Middle Indic dialects, and eventually into the contemporary modern Indo-Aryan languages.

Writing system

Sanskrit was spoken in an oral society, and the oral tradition was maintained through the development of early classical Sanskrit literature. Writing was not introduced to India until after Sanskrit had evolved into the Prakrits; when it was written, the choice of writing system was influenced by the regional scripts of the scribes. As such, virtually all of the major writing systems of South Asia have been used for the production of Sanskrit manuscripts. Since the late 19th century, Devanagari has been considered as the de facto writing system for Sanskrit, quite possibly because of the European practice of printing Sanskrit texts in this script. Devanagari is written from left to right, lacks distinct letter cases, and is recognizable by a distinctive horizontal line running along the tops of the letters that links them together.

The earliest known inscriptions in Sanskrit date to the 1st century BCE. They are in the Brahmi script, which was originally used for Prakrit, not Sanskrit. It has been described as a "paradox" that the first evidence of written Sanskrit occurs centuries later than that of the Prakrit languages which are its linguistic descendants. When Sanskrit was written down, it was first used for texts of an administrative, literary or scientific nature. The sacred texts were preserved orally, and were set down in writing, "reluctantly" (according to one commentator), and at a comparatively late date.

Brahmi evolved into a multiplicity of scripts of the Brahmic family, many of which were used to write Sanskrit. Roughly contemporary with the Brahmi, the Kharosthi script was used in the northwest of the subcontinent. Later (around the 4th to 8th centuries CE) the Gupta script, derived from Brahmi, became prevalent. From ca. the 8th century, the Sharada script evolved out of the Gupta script. The latter was displaced in its turn by Devanagari from ca. the 11/12th century, with intermediary stages such as the Siddham script. In Eastern India, the Bengali script and, later, the Oriya script, were used. In the south where Dravidian languages predominate, scripts used for Sanskrit include Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Grantha.

Romanization

Since the late 18th century, Sanskrit has been transliterated using the Latin alphabet. The system most commonly used today is the IAST (International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration), which has been the academic standard since 1888/1912. ASCII-based transliteration schemes have evolved due to difficulties representing Sanskrit characters in computer systems. These include Harvard-Kyoto and ITRANS, a transliteration scheme that is used widely on the Internet, especially in Usenet and in email, for considerations of speed of entry as well as rendering issues. With the wide availability of Unicode aware web browsers, IAST has become common online.

It's also possible to type using an alphanumeric keyboard and transliterate to devanagari using software like Mac OS X's international support.

European scholars in the 19th century generally preferred Devanagari for the transcription and reproduction of whole texts and lengthy excerpts. However, references to individual words and names in texts composed in European languages were usually represented with Roman transliteration. From the 20th century onwards, due to production costs, textual editions edited by Western scholars have mostly been in Romanized transliteration.

 

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