The Fascinating World of Sanskrit Grammar: How Panini’s Language Machine Works

And why it may be important in our modern world of computers and AI

Recently, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge has solved a problem with the ancient Sanskrit language that has puzzled scholars since the 5th century BC. Dr. Rishi Rajpopat, 27, deciphered a rule set out by Panini, a master of Sanskrit who lived around 2,500 years ago.

Panini’s grammar, known as the Astadhyayi is a set of 4000 sutras, or rules, that explains the structure of Sanskrit. It has been compared to the Turing machine because of its complex set of rules for creating words, which function like a linguistic algorithm. However, two or more of Panini’s rules often applied simultaneously, leading to conflicts.

Source: Cultureandheritage.org

But now Dr. Rajpopat has proven that between rules applicable to the left and right sides of a word, scholars should choose the rule applicable to the right side. This interpretation allowed Panini’s “language machine” to produce grammatically correct words with almost no exceptions.

So what is Panini’s language machine?

Panini’s language machine is a system of rules for generating grammatically correct words and sentences in the Sanskrit language. The system is based on Panini’s grammar, known as the Astadhyayi, which uses a set of rules and an algorithm-like process to generate grammatically correct words and sentences. This allows us to create new vocabulary that can be easily understood and decoded, even by a computer.

Here’s an example of how Panini’s language machine works:

Suppose we have a base form of a word, such as “karma,” and we want to add a suffix to it to create a new word with a specific meaning. Using Panini’s language machine, we can follow a set of rules to generate the correct form of the word.

For example, if we want to create the word meaning “fruit of one’s actions,” we can follow these steps using Panini’s language machine:

  1. First, we identify the base form of the word, “karma.”
  2. Then, we identify the suffix we want to add, “-phala,” which means “fruit.”
  3. Next, we apply the rules of Panini’s language machine to combine the base form and the suffix to create the correct form of the word.
  4. In this case, the rules of Panini’s language machine specify that the suffix “-phala” should be added to the base form “karma” to create the correct form of the word, “karmaphala.”

This is just a simple example using an already existing Sanskrit word on how Panini’s language machine works. The system is much more complex and includes a large number of rules for generating grammatically correct words and sentences in Sanskrit.

To illustrate, a little more complex example can be taken up:
(Warning: I am not a Sanskrit scholar and the below example is a crude attempt to illustrate a very complex topic only)

Suppose you want to create vocabulary in Sanskrit for the state of someone who has understood something you explain to them. This is a very abstract concept based on a feeling that comes to you from their body language and expressions. Or more precisely, the bodily signs they exhibit and which you sense to get the feeling they have transcended the state of understanding.

This word would mean something like the “a sign of transcending understanding.” To create this word:

  1. First, we identify the base of new the word, “pratyaya.”Which means “understanding”.
  2. Then, we add a prefix “para-” to the base form, which means “beyond” or “transcendent.”
  3. Next, we identify a suffix we want to add, “-mudra,” which means “sign”.
  4. Finally, we apply the rules of Panini’s language machine to combine the base form, prefix, and suffix to create the correct form of the word.
  5. In this case, the rules of Panini’s language machine specify that the prefix “para-” and the suffix “-mudra” should be added to the base form “pratyaya” to create the correct form of the word with a twist (adding -nam) to the suffix to represent a state, or the word is “parapratyayamudranam.”

And there you go, even though this is a very crude example, we just created a brand new Sanskrit word using Panini’s language machine which can be deciphered by anyone (or even a computer) to understand a very abstract concept even without a context.

With the recent findings at Cambridge University, this language machine of Panini has only become much more practically useful. Dr. Rajpopat’s findings have been described as revolutionary by experts because they will enable Panini’s Sanskrit grammar to be taught to computers for the first time. The Ashtadhyayi’s 4000 rules, which are linear and exact in nature, are also suitable for natural language processing (NLP) systems.

According to Dr. Rajpopat, “Computer scientists working on NLP abandoned rule-based approaches over 50 years ago, so teaching computers how to combine the speaker’s intention with Panini’s rule-based grammar to produce human speech would be a significant milestone in the history of human-machine interaction as well as in India’s intellectual history.”

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A blogs a worldview at ablogs.medium.com

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