Of all the Indo-European languages, ancient Greek and Sanskrit are undoubtedly the two which exhibit the clearest signs of originating from one common ancestral language. These signs were first observed in their shared basic lexicon containing, for example, identical terms of kinship (c.f. the article Father in Greek and Sanskrit). But soon linguists discovered that their interrelation went far beyond these superficial similarities and deep into the core mechanisms of declension and conjugation; in the process revealing that ancient Greek and Sanskrit really are two phonologically different realisations of one and the same language and its guiding principles; individual manifestations of one and the same underlying structure. On a primary and very practical level, this means that they can be used comparatively to clarify features, manifestations of parts of the underlying structure, which might, due to their individual development of those parts of the underlying structure, not be explainable when each is examined individually. On a secondary and more broadly meaningful level, this means that by the negative delineation of their common underlying structure, a close analysis of their correspondences and discrepancies can reveal the process of genesis of which they are the result and, in the space between themselves and their underlying structure, two languages in their liquid state of aggregation spanning multiple identities, multiple and infinitely graded manifestations of one underlying structure. As such they offer yet to be fully exploited possibilities for the investigation of how languages develop over time and how they are, just as all visible and invisible matter, clouds of atoms in the cosmic churn of expansion. 

Considering their close relationship and the great value of this relationship for both the deepening of our understanding of certain features of Sanskrit and our understanding of how universal laws of change and expansion also apply to languages, it is very surprising that ancient Greek is taught so little in India – it is available at neither of the two large universities in Delhi – where Sanskrit has for so long been studied with as much scientific rigour as spiritual devotion. In hope it may inspire some teachers, students and lovers of the classical language of India to consider acquiring such valuable knowledge and possibilities for research as described above by joining Zabaan’s comparative course in Homeric Greek, the rest of this article consists of some examples of the very close relationship of the two languages and how this relationship can make them into each other’s grammar books. By offering new perspectives on each other Sanskrit and Greek can, at times, provide surprisingly simple and convincing answers to questions which are never answered by one of the languages itself. Three such questions, asked by Sanskrit and answered by Greek, shall provide the frame for the practical examples forming the second part of this aritcle. Note that while all examples here concern the way in which Greek can clarify features of Sanskrit, the inverse is equally true and Sanskrit is an invaluable help in clarifying many features of Greek, which would otherwise need to remain unexplained. This is here pointed out to ensure to the reader that it is in no way the intention of the author to claim the superiority of the Greek language over Sanskrit. It would indeed be a futile undertaking to try to prove the superiority of any one of them over the other, as they are not really two but one.

1. Why are क and ग always palatalised when they appear in reduplication?

This question is not answered in any Sanskrit grammar because the language has, in the course of its development, lost the cause of this characteristic sound change, which therefore cannot be explained from within the language itself. By taking some pages out of the grammar book “Greek”, this seemingly random sound change can be explained in three simple steps.

a. The Indo-Iranian merger of a, e and o. Sanskrit has four short vowels अ, इ, उ and ऋ. The first three vowels correspond to Greek a, and u. An equivalent to ऋ is missing from the sound inventory of Greek, which also contains two short vowels that do not exists in Sanskrit: e and o. When cognates are compared, the Greek short vowels ae and o invariably appear as अ in Sanskrit. This reduction in the inventory of short vowels is commonly called the Indo-Iranian merger of Indo-European a, e and o. A few examples are: oktō = अष्टा, esti = अस्ति (note how becomes अ, while i remains unchanged), nephos = नभः and genos = जनः. The most telling of all, for containing the three vowels in the same word, is the perfect dedorka, which corresponds to ददर्श.

b. Palatalising Influence of front vowels on velars in Sanskrit. There is evidence that in Sanskrit any front vowel would influence the articulation spot of the preceding velar consonant and cause its change into a palatal. This sound change is more fully explained in the article Meaning and expression: Sanskrit suffix 101 in the section dealing with the suffix -अ. This can clearly be seen in the fact that Latin quid corresponds to Sanskrit चित्, in which the original labio-velar has first been simplified to a plain velar and then palatalised under the influence of the front vowel i. The sound इ having made it unchanged into the attested form of the language, the sequence of sound changes is easy to follow. But, before it was lost due to the Indo-Iranian merger, the short front vowel e had the same influence. This can be seen in the correspondence of Latin que and Sanskrit च. Here again the original labio-velar was simplified to a plain velar, which was then palatalised under the influence of the front vowel e, which itself subsequently became अ and thus indistinguishable from the original back vowels and o. In this case the Indo-Iranian merger obscures the reason for the change of the velar into a palatal. Latin, usually less closely related to Sanskrit as Greek, has here been taken as an example, since in Greek another sound change makes the relationship with Sanskrit more difficult to understand.

c. Greek reveals the original vowel of the reduplicating syllable. In Greek the vowel in the reduplicating syllable of the perfect is invariably short e. And the perfect forms of Sanskrit velar roots in question here themselves offer the proof that this e must be an original feature, since there is no other way to explain the palatalised form of the velar in the reduplication, than the influence of an original e, which subsequently became अ. In the light of the Greek perfect, forms such as जगाम and चकार therefore represent a phonologically regular development of earlier forms *jegāma and *cekāra, which must ultimately go back to the non-palatalised forms *gegāma and kekāma.

2. Why are there no short forms of the vowels ए and ओ ?

For a full explanation of the reason why there are no short forms of these two vowels please read Why are the vowels ए and ओ always long? A very interesting corollary of what is explained there, is that the sandhi rule एचो ऽयवायावः does not actually represent a feature developed by Sanskrit independently. The vowels ए and ओ originally were diphthongs in and u respectively, but they only appear in their monophthongised form when in direct contact with a consonant. As soon as they get into contact with a vowel they reassume their original diphthongal shape अय् and अव्. The sandhi rule एचो ऽयवायावः thus  is an unavoidable result of how the language has grown and not an arbitrary rule imposed by grammarians in order to make it structurally more perfect by ridding it of vowel hiatus. Nature, not man, made Sanskrit संस्कृत. Here again, the comparison with Greek provides the explanation of the cause of a very important morphological feature of Sanskrit, the rule provided for which by the language itself only describes its effect.

3. Why does the कृत form frequently but not always take the स्वर grade of a root?

Concerning the basic mechanisms of vowel gradation please read Vowel gradation 101As opposed to Sanskrit, Greek never lost the inherited Indo-European accent system. It is a surprising fact that, although the Sanskrit of the post-Vedic period no longer has an accent system, the effects of the original accent can still be observed in the characteristic shift between strong and weak forms in Sanskrit nominal declension and derivation. If corresponding, accented forms exist in Greek they will frequently help to clarify the cause of these shifts in strength, of which only the effects remain in Sanskrit. One example is the suffix -तः, which in the majority of cases takes the स्वर degree of the root. The shortening of the root is due to the fact that the suffix originally was accented, a fact proved by its Greek form -tós. The absence of accent on the root is what caused it to contract to its shortest form. Greek khutós, for example, corresponds exactly to Sanskrit हुतः. The full form of the root is found in the Greek verb kheúō, the accented diphthong  of which is found again as ओ in the second syllable of the present जुहोति. All forms such as कृतः, भृतः, श्रुतः, etc. exhibit exactly the same influence of the original accent. This means that all forms such as भ्रान्त, क्रान्त, शान्त, etc. must be much later formations originating in a time when the cause of the shortening of the root had long been forgotten by the users of the language and, even more importantly, by the language itself.

These are only three basic examples intended as an illustration of how closely related the two languages are and how they can act as each other’s grammar books revealing the lost causes of still visible effects. A detailed comparison of  the entire corpus of forms of the two language reveals that 80-90% of all forms are either identical or must have the same origin. The phonetical systems of the two languages, the various types of nominal declension down to their cases, the personal, interrogative and relative pronouns, the personal endings of verbs in the different voices, the modes of present formation, the formation of the tenses and moods, all can be compared to their greatest mutual clarification.


Silvio Zinsstag,

teacher for ancient languages.