Sanskrit Program at Columbia


Isn’t Sanskrit a dead language? How do we know how it’s pronounced or spoken?

Sanskrit isn’t a dead language in the sense of its no longer being a mother tongue. On the contrary, Sanskrit probably has not been a mother tongue for over 2,000 years. Yet it flowered in the first millennium CE into the language of power par excellence for much of South and Southeast Asia. It’s more helpful to think of Sanskrit as a learned language. It is still learned intensively by a range of students in South Asia and one can hear it spoken, for example, in Sanskrit universities in India and Nepal. For a number of years the vitality of the language as a creative medium has been a topic of controversy—and some eminent scholars do consider it a ‘dead language,’ or very nearly so, in that sense.

Sanskrit linguists documented and analyzed the language’s phonology with unparalleled sophistication from a very early date. We have a better understanding of its pronunciation than we do for any other language of premodernity. Also from a very early date dialectal differences are evident in Sanskrit texts, as is the case in modern spoken Sanskrit (though much fewer, for example, than in present-day English). These can be ignored by the beginning student.

Are there any prerequisites for studying Sanskrit?

No. All students, graduate and undergraduate alike, are welcome to join Elementary Sanskrit regardless of academic background. Knowledge of a related South Asian language, another classical European language, or another inflected language will give students a certain level of comfort with the language at the outset. But these are not prerequisites. And the Elementary course is taught with the absolute beginner in mind, including even a review of the relevant English grammar.

I already know the devanāgarī script. Can I enroll in the Intermediate course?

Not solely on the basis of a knowledge of devanāgarī. The devanāgarī script is an important part of the Elementary course. Students will spend their first year attaining competence in it. But it is just one aspect of a fairly broad introductory course. Elementary Sanskrit provides, in addition, an introduction to all major aspects of Sanskrit grammar. It is absolutely critical that students acquire a strong grammatical foundation in Elementary before attempting the Intermediate course. If a student has a solid foundation, in addition to a knowledge of the script, s/he may enroll in the Intermediate or Advanced courses by successfully completing a placement exam.

I studied Sanskrit in India / another university. Can I enroll in the Intermediate or Advanced course?

Yes, with the successful completion of the placement exam. The Intermediate course presumes the proficiency attained in Elementary, where the entire grammar is studied intensively and a basic acquaintance with the Epics is acquired. The placement exam tests for this competence. Similarly, the Advanced course presumes the proficiency attained in Intermediate. Students who have completed two years of Sanskrit in an accredited institution may sit for a placement exam to enter Advanced Sanskrit. For specifics, see details of the placement exam below.

What does the language placement exam consist of? How do I take it?

For entry into Intermediate Sanskrit: The placement exam resembles a final exam for Introductory Sanskrit. It tests for a knowledge of the script, sandhi, parts of speech and morphological identification, basic nominal and verbal declensions, syntax, compound analysis, and basic reading comprehension of Epic Sanskrit with the use of a dictionary. The exam presumes successful completion of a textbook such as Deshpande’s Saṃskṛtasubodhinī or the Goldmans’ Devavāṇīpraveśikā and some experience in reading Epic, such as that in Lanman’s Sanskrit Reader or Scharf’s Rāmopākhyāna. It should not take more than two hours. Interested students should attend Intermediate Sanskrit classes and arrange with the Language Coordinator to sit for the exam in the first two weeks of the course.

For entry into Advanced Sanskrit: The placement exam resembles a final exam for Intermediate Sanskrit. Because the readings and genres covered in Intermediate differ in every program, the exam focuses on what they tend to share in common: Epic Sanskrit and simple narrative prose literature. Students should be prepared to translate passages drawn from these genres, as well as a selection of simple poetry or straightforward systematic thought (śāstra), depending on their prior readings in the language. For all texts translated, students are asked to analyze a certain amount of grammar as well as select compounds and derivations. The exam should not take more than two hours. Interested students should attend Advanced Sanskrit classes and arrange with the Language Coordinator to sit for the exam in the first two weeks of the course.

What does the language proficiency exam consist of? How do I take it?

The Sanskrit language proficiency exam varies for undergraduate and graduate students. For undergraduates, it resembles the Advanced Sanskrit placement exam discussed above. For doctoral students, it consists of translation and analysis of an extended passage drawn from the student’s area of specialization. The exam should not take more than two hours. Interested students should contact the Language Coordinator with any questions and to arrange to sit for the exam.

I would like to take a Sanskrit course this summer. How do I go about that?

The most popular programs at present are the South Asia Summer Language Institute (SASLI) at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) Sanskrit Language Program in Pune, India. SASLI conducts summer courses for Sanskrit at both the Elementary and the Intermediate levels while AIIS runs summer and academic-year courses for students beyond Intermediate. For funding opportunities, see the websites linked to above and the South Asia Institute at Columbia University. Please note that, regardless of the program or institution involved, summer courses completed elsewhere do not automatically translate into advanced placement in the Sanskrit curriculum at Columbia University. Students who have passed the SASLI Elementary Sanskrit course, for example, will still need to successfully complete an Intermediate Sanskrit placement exam before enrolling in the second year course. Students are encouraged to see the Language Coordinator in advance for assistance in planning their summer course of study (which in some cases may augment the programs listed above).

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