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Grad student solves 2,500-year-old Sanskrit grammar conflict

The discovery resolves an ancient riddle and may finally enable researchers to load Sanskrit into computers.

(CN) — What do you do when the rule written to resolve conflicts instead creates them?

Classical linguist Pāṇini all but described the rules of Sanskrit in his momentous 5th century B.C. work the Aṣṭādhyāyī. For more than two millennia however, one set of problematic instructions — meant for resolving rule conflicts — instead made the well-oiled language machine misfire.

Enter linguist and doctoral candidate Rishi Rajpopat, who detailed the discovery of his solution amid the complexities of Sanskrit scholarship in his dissertation published by the University of Cambridge on Wednesday.

Known as the father of Sanskrit and the first descriptive linguist, Pāṇini documented nearly 4,000 language rules in the “eight book” Aṣṭādhyāyī nearly 2,500 years ago. The Indian scholar lived in what is now northwest Pakistan and southeast Afghanistan.

Pāṇini's grammar rules are considered a ‘language machine’ complete with metalanguage, metarules and operation rules, predating Alan Turing's 1936 mathematical machine by more than 2,000 years.

"It stands out for doing more than merely describing its object language: the Aṣṭādhyāyī is a full-fledged machine which helps construct grammatically correct Sanskrit words and sentences through a step-by-step derivation process,” Rajpopat wrote in the paper.

In his work, Pāṇini left instructions to sort out cases of conflicting rules, traditionally interpreted to mean that “in the event of a conflict between two rules of equal strength, the rule that comes later in the serial order of the Aṣṭādhyāyī wins.”

This understanding of the conflict rule dates back to one of Pāṇini’s earliest successors, Kātyāyana, in the 3rd century B.C.

In his paper, Rajpopat suggests subsequent scholars following in Kātyāyana’s wake didn’t dare question their predecessors' conclusions.

“Kātyāyana and Patañjali too came to be worshipped in the tradition, which might have made it almost unthinkable for subsequent scholars to disagree with Kātyāyana or Patañjali over such fundamental aspects of the grammar,” he wrote in the paper explained.

Hindu author Patañjali lived from 200 B.C. to 150 B.C.

In application, however, the traditional reading generated additional problems and required numerous exceptions to work — defeating Pāṇini’s attempt to generate a closed system for Sanskrit.

When he hit a wall in his research, Rajpopat followed advice from his mentor, “If the solution is complicated, you are probably wrong.”

In a statement accompanying the study, Rajpopat described taking a break from his work to enjoy the summer. He then experienced a eureka moment when he returned to work.

“As I turned the pages, these patterns starting emerging, and it all started to make sense,” he said.

Rajpopat took a very close reading of the rule. When two rules might apply, Rajpopat discovered “the right-hand side operation prevails.”

For example, in the sentence “the gods are pleased by the mantras,” in Sanskrit “devāḥ prasannāḥ mantraiḥ,” the word “mantra” could be spelled “mantrabhis” or “mantraih,” depending on whether one uses the rule that applies to the left part of the operation or the right. Using the right part gives the grammatically correct “mantraih.”

Importantly, this reading of the rule was there in the classical work all along, thus the title of Rajpopat’s paper, “In Pāṇini We Trust.”

In his lifetime, Kātyāyana put forth two theories for interpreting the rule conflict before he ultimately followed the more problematic one. Rajpopat noted classical scholarship was more about learning and exploring ideas than arguing for a single correct answer.

After observing this pattern, Rajpopat spent many late nights in the library over the next two years completing research needed to support the finding.

Rajpopat offered his answer to Pāṇini’s rule conflict with humility and respect for the centuries of work that came before him.

“I respect the tradition for all the things it has accurately taught us about Pāṇini's grammar. I also exercise my freedom to disagree with it when my brain requires me to do so,” Rajpopat said in an email.

Dr. Rishi Rajpopat solved an ancient puzzle posed by Pāṇini's 2,500-year-old language machine (Rishi Rajpopat).

“I have come to realize that the most important component of good research is not more learning (or learning more?) but in fact, unlearning,” Rajpopat continued. “It is only in identifying those parts which we don't understand fully and dismantling our existing knowledge / epistemological frameworks that the potential for discovery lies. It is this willingness to unlearn and relearn and to repeat this process as many times as required that enabled me to solve this puzzle.”

A classical South Asian language, Sanskrit is considered the sacred language of Hinduism and was used by ancient scholars to immortalize great scientific, philosophical and literary achievements.

In addition to inspiring confidence in Indian scholarship, Rajpopat hopes the discovery helps advance the development of language processing in modern computers.

As Rajpopat continues to write on Pāṇini’s work, he is also studying ancient Greek to pursue an interest in Indo-European comparative philology and Indo-Aryan historical linguistics. Rajpopat also reads in Hindi-Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, and Punjabi.

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