How Sanskrit came to be considered the best language for computer programming – Dilip D’Souza

Devanagari (Sanskrit) Keyboard

Dilip D'SouzaBut while Rick Briggs’ abstract does say that “a natural language can serve as an artificial language also”, nowhere in the paper did he claim that Sanskrit is “the most suitable language for computer software”. – Dilip D’Souza

About Sanskrit in contemporary India, there are two things of note.

The first is typified by what I found in the Hindustan Times [some months] ago. When a mobile app firm observed August 15 by asking people to tweet with the hashtag #IndianAndProud, many Indians responded. A selection of their 140-or-less character epigrams covered three full pages in the paper on August 19. One repeated an assertion that’s been made so often it’s no longer even questioned: that “Sanskrit is considered the most suitable language for computer software”.

The way I’ve often seen it, that statement is usually prefixed by the words “A report in Forbes magazine in 1987 said that….” Perhaps in this case the Twitter character limit forced their omission. But this attribution to Forbes has been made so often, it is no longer even questioned. Though if it was, we’d find that no such report was ever in Forbes, whether in 1987 or any other time.

So why do so many people appear to believe it? Or what does it even mean? Or where did this shibboleth come from in the first place?

Computer Operator IconNatural language for computers

To answer that, you have to go back about 30 years, to 1985. That’s when, in a previous life, I was writing software for a living, particularly in a field that the industry was actively trying to profit from at the time, Artificial Intelligence. That year, a researcher named Rick Briggs at National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, made waves by publishing a paper in AI Magazine, titled “Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence.” (Abstract and full text available here.)

This is the paper that would launch a thousand claims about Sanskrit and software.

Now a major AI goal at the time was to get computers to understand “natural language”—meaning not Lisp or C or Prolog, which they all did quite well, but languages we humans speak. Like English, or Hindi, or Tagalog—or, for that matter, Sanskrit. That you can today ask Google a perfectly grammatical English question (try “What is the temperature on Tristan da Cunha?”) and actually get meaningful results owes something to those early research efforts. And Briggs alerted AI folks to something fascinating and useful: that the grammar of Sanskrit—structured and rule-based as it was—had significant lessons for this business of natural language understanding. Studying the way ancient Indian grammarians worked, Briggs suggested, might help AI researchers “finally solve the natural language understanding [problem]”.

All of which is fascinating enough. But while his abstract does say that “a natural language can serve as an artificial language also”, nowhere in the paper did Briggs claim that Sanskrit is “the most suitable language for computer software”. That second is an essentially meaningless statement.

For one thing, different kinds of software are suited to different computer languages. Much of AI research has happened in Lisp, for example, because of its ability to manipulate words and sentences—but Lisp is nearly unheard of outside AI. So there is no such thing as the “most suitable language” for software. But for another thing, if it was indeed so spot-on suitable, we’d have seen software written in Sanskrit by now. That we haven’t is a pointer to the truth: certainly the rigorous rules of Sanskrit grammar have lessons for AI, but writing software is another challenge altogether. The way computers are built requires a certain clear and unmistakable logic in how we give instructions to them. Nobody has yet found a way to do that in any natural language, whether Sanskrit or English or Tagalog.

SanskritElective, not mandatory

Which brings us to the other thing about Sanskrit in contemporary India: Himachal Pradesh has announced that “Sanskrit will be made a mandatory subject in all government schools” in the state.

Why would a state force its students—or at least, the students in government schools—to learn Sanskrit? This is not to suggest that no students must learn it, not at all. After all, plenty of the collective wisdom of this country, gathered over many centuries, is recorded in Sanskrit and is, we believe, stored somewhere safe. I would have liked to learn enough Sanskrit—and maybe will someday—to read and understand even the line Rick Briggs deconstructs in his paper: “Maitrah: sauhardyat Devadattaya odanam ghate agnina pacati.” (He did kindly translate: “Out of friendship, Maitra cooks rice for Devadatta in a pot over a fire.”) And of course some of us—AI researchers, in particular—would do well to learn enough of the language’s grammar to use it as Briggs suggests.

The word, of course, is “some”. Some of us will learn the intricacies of quantum mechanics, so as to tackle the endless mysteries of our universe. Some of us will learn the ins and outs of economics, so as to understand the dynamics of trade and markets. But not all of us. Because we don’t need that knowledge to live our lives. Which is why those subjects are not taught to every school-going kid.

In the same way as it would make no sense to make quantum mechanics and economics mandatory, it makes no sense to make Sanskrit mandatory in schools. Make it available as an elective for those who want to study it; leave the rest to focus on their other subjects.

Because for all its precise grammar and its centuries of history, this is the truth about Sanskrit: few people today speak it—just over 14,000 according to the 2001 Census, in fact. And certainly computers don’t speak it. – Scroll.in, 25 August 2015

» Dilip D’Souza is an author and correspondent in the communications and media industry at Mumbai. Follow him on Twitter @DeathEndsFun.

Sanskrit class in Auroville

See also

Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence – Rick Briggs

  1. Abstract
  2. Full Text
 

6 Responses

  1. I can’t understand why Bharatbharati would post an article from a blog site (scroll.in), which is totally against Hindu views and perspectives.

    • You are definitely in the wrong place, Balaji. Try Hindu Post or Hindu Janajagruti Samiti if you want politically correct Hindu news.

      This website is concerned about getting at the facts even if the facts are presented in an unsympathetic, antagonistic way.

      Which Hindu website has the gumption to expose the truth about the dearly held Hindu belief that Sanskrit is the perfect computer software language?

      Which of the Administrator’s critics has actually read the article on Sanskrit and computer languages by Rick Briggs and learned something fascinating and new about the language they love?

      Instead the Administrator’s critics focus on side issues and non issues because they haven’t got the probity to admit that their dearly held Sanskrit-is-the-perfect-computer-language fairy tale is false.

  2. Sita Ram Goel wanted Sanskrit to be the national language.

    Though he wrote novels in Hindi, he maintained it was a mistake to make Hindi the national language. He has been proved right.

    He spoke and wrote half a dozen languages but regretted that he had never learned a South Indian language. When touring the temples of the South, he spoke to the priests and many educated pilgrims in Sanskrit and found this to be very gratifying.

    The point of the article is to debunk the popularly held belief that Sanskrit is the perfect computer software language. Many people accept this claim simply because it has been repeated thousands of times on social media, the same way they believe that the Vatican was originally a Shiva temple or that there is a formula for building airplanes in the Veda (the ancient Sanskrit formula has been tested by the best aeronautics engineers and they have not been able to build a flying machine of any kind).

    The author’s opinions about Sanskrit in the last part of the article can be ignored. They are just his opinions, while the first part of the article concerning artificial intelligence, computer languages and Sanskrit is well researched, referenced and clearly explained for the lay reader (like this dumb editor).

    But a dearly held belief debunked will always attract angry responses!

    • i beg your pardon , sir ,

      the last two paragraphs in the article , contrary to what you said , are not ‘just his opinions’

      the last para is a clear ridicule ; it has no relevance to the article proper ;

      the one previous to that sounds so childish that one suspects something else between the lines :
      does anyone expect quantum mechanics to be taught to school children ?
      does anyone equate a scientific pursuit to a language which is a medium of communication , which is thousands-of-years-old and which is our national heritage ?
      are these the lines to be expected of a person of scientific temper ?

      btw , i never held any firm belief that Sanskr.t is suitable for computers ;
      who cares ?
      no real Sanskr.tist needs a certificate for Sanskr.t to the effect that It is suitable for computers !
      It has in It , It gives us , what all we need to achieve our lives’ ultimate goal , which no computer science can give , which nothing else can give .

  3. I found this article quite interesting. However, the author misses the point about Sanskrit. It need not be taught to school children as if it were quantum mechanics or Keynesian economics.

    It is simply a national language of great antiquity and has some of the oldest literature in the world.

    The Rig Veda, for instance, is the oldest expression of religious sentiments and is about 7000 years BCE. Sanskrit is the preminent language of the Veda, of scientific and philosophical achievements etc. Panini’s grammar is considered the first work in linguistics etc.

    Given its high status Indians do not need any certificates from foreign sources. Sanskrit may or may not be the most suitable language for AI, but it is most suited for Indian school children to learn, simply as the most important national language and the parent language of most Indian languages.

  4. i am yet to understand what great message the author wants to convey !
    and there are some absurdities :
    i quote the author :

    “………..as it would make no sense to make quantum mechanics and economics mandatory, it makes no sense to make Sanskrit mandatory in schools……………”

    it may be mentioned here that Sanskrit is not any ‘subject’ like quantum mechanics or others that prompt us for research or aid us in earning a living ;
    It is basically a language , a perfect & intelligent language , That which stores our culture , our ethos , our religion —
    simply It is our heritage ;
    why not make it mandatory to learn It ?

    “……….for all its precise grammar and its centuries of history, this is the truth about Sanskrit: few people today speak it…………”

    it is o u r misfortune that we don’t speak It — to be true ,
    pests and weeds are many , flowering and fruit-bearing trees are only a few……….

    and , no loss incurred or no harm done to Sanskr.t if computers don’t speak It …..
    there are enough wise people who know Its value !

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: