Sanskrit And Lisp

This year my daughter’s school started teaching Sanskrit to her class. We were happy that she had a chance to pick up this beautiful language at such a young age. We told her that it is very expressive, has excellent grammar, has a well defined structure, and has loads of historic and religious literature published in it. It even has a built-in scheme for pronunciation, word formation and grammar. No wonder so many languages are derived from it.

After a couple of classes, our daughter came back to us with the question – why did we not use Sanskrit in our everyday life?! Here is what I came up with during our discussion:

  • Being a very systematic and structured language, it required formal training to use Sanskrit
  • As a side effect Sanskrit was perceived to more difficult to pick up as compared to other dialects and vernacular languages.
  • The institutions failed to reach out to the community and make it easier for them to adopt it.
  • As the masses started adopting other languages, their momentum was a lot more than what Sanskrit got from the institutions.
  • While a lot of literature in Sanskrit flourished, the ones that reached masses used the languages that they understood.
  • As a result, Sanskrit started getting irrelevant to the everyday tasks, and got more difficult to get things done.
  • Today there are many institutions which teach and promote Sanskrit. But they seem to be in a different world, not in sync with our everyday life.

Sanskrit is still quite powerful as compared to other languages. It is still more expressive, more systematic and can be made more suitable to what we do today. But that will require combined effort from institutions and people alike.

Very soon I realized that I could have the same discussion with my programmer fellows, just by replacing Sanskrit with Lisp in it. Like Sanskrit, Lisp is very powerful, very expressive, very systematic, but lacks adoption from the masses. I instinctively felt like starting a project using Lisp, but instead I opened up my vim and wrote this post! This felt a lot easier!

Discussion [Participate or Link]

  1. Chris Wysocki said:

    Wow, Lisp. That’s almost as old as Sanskrit, isn’t it? 🙂

    I used Lisp 30+ years ago. Sure it was elegant but it lost out to C and its derivatives because those are the languages all the cool kids liked.

    True story. A friend was assigned an engineering project by one of his professors. He immediately realized Lisp would be the perfect platform for doing it. But this professor insisted the project be coded in Fortran. My friend wrote it in Lisp anyway.

    The professor rejected his project because it wasn’t written in Fortran.

    So my friend wrote a Lisp interpreter in Fortran and handed his project back in.

    He got his A. And a standing ovation.

  2. waqas said:

    I disagree.

    First, I don’t think language which requires formal training would catch on. The popularity of a language is probably directly proportional to how easy+useful it is to pick up (you can include social effects in this).

    Second, the worst enemy of perfection is an alternative which is good enough. The dominant language is good enough for most, and Sanskrit doesn’t have enough going for it to displace it.

    Third, I’m not familiar with Sanskrit, but my view as an outsider is: This looks like a solution in search of a problem. The best it can do is get adopted by specific groups of people (which is the current state). And this would always be a forced adoption, not a natural one.

    Finally, Sanskrit doesn’t encourage macros, while Lisp does. It probably doesn’t even have much recursion to speak of. If it did, adoption by the masses would be flat out impossible 😉

    This did remind me of HTML vs. XHTML. And the Korean writing system (Hangul), which was specifically designed for adoption by the masses. It was so effective that despite opposition by the literary elite and being banned, it won: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hangul#History

  3. Appu said:

    I do not know about others but what I require honestly is:
    patience to learn Sanskrit language which I lack and that is why I find is difficult. These days instant is important maybe.

  4. Maxim said:

    I feel sanskrit is more difficult to learn compared to Lisp.


  5. vanita singh said:

    I neglected sanskrit in my school because i listened to my parents who were always telling me to focus on maths and science.I still regret it because you need understanding of sanskrit to understand india.

  6. khadija said:

    All that is gold does not glitter; not all those that wander are lost.

  7. Lambda Adi said:

    Just found this… and well, friend, you are not alone.

    Some rather clever people are researching this: http://sanskrit.inria.fr/Symposium/

    And yours truly, though totally amateur, independently chanced upon the same insight and ended up writing a whole essay on it.

    Please feel free to Fork “Lisp Is a Sanskrit Parallel” https://github.com/lambdadi/sicp/ 🙂

  8. John said:

    In Europe, Latin is looked at the same way you describe Sanskrit in India. So you could say Sanskrit is the Latin of India…?

  9. Mat said:

    It is been believed that, a minority group in Asia they believe that Saniskrit is their ancestors language and that is the language is being used by Gods.
    >Father of the nation (India) is also strongly believe that Gods can easily understand if any buddy pray in Sainskr.
    >Some people believe that this language directly related to Racism.
    >Some pple belive that Sanskrit came from ancient Tamil.

  10. Matt said:

    I guess,

    I think we can not compare Lain with Sanskrit.

    atleast more than 10% people speak Latin in Europe…
    but Not even 3% speak Sanskrt in India.

  11. Oleg Krasnianskiy said:

    I used to write comments in my Lisp code in Sanskrit.

  12. oblio said:

    @Matt – People don’t speak Latin in Europe, nobody speaks it anymore. A large percentage of the European population speaks Latin-based languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian), but not Latin. Latin is dead as a native language.

  13. Virendra Rajput said:

    thats exactly what we taught about Sanskrit, while in school!

    And the one’s who got away with taking it had higher grades than any of us. It was really difficult to even look at it, thats the reason why all of us avoided going to that class.

  14. Thomas Shaw said:

    Sanskrit has a very interesting history. It developed as every natural language has that we know of: as a vernacular language derived from earlier vernacular languages. It was codified in roughly the 6th c. bce because hindus percieved that the language was changing, and thought they needed a way to preserve holy texts in a way that the evolution of natural language would not corrupt. It has a lot in common with Latin, which played a similar role in christianity and then in academic circles well into the 18th century (although it wasn’t codified nearly as well, and didn’t remain as static).

    It’s almost always misleading to judge a language as more or less expressive than another, and there tend instead to be tradeoffs. It may be easier to express a variety of lofty concepts and relationships in sanskrit than other languages, but it may require proportionally more effort to express simple but very common ideas. Natural language will usually tend to favor the ease of expressing the simple ideas.

    That has parallels in programming. Most programmers would rather not think about higher order functions or category theory when they are writing software, even though the proportion of programmers thinking about those things is much higher than the proportion of people using natural language.

    Classical sanskrit did serve an important purpose in India well after it was a dead language, (one of the most interesting things about sanskrit is that the height of sanskrit literature was written by non-native speakers) but it was mainly used to express lofty ideas: poetry, theology, academic works.

    Every natural language changes. Remember sanskrit is a regular codification of a vernacular language. The reason so many languages are based on sanskrit is because various descendants of native speakers of sanskrit spoke it in slightly different ways, which added up over time. If every parent from now on raised their children as native speakers of sanskrit, there would already be dozens of varieties of sanskrit even after a few years, let alone a few hundred. It may only be three or four hundred years before various of the descendent languages were mutually unintelligible. Certainly they would be difficult for each other to understand.

  15. PM said:

    Passing the religious context of the use of a language, you mention that it is “expressive, has excellent grammar, has a well defined structure”. What do you mean by that exactly? Can you give real world examples? How does this compare with a programming language? Assuming it has all the traits you mentioned, what are the benefits of understanding them and using them in real life?

  16. YBS said:

    That’s not entirely true. Languages evolve. People used Sanskrit in the past but it evolved little by little no one realized it until a few hundred/thousand years when they looked back the old Sanskrit texts, they realized how far the language has evolved.

  17. Guru M said:


    The roots of lisp : http://www.paulgraham.com/rootsoflisp.html.
    It seems John McCarthy was influenced by Von Neumann.

    During the ‘Romantic Period’ lots of Europeans were keen on learning Sanskrit as it gave them a Pan-European identity instead of a country-based identity. In fact they even tried to create a common language called ‘Esperanto’.

    Many ideas from our Sanskriti were taken and shorn of their original moorings in Indian religion and culture and re-packaged as Western ideas.

    Rajiv Malhotra in his book ‘Being Different’ (and lots of related videos on youtube) digs out the past ‘mining’ and appropriation of our culture.

    Guru M

  18. Guru M said:


    While going through the basic course on Sanskrit saw the part where use of lookup tables is done for making (‘avyaya’) words using 8 forms of vibhakti. Instantly it reminded me of how XSLT creates a stack of possible rule-matches and processes inputs.

    I just followed up on the links to Sanskrit enlightenment and lo behold the AI-Sanskrit article shows a XML/XSLT processing flow chart!!


    Dhanyavaadaah Abhijit Nadgouda.
    Guru M

    P.S. : I’ve put your page on my facebook to share with friends on this superb topic. By the way do you know that Samskrit Bharati holds spoken Sanskrit classes all over India. Just think about it you could be using a superior form of Lisp in spoken language (without the lisping sound effect of course 😉 hehe )

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Abhijit Nadgouda
iface Consulting
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