'inherent ambiguities' in Sanskrit?

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Wed May 24 00:23:10 UTC 2000

I wrote:

> The inherent ambiguities in Sanskrit make it possible [...]

Dominik Wjastyk replied:

> I don't think any language can be called inherently ambiguous, unless such
> a claim is based on some quantitative measure of, say, numbers of
> homonyms.  Certainly Sanskrit is not any more inherently ambiguous than
> other languages.

I made this point in passing; whether it is right or wrong, let me try
to make my point clearer. What I had in mind didn't only concern the
number of homonyms in the language but as well the special
chronological problems faced by Indologists.

Sanskrit obviously has an immense vocabulary, and the meanings of
particular terms that at some point were related to writing (e.g.,
lipi, grantha) obviously evolved over time. From an outsider's
perspective -- and as a comparative historian, I'm perpetually an
outsider -- these chronological difficulties seem to present special
difficulties. Classical Greek and Latin too have immense vocabularies,
but the problems in dating Greek and Latin texts are usually (not
always) far less difficult than those faced by Indologists. Many terms
in Latin and Greek evolved as well, but when you have an ancient Latin
or Greek text in mind, you generally have a pretty good idea (within a
century or so) when the text originated. This gives you an edge when
you are attempting to establish the meaning of a word from a broader
set of possibilities. So far as I can tell, many of the arguments over
whether or not a specific Vedic text refers to writing arises from
these chronological difficulties. Does 'lipi' in Panini or 'grantha'
in another text refer to writing or books or something totally
different? The answer that Indologists give often depends heavily on
how they date the textual strata in which these words are embedded,
but those dates themselves are often hotly contended. The problem of
fixing the meanings of terms that may or may not refer to early
writing in Sanskrit becomes circular. Hence my suggestion about the
'inherent ambiguities' in the language, arising in part from these
chronological difficulties.

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