Sanskrit - Writing System

Writing System

This article is about how Sanskrit came to be written using various systems. For details of Sanskrit as written using devanāgari, see Devanagari.

Sanskrit was spoken in an oral society, and the oral tradition was maintained through the development of early classical Sanskrit literature. Writing was not introduced to India until after Sanskrit had evolved into the Prakrits; when it was written, the choice of writing system was influenced by the regional scripts of the scribes. Therefore, Sanskrit has no native script of its own. As such, virtually all of the major writing systems of South Asia have been used for the production of Sanskrit manuscripts. Since the late 19th century, devanāgari has become the de facto standard writing system for Sanskrit publication, quite possibly because of the European practice of printing Sanskritic texts in this script. Devanāgari is written from left to right, lacks distinct letter cases, and is recognizable by a distinctive horizontal line running along the tops of the letters that links them together.

The earliest known inscriptions in Sanskrit date to the 1st century BCE. They are in the Brahmi script, which was originally used for Prakrit, not Sanskrit. It has been described as a "paradox" that the first evidence of written Sanskrit occurs centuries later than that of the Prakrit languages which are its linguistic descendants. When Sanskrit was written down, it was first used for texts of an administrative, literary or scientific nature. The sacred texts were preserved orally, and were set down in writing, "reluctantly" (according to one commentator), and at a comparatively late date.

Brahmi evolved into a multiplicity of scripts of the Brahmic family, many of which were used to write Sanskrit. Roughly contemporary with the Brahmi, the Kharosthi script was used in the northwest of the subcontinent. Later (around the 4th to 8th centuries CE) the Gupta script, derived from Brahmi, became prevalent. From ca. the 8th century, the Sharada script evolved out of the Gupta script. The latter was displaced in its turn by Devanagari from ca. the 11/12th century, with intermediary stages such as the Siddham script. In Eastern India, the Bengali script and, later, the Oriya script, were used. In the south where Dravidian languages predominate, scripts used for Sanskrit include Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Grantha.

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