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Sanskrit is one of the oldest written Indo-European languages, and I would like to know about its intelligibility with PIE. It was spoken starting around 1500 BCE, and Proto Indo European was spoken around 3500 BCE. For some context regarding similar timespan, I asked my dad if he ever heard Latin and how much he understood because he speaks Spanish as well as English. He said he heard it in church and understood it a little. That is what my guess is: a little bit, but not much. I’d probably say more than my dad did because Spanish doesn’t have cases and Latin does. Sanskrit has all 8 cases.

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It is extremely unlikely that reconstructed PIE would be intelligible to a speaker of Sanskrit, but we can't know for sure since there aren't any native speakers of either language to do the test with. Testing with "preserved" languages like Latin, Ge'ez, Old Church Slavic is not a good test, especially Latin where many people have actually studied Latin. On phonological grounds, the divergence of presumed PIE and Vedic is rather substantial (substantial change in consonants via loss of laryngeals, labio-velars, change of palatals) plus a very different vowel system. The Sanskrit-PIE relation is more analogous to the Proto-Bantu to Shona difference... and Shona speakers cannot understand Venda, which is a very close relative within Bantu (and, they have no contact-based reason to be familiar with Venda). Phonological dissimilarity is an absolute barrier to comprehension, it doesn't matter if the case endings are very similar.

  • I don't think "on phonological grounds" is a good way of measuring similarity a reconstructed language. It still is technically possible that PIE was realized very similarly to Sanskrit. /a:/ and /eh2/ look different, but they could have both sounded something like [a:] (or maybe not; there's no way to know) – b a Feb 13 at 21:01
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    The question asks about understanding, not about similarity. But as I pointed out, the inter-comprehensibility question is scientifically unanswerable. – user6726 Feb 13 at 21:06
  • +1. Judging by the fact that it's often difficult or even impossible for people to understand regional dialects/varieties of their own native languages which just slightly differ in phonetics, rhythm, tempo, and stress, your answer sounds very plausible and well-grounded. – Yellow Sky Feb 13 at 21:37
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    @ba: Vocabulary and grammar are pronounced. If they are pronounced "wrong" -- differently enough not to be understood -- vocabulary and grammar are useless for communication. And communication is what drives language structure and language change. So you have to start with pronunciation, which all linguistics does. – jlawler Feb 14 at 1:08
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    great answer, saves typing out the same only to justify what should be comment, namely that the church Latin in question was very likely tainted by Spanish accent. Somebody once remarked to me that Latin was easy to write and read at least insofar it sounded just like their mothertongue, German. – vectory Feb 14 at 12:13
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The infamous William Jones did not even see that Hindi was derived from Sanskrit, so, considering the immense number of changes of all kinds that separate Old Indian from PIE, it is highly dubious that a speaker of Old Indian would understand even a word of PIE. I think (s)he would not even be able to perceive Old Indian is derived from PIE.
A speaker of Ancient Greek and Latin might understand a number of PIE words as the phonology is more conservative in Greek and Latin.

  • Not true, Sanskrit is conservative in different ways (e.g. maintaining more of the morphological structure of PIE and I would bet syntax as well). I totally disagree that an Ancient Greek or Latin speaker would fare any better in understanding PIE, the time gap is even greater than between PIE and Sanskrit. – Aryaman Feb 17 at 23:57
  • No, Sanskrit is not conservative, especially not conservative of PIE phonetics. The situation is better in Greek and Latin, for that matter a speaker of Ancient Greek or Latin might be able to understand a number of PIE words, somehow in the same way as a speaker of Italian may understand Latin words. The claim that the time gap between PIE and Greek / Latin is greater than the time gap between PIE and Sanskrit is nonsense. – Arnaud Fournet Feb 18 at 6:50

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