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There are some small pockets in India where people actually speak Sanskrit as a native language. From Wikipedia:

In these Indian villages, inhabitants of all castes speak Sanskrit natively since childhood:

  1. Mattur in Karnataka
  2. Jhiri, District: Rajgadh, Madhya Pradesh
  3. Ganoda, District: Banswada, Rajasthan
  4. Bawali, District: Bagapat, Uttar Pradesh
  5. Mohad, District: Narasinhpur, Madhya Pradesh
  6. Shyamsundarpur,District: Kendujhar, Odisha

Are these modern Sanskrit speakers studied? Are they preserving a holy language or is it evolving like a real living language?

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As far as I know, Mattur's effort is the oldest one, but that began in 1982.

Ganoda does not seem to be doing all that well. An article on Jhiri is happy to call the Mattur experiment a failure. (It isn't, AFAIK.)

As you can see here, and in the two links above, the motivation for speaking Sanskrit was to go back into tradition.

The towns/villages that have adopted Sanskrit are too far apart for neologisms of one location to be understood in another. The occasional movies made in Sanskrit, are aimed for Sanskrit speakers across India, and not specifically aimed at these native speakers of Sanskrit. These movies are based on traditional stories and themes. There are some news telecasts on radio and TV (in Sanskrit), broadcast across the country. Given:

  1. their motivations to adopt Sanskrit,
  2. how recently the efforts began,
  3. how far-apart these towns and villages are from each other,
  4. availability and themes of media in Sanskrit, and
  5. the intended audience of the media,

I don't see how this kind of a Sanskrit can be an evolving language.

Disclaimer: I have interacted with just one native speaker of Sanskrit, but that was over 15 years ago. He spoke just Sanskrit, I spoke no Sanskrit. Therefore, I cannot have first-hand information about the state of Sanskrit in these places.

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    @hippietrail This I can answer with first-hand info: my friend from Mattur was a monolingual Sanskrit speaker. I understand that businesses in Mattur use just Sanskrit. That gives me the impression that there are many more like him. – prash Sep 21 '11 at 22:27
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    I would say tha Matturites aren't monolingual. Though they heavily use Sanskrit, many of them understand Kannada. This is a must for them, because mattur is a small village and they have to visit other towns e.g. Shimoga-their district headquarter, the nearest city. So they can't possibly be monolingual. In fact, Indians are pretty much accustomed to bilingualism. – nb1 Jan 17 '12 at 6:41
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    @NikhilBellarykar: The person I met was training for monastic life at Ramakrishna Mission -- perhaps that gives you some context about his background. Educated Indians, by and large, are not monolingual, but I would not generalize to all Indians. – prash Feb 4 '12 at 13:00
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    @prash: Fine, I am not claiming that the person you met was ignorant in any way. But do take a look here at the comments on the article, people are saying that the Matturites know kannada as well. enidhi.net/2009/12/sanskrit-village-mattur-near-shimoga.html – nb1 Feb 4 '12 at 18:50
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    Sure... I get your point about most people there being bilingual. My point was only that this person was monolingual probably because of a very (unusually?) orthodox family background. – prash Feb 4 '12 at 19:36
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I proofread for publication a recent article on spoken Sanskrit: McCartney, Patrick. 2017b. Jhirī: A ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ village in Madhya Pradesh. Journal of South Asian Languages and Linguistics 4, 2:167–209. (See the pre-proofread version on academia.edu, and a Medium summary by the same author.)

To supplement the answer by @prash:

  • Neo-Sanskrit is not studied enough, clearly, and I'm happy that McCartney has been working on it. From his Medium article:

There is an interdisciplinary blind spot related to spoken Sanskrit. Currently, I know of no other academic research into the ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ village phenomenon. Since Srinivas (1952, 1955, 1956, 1989), several works have been written on the topic of spoken Sanskrit. This includes: Nakamura (1973); Aralikatti (1989, 1991); Hock & Pandharipandhe (1976); Hock (1983, 1991, 1992); Pandharipande, (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013); and Hastings (2004, 2008). Probably, however, the most cogent overview of the success and failure of spoken Sanskrit is Deshpande (2011).

  • The Jhiri experiment may not have failed as such, but it's not as healthy as advocates like to think: maybe a dozen speakers with some fluency in a village of 600, plastered with emblematic Sanskrit slogans. And a lot of factionalism and bickering (that McCartney made a real effort not to get caught up in), and falling out with the national body about not being purist enough—the kind of thing all too familiar from the close cousin of these revival efforts, artificial languages.
  • There is clearly and inevitably profound influence on spoken Sanskrit from the native languages of the speakers: Hindi and Malvi, in the case of Jhiri.
  • A living evolving Sanskrit is not the primary point of the revival: resacralising India is. And the internecine fights over purism make it clear that an evolving (i.e. "degrading") Sanskrit would not be welcome to many advocates either; but it is to some.
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These anecdotes are not supported by linguistic anthropological research and analysis of census data, which, as Nick Nicholas kindly points out, I have been doing. As well as continue to do. This is my website where all my papers and films on spoken Sanskrit are stored https://patrickmccartney.academia.edu/research#project2imaginingsanskritland - You might find this more recent lecture about my work on the census data, interesting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbpwJQsY8qQ&t=2s. I find it regrettable that many people choose to label me as something I'm not. EG - I must be a racist and hate India because I'm curious about the objective reality and vitality of Sanskrit and want to put it into proper perspective instead of falling in line and promoting narratives that are decidedly false. I get the romantic tendency, but the sentiment is misplaced. If Sanskrit were to be successfully revived then those advocating such a policy would need to have a better understanding of the situation, as opposed to copying and pasting lists of places where people supposedly speak as a mother tongue only fluent Sanskrit.

The more recent work I've done on all the Indian censuses back to 1881, which is the first time data on languages was collected, shows that the overwhelming majority of people who identify as a first, second, or third language speaker of Sanskrit live in urban, as opposed to, rural areas. The other fascinating insight is that whether someone identifies as a first, second, or third language speaker of Sanskrit, according to the census data (C-16/17 tables) a self-identified speaker of Sanskrit is overwhelmingly clustered with only two other languages... Hindi and English. So, we know, based on India's own census data that people who identify as Sanskrit speakers know Hindi and English and live in urban areas. The myth of 'Sanskrit is the language of the rural masses' is busted. We also know that it is a Hindi Belt thing. The majority of people who identify as Sanskrit speakers are found in UP, Bihar, MP, MH, etc...

Also, the politics and pragmatics of census data collection, not to mention the rules that enumerators are obligated to follow, means that if a person nominates Sanskrit as their mother tongue then they are not allowed to query it. So, what this means is that, given that the RSS and other groups like Samskrita Bharati think inflating language figures in the census is a productive step, at least to keep it above the 10,000 cut off for all scheduled languages, we can, at least, use the census data to show where people were at the time of each census who identify as a speaker of Sanskrit; which, obviously, is a completely different phenomenon to actually being able to hold a conversation on different topics, in different domains, with different registers, etc. Here is a paper recently published - http://www.academia.edu/attachments/61419235/download_file?s=portfolio and here is a short paper on the census data http://www.academia.edu/attachments/61411938/download_file?s=portfolio - I have more papers coming out soon on this topic. :-)

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Sanskrit in South India (when/if learned) has a lot of influence from native Dravidian languages:

  1. most of the times, it's written in the local Dravidian script and not in Dev'nag'ri

  2. people pronounce it with a heavy Dravidian accent (even Sanskrit loans in Malayalam are pronounced in a Dravidian way in 99% of situations, most Malayalis pronounce Bhavana as simple Bavana or Bavna, intervocalic GH is pronounced as kh or k or g or as a soft g, it is very rare to hear the ''correct'' Sanskrit pronunciation of Sanskrit words in Malayalam, most of the times, people treat them like normal Dravidian words).

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    (1) Sanskrit does not have a native script of its own. (2) The features you describe are not shared by all Dravidian languages. – prash Feb 4 '12 at 12:56
  • Loss of aspiration is shared by all major Dravidian languages. In Brahmin sociolects of Dravidian languages, this may not (and often does not) feature prominently, esp in pronounciation of Sanskrit words. But otherwise, loss of aspiration is a major feature of "Dravidian accent/s", so to speak. The Tamil rendering of many Sanskrit words is a different issue altogether, as this is not shared by Kannada and Telugu. – nb1 Feb 4 '12 at 18:58
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    @NikhilBellarykar: I don't get what you mean about loss of aspiration being shared by all major Dravidian languages. Kannada and Telugu are no less Dravidian than Tamil or Malayalam. Yet, the Kannada alphabet is nearly identical (in range) to Devanagari: compare ಕ ಖ ಗ ಘ to क ख ग घ. – prash Feb 4 '12 at 19:46
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    The alphabet having aspirated letters does not mean that the spoken language contains them. Although Kannada and Telugu alphabets are nearly identical with Devnagari alphabet, the spoken languages show a prominent loss of aspiration. I have observed this for Kannada as well as Telugu speakers when they speak Hindi as well as their respective mothertongue. – nb1 Feb 6 '12 at 7:04
  • The Kannada alphabet recited: youtube.com/watch?v=qJJ_gOdIuHo. A dialect typical of south Karnataka: youtube.com/watch?v=bPbkhswCSNY. A dialect typical of coastal Karnataka: youtube.com/watch?v=kiGopyreV6w. Next up: you'll have to get some kannada text, find a recitation of it, and see if the pronunciation corresponds to my first link. Some non-native Hindi speakers pronounce things in strange ways. That does not mean these sounds are absent from the language. – prash Feb 6 '12 at 12:41

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