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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

15 December 2022
A grammatical problem which has defeated Sanskrit scholars since the 5th Century BC has finally been solved by former FAMES PhD student. Rishi Rajpopat made the breakthrough by decoding a rule taught by “the father of linguistics” Pāṇini.

The discovery makes it possible to 'derive' any Sanskrit word – to construct millions of grammatically correct words including ‘mantra’ and ‘guru’ – using Pāṇini’s revered ‘language machine’ which is widely considered to be one of the greatest intellectual achievements in history.

Leading Sanskrit experts have described Rajpopat’s discovery as ‘revolutionary’ and it could now mean that Pāṇini’s grammar can be taught to computers for the first time.

 [The study and a selection of images can be downloaded here]

Rajpopat rejects this, arguing instead that Pāṇini meant that between rules applicable to the left and right sides of a word respectively, Pāṇini wanted us to choose the rule applicable to the right side. Employing this interpretation, Rajpopat found Pāṇini’s language machine produced grammatically correct words with almost no exceptions.

And in the the sentence 'jñānaṁ dīyate guruṇā' ('Knowledge [jñānaṁ] is given [dīyate] by the guru [guruṇā]') we encounter rule conflict when deriving guruṇā 'by the guru'. The derivation starts with ‘guru + ā’. One rule is applicable to left part 'guru' and the other to right part 'ā'. We must pick the rule applicable to the right part ‘ā’, which gives us the correct form ‘guruṇā’.

Eureka moment

Rajpopat said: "Computer scientists working on Natural Language Processing gave up on rule-based approaches over 50 years ago.

R.A. Rajpopat, ‘In Pāṇini We Trust: Discovering the Algorithm for Rule Conflict Resolution in the Aṣṭādhyāyī’, PhD thesis (University of Cambridge, 2022). DOI: 10.17863/CAM.80099