Sanskrit and Latin: The Similarities and Differences between them

Sanskrit and Latin are two ancient languages which are still studied today because they provide access to ancient texts as well as insights into linguistics.

There are some similarities between Sanskrit and Latin because both these languages are part of the Indo-European family of language. This means that they both originate from a common ancestor language called the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE).

Although there are similarities between Sanskrit and Latin due to their common origin, there are also some interesting differences between them which we will point out along the way.

Sanskrit and Latin similarities & differences in vocabulary

In order to understand the similarities and differences between Sanskrit and Latin, let us start by looking at some Sanskrit and Latin words which have made it into the English language.

Latin:
  • verbatim
  • a posteriori
  • alter ego
  • quid pro quo
  • cum laude
  • per diem
  • status quo
  • caveat emptor
  • sine qua non
Sanskrit:
  • karma
  • yoga
  • buddha
  • guru
  • mantra
  • nirvana
  • sutra
  • namaste
  • tantra

One of the first things we notice when looking at Latin and Sanskrit vocabulary words are the vowels.

In Sanskrit, the vowel 'a' seems to appear very frequently, while the vowels 'o' and 'e' seem to be much less frequent. In Latin, this doesn't seem to be the case.

That was just a small sample of Sanskrit and Latin vocabulary words. Now let's take several thousands of the most frequently occuring words in both languages. The results are plotted below:

Frequency distribution of vowels in Latin vs. Sanskrit

Sanskrit differs significantly from Latin in the frequency in which the different vowels appear.

The sanskrit language makes significant use of the vowel 'a', while the vowels 'o' and 'e' appear rarely. In Latin, each vowel appears with relatively similar frequency.

For this comparison, we restricted ourselves to the vowels which also exist in the English language (a, e, i, o, u). Sanskrit has additional vowels. In particular 'r' can be a vowel in Sanskrit.

Sanskrit and Latin similarities in vocabulary

Latin is not derived from Sanskrit, nor is Sanskrit derived from Latin. Both Sanskrit and Latin have a common ancestor language: the Proto-Indo-European language.

The Proto-Indo-European language is not spoken anymore and there are no written traces of it. It is a language which has been re-constructed by linguists based on linguistic patterns.

Words which are similar between Latin and Sankrit come from this Proto-Indo-European language.

For example, “fire” is « अग्नि » (agní) in Sanskrit and « ignis » in Latin. These words are similar because they are both descendants of the Proto-Indo-European word « hagnís ».

Another example: The Sanskrit word for “man” which is « वीर » (vīra) is similar to the Latin word « vir » which also means “man”. These words are etymologically related as they both descend from the Proto-Indo-European word « wihrós ».

A 3rd example: The Sanskrit word for “gift” which is « दान » (dāna) is similar to the Latin word « dōnum » which also means “gift”. These words are both descendants of the Proto-Indo-European word « déhnom ».

Here is table with some words which are similar between Sanskrit and Latin:

Table: Sanskrit and Latin similar words
English Sanskrit Latin
Donation, Gift दान (dāna) dōnum
Soul आत्मन् (ātman) anima
Fire अग्नि (agní) ignis
Man वीर (vīra) vir
House धामन् (dhāman) domus
Mother मातृ (mātr) māter
Father पितृ (pitr) pater
King राजन् (rājan) regem
God, Deity देव (deva) deus
Knee द्वजानु (jānu) genu
Great मह (mahā) magnus
New नव (nava) novus
This इदम् (idam) id
Nose नासिका (nāsikā) nasus
Night नक्त (nakta) nox
Interior अन्तर (antara) intra
Boat नौ (nau) navis

In linguistics, cognates are pairs of words from two different languages which have been derived from a common parent language.

Most of the similar words between Sanskrit and Latin are in fact cognates. They have come from the Proto-Indo-European language, which linguists believe is the common ancestor to both Sanskrit and Latin.

Sanskrit and Latin use different writing systems (alphabets):

Sanskrit vs Latin grammar

Grammar-wise there are some interesting similarities between Sanskrit and Latin.

Sanskrit and Latin are both highly inflected languages: in both these languages the endings of words change to indicate grammatical cases.

The 6 grammatical cases which Latin and Sanskrit have in common are (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, ablative, vocative). Sanskrit has 2 additional grammatical cases (locative, instrumental). In Latin, there are some residual traces of the locative case.

In contrast to the English language where articles ("the", "a", "an") are among the most common words, one noteworthy similarity between Latin and Sanskrit is that articles don’t exist in these two languages.

Classical Sanskrit has much longer words than Latin

In Sanskrit, compound nouns can be formed. In the earlier form of the Sanskrit language (Vedic Sanskrit), noun compounding was not that frequent, but in later periods (Classical Sanskrit) noun compounding became used a lot.

So much so, that the longest word featured in the Guinness book of world records, is a Sanskrit word.

That word - which appeared in a 16th-century text - is composed of 195 Sanskrit characters (428 letters when transliterated into the Latin alphabet). That makes it the longest word to ever appear in worldwide literature

In contrast to Sanskrit, Latin does not have this tendency to construct very long words. In Medieval Latin, the longest word to appear in a text is only 23 letters long.

Should I learn Sanskrit or Latin?

Sanskrit and Latin are both ancient languages which people still learn today. One of the reasons for this is that these languages give access to a wide range of important ancient texts.

Learning Sanskrit gives access to reading many works in their original text, including the following:

Learning Latin gives access to reading many works in their original text, including the following:

Learning Sanskrit is beneficial for those interested in Indian philosophy and spirituality (including yoga), while learning Latin is great for those interested in western literature and poetry.

The six Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan) are derived from Latin. So learning Latin will give you insights into these languages.

On a related note, we have previously looked at the similarities and differences between Italian and Latin, as well as those between Latin and French.

The Sanskrit language is relatively closely related to several languages including Hindi and the Pali language.

Sanskrit and Latin are both among the most studied ancient languages, and both are good choices for anyone with an interest in linguistics.

Conclusion: are Sanskrit and Latin similar languages?

Sanskrit and Latin are both related languages, which share a common ancestor language. As a result, Sanskrit and Latin share a number of similarities both in vocabulary and in grammar.

However, these two languages are still quite different from each other: they are far from being mutually intelligible. This means that someone who knows one of these languages will not be able to understand the other one without studying it.

Editor's note: You can use our free language tool to make your own vocabulary lists, and record your own phrases.