2,500-year-old puzzle solved by Indian student

Source: The post is based on the article “2,500-year-old puzzle solved by Indian student” published in The Hindu on 17th December 2022

What is the News?

In his PhD thesis, Cambridge scholar Dr Rishi Rajpopat claims to have solved Sanskrit’s biggest puzzle—a grammar problem found in the ‘Ashtadhyayi’, an ancient text written by the scholar Panini towards the end of the 4th century BC.

What exactly was the problem?

Ashtadhyayi was written more than 2,000 years ago. It is a linguistics text that set the standard for how Sanskrit was meant to be written and spoken. 

It delves deep into the language’s phonetics, syntax and grammar, and also offers a ‘language machine’, where one can feed in the root and suffix of any Sanskrit word and get grammatically correct words and sentences in return.

To ensure this ‘machine’ was accurate, Panini wrote a set of 4,000 rules dictating its logic. But as scholars studied it, they found that two or more of the rules could apply at the same time, causing confusion. 

To resolve this, Panini had provided a ‘meta-rule’ (a rule governing rules), which had historically been interpreted as: ‘In the event of a conflict between two rules of equal strength, the rule that comes later in the serial order of the ‘Ashtadhyayi’ wins’.

However, following this interpretation also did not solve the machine’s problem.

How did Dr Rishi Rajpopat solve this problem?

In his thesis titled ‘In Panini We Trust’, Dr Rajpopat took a simpler approach arguing that the meta-rule has been wrongly interpreted throughout history. What Panini actually meant was that for rules applying to the left and right sides of a word, readers should use the right-hand side rule.

Using this logic, he found that the ‘Ashtadhyayi’ could finally become an accurate ‘language machine’, producing grammatically sound words and sentences almost every time.

The discovery now makes it possible to construct millions of Sanskrit words using Panini’s system—and since his grammar rules were exact and formulaic, they can act as a Sanskrit language algorithm that can be taught to computers.

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