Computer science students keen to learn Sanskrit for coding, says University of Toronto faculty

    02-Jan-2021   
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There is an increasing tendency of computer science students joining Sanskrit courses, observed Libbie Millis, Assistant Professor in the department for the study of religion in the University of Toronto. The course she offers usually attracted students majoring in the study of religion, who are learning the language to further their research into Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Reading through her class list, however, Mills found that of six of the 40 enrolled students were actually computer science majors. “I'm always excited when there are students from an unexpected place,” she said.
 
There have been attempts in the past to study in detail the lingual connection between Sanskrit and Computer science. The first well-known publication that examined the relationship was in 1985 when NASA scientist Rick Briggs published a research paper in which he argued that the 3,500-year-old language was the best candidate for programming artificial intelligence technology – namely because of its adherence to rigid grammatical rules.
 
“Sanskrit is a very computational language. It’s a lot of syntax, which is the structure of programming itself. Classical Sanskrit is an engineered language,” said an Undergraduate Student at the University. Libbie Millis stresses to her students that this is not a typical language class, where after a few classes they’ll be able to casually practise what they have learned over coffee. “It’s not conversational, there’s too much to learn at the beginning,” she said. “They must learn the characters and how words get put together. It’s mind-bogglingly awful at first.”
 
She starts with what she calls the building blocks – “the order of sounds we produce out of our mouths ... from the throat to palate to teeth to lips” – and enthuses over the “tidiness of the language”, where a few root words are the basis of the entire Sanskrit vocabulary. “It's orderly,” Mills said. “If you know the systems for making words you can work backwards to the root to understand the meaning of the word. It’s creative in an organized way. It is kind of amazing.” Mills adds that she understands the affinity that computer programmers have with the language. “It’s good coding,” she said.