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Prakrit (Sanskrit prakrta: "natural, usual, vulgar") refers to the broad family of the Indic languages and dialects spoken in ancient India. The Prakrits were vernaculars, often used for ordinary speech, and may be contrasted with Sanskrit, which continued to be used as a literary language and quickly developed such features as written grammars. However, some Prakrits developed literary languages of their own and developed unique strains, a few of which are Sauraseni , Magadhi and Maharastri . We might say that the Prakrits are to Sanskrit as Vulgar Latin and the Romance languages are to Classical Latin.
Some scholars include all modern Indic languages ultimately derived from Sanskrit under the rubric of "Prakrits"; others prefer to designate as Prakrits only dialects and languages that were used in antiquity. Some define the Prakrit period as being between 1200 - 1000 BCE, while others place the period between the 3rd century BCE and the 4th century CE.
One notable Prakrit, is Pali, the language of the Tripitaka, often referred to in English as the "Pali Canon." This is the version of the Tripitaka (which historically occurred in several languages, including Sanskrit) that was compiled by the Theravada school of Buddhism. As a literary language of Buddhism, it has had some influence on both Sanskrit and a few modern Southeast Asian languages , such as Khmer and Thai.
According to the dictionary of Monier Monier-Williams, the most frequent meanings of the Sanskrit term "prakrta", from which our "prakrit" is derived, are "original, natural, artless, normal, ordinary, usual...low, vulgar, unrefined...provincial, vernacular," and the term is derived from prakrti, "making or placing before or at first, the original or natural form or condition of anything, original or primary substance." In linguistic terms, this is used in contrast with samskrta, "refined".
Virtually every Sanskrit student in India learns the traditional story that Sanskrit was created and then refined over many generations (traditionally more than a thousand years) until it was considered complete and perfect. Along this line, some have identified "Prakrit" as an original crude language from which Sanskrit was developed, though this is, of course, contrary to linguistic scholarship.
Some scholars restrict the Prakrits to the languages used by Hindu and Jain writers; others include the Buddhist languages, such as Pali and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, and the inscriptional Prakrits. Other Prakrits include the Ardhamagadhi, which is used to write Jain scriptures, Gāndhāri, and Paisaci, which is known through grammarians' statements. The modern languages of India developed from the Prakrits, after the intermediary stage of the Apabhramsa language.
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