[FOM] Frits Staal: Indian linguistics and mathematical logic

John Kadvany jkadvany at sbcglobal.net
Fri Apr 6 18:25:15 EDT 2012

The eminent Indologist and Sanskrit scholar Frits Staal passed away on
February 19 at his retirement home in Thailand. 'The Hindu' newspaper writes:

''Staal argued that ancient Indian grammarians, especially Panini, had
completely mastered methods of linguistic theory not discovered again until
the 1950s. The Indians had thought about it long before modern mathematical
logic was applied to linguistics by Noam Chomsky.

The early methods allowed the construction of discrete, potentially infinite
generative systems, experts maintain. The formal basis for Panini's methods
involves the use of auxiliary markers, rediscovered in the 1930s by logician
Emil Post, whose rewrite systems are currently a standard approach for
description of computer languages, experts say.

Staal wrote, 'Panini is the Indian Euclid.' The Indologist describes how
Panini had expanded the spoken Sanskrit to a formal metalanguage."

The complete piece is at

Among Frits' many publications, examples of possible interest to FOM readers
include 'The concept of metalanguage and its Indian background', J. Indian
Phil., 1975 3(3), pp. 315-354; and 'The Sanskrit of science,' J. Indian Phil.,
1995, 23 (1), pp. 73-127. Among his several distinguished academic positions,
Frits was a long-time faculty member of UC Berkeley's Group in Logic and the
Methodology of Science, created by Alfred Tarski.

John Kadvany

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