Prakrit (also transliterated as Pracrit) (Sanskrit: prākṛta प्राकृत (from pra-kṛti प्रकृति)) is the name for a group of Middle Indic, Indo-Aryan languages, derived from Old Indic dialects. The word, derived from its indian root "Parikrit", itself has a flexible definition, being defined sometimes as, "original, natural, artless, normal, ordinary, usual", or "vernacular", in contrast to the literary and religious orthodoxy of saṃskṛtā. Alternatively, Prakrit can be taken to mean "derived from an original," means evolved in natural way. The Prakrits became literary languages, generally patronized by kings identified with the Kshatriya caste, but were regarded as illegitimate by the Brahmin orthodoxy. The earliest extant usage of Prakrit is the corpus of inscriptions of Asoka, emperor of India. The various Prakrit languages are associated with different patron dynasties, with different religions and different literary traditions, as well as different regions of the Indian subcontinent.
Dramatic Prakrits were those that were devised specifically for use in dramas and other literature. Whenever dialogue was written in a Prakrit, the reader would also be provided with a Sanskrit translation. None of these Prakrits came into being as vernaculars, but some ended up being used as such when Sanskrit fell out of favor.
The phrase "Dramatic Prakrits" often refers to three most prominent of them: Sauraseni, Magadhi, and Maharashtri. However, there were a slew of other less commonly used Prakrits that also fall into this category. These include Pracya, Bahliki, Daksinatya, Sakari, Candali, Sabari, Abhiri, Dramili, and Odri. There was an astoundingly strict structure to the use of these different Prakrits in dramas. Characters each spoke a different Prakrit based on their role and background; for example, Dramili was the language of "forest-dwellers", Sauraseni was spoken by "the heroine and her female friends", and Avanti was spoken by "cheats and rogues".
Maharashtri, the root of modern Marathi, is a particularly interesting case. Maharashtri was often used for poetry and as such, diverged from proper Sanskrit grammar mainly to fit the language to the meter of different styles of poetry. The new grammar stuck which leads to the unique flexibility of vowels lengths, amongst other anomalies, in Marathi.
As a Vernacular
Prakrit is foremost a native term, designating "vernaculars" as opposed to Sanskrit. Some modern scholars follow this classification by including all Middle Indo-Aryan languages under the rubric of "Prakrits", while others emphasise the independent development of these languages, often separated from the history of Sanskrit by wide divisions of caste, religion, and geography. While Prakrits were originally seen as "lower" forms of language, the influence they had on Sanskrit, allowing it to be more easily used by the common people, as well as "Sankritization" of Prakrits gave Prakrits progressively higher cultural cachet.
Ardhamagadhi ("half Magadhi"), an archaic form of Magadhi which was used extensively to write Jain scriptures, is often considered to be the definitive form of Prakrit, while others are considered variants thereof. Prakrit grammarians would give the full grammar of Ardhamagadhi first, and then define the other grammars with relation to it. For this reason, courses teaching "Prakrit" often teach Ardhamagadhi
Pali (the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism) tends to be treated as a special exception, as classical (Sanskrit) grammars do not consider it as a Prakrit per se, presumably for sectarian rather than linguistic reasons.
Each Prakrit represent a distinct tradition of literature within the history of India. Other Prakrits are reported in old historical sources, but are no longer spoken (e.g., Paisaci).
According to the dictionary of Monier Monier-Williams, the most frequent meanings of the Sanskrit term prakṛta, from which our "prakrit" is derived, are "original, natural, normal" and the term is derived from prakṛti, "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 saṃskṛta, "refined". This is the reason why many scholars believe that the Prakrits are older than Sanskrit. It was on the Prakrits that Sanskrit was refined.
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 Gāndhārī, and Paisāci, which is known through grammarians' statements. The modern languages of Northern India developed from the Prakrits, after the intermediary stage of the Apabhramsa language.