Compounds

Compounds are words that we make by combining multiple words. Compounds are short and simple, and they save time for both the speaker and the listener:

  • गजानां वनम् → गजवनम्
    gajānāṃ vanam → gajavanam
    the forest of elephants

Sanskrit uses compounds extensively. In some styles of Sanskrit, almost every sentence will have a compound. And these compounds can also be quite long and intricate.

In this lesson, we will learn about two basic types of Sanskrit compounds. This is the last of our core lessons, and it will bring our survey of Sanskrit grammar to a close.

dvandva

In our first type of compound, we have two words that are in a list together. Here are some English examples of this type:

  • Indochina (India and China)

  • tractor-trailer (a tractor and a trailer)

In Sanskrit, these compounds are called dvandva compounds. The word dvandva literally means “pair.” Any set of words that could be combined with the word ca (“and”) can be combined into a dvandva:

  • रामः सीता → रामसीते
    rāmaḥ sītā ca → rāmasīte
    Rama and Sita

  • रामः सीता लक्ष्मणः → रामसीतालक्ष्मणाः
    rāmaḥ sītā lakṣmaṇaḥ ca → rāmasītālakṣmaṇāḥ
    Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana

tatpuruṣa

In our second type of compound, the first word describes the second in some way. Here are some English examples of this type:

  • “wallpaper” (paper for a wall)

  • “chessboard” (a board for chess)

  • “beekeeper” (keeper of bees)

In all of these compounds, the second word is the main idea, and the first word modifies it. In Sanskrit, this kind of compound is called a tatpuruṣa compound.

Here are some Sanskrit examples of tatpuruṣa compounds:

  • रामस्य माता → राममाता
    rāmasya mātā → rāmamātā
    Rama's mother

  • रामस्य पुत्रः → रामपुत्रः
    rāmasya putraḥ → rāmaputraḥ
    Rama's son

  • तस्य पुरुषः → तत्पुरुषः
    tasya puruṣaḥ → tatpuruṣaḥ
    his man

The word tatpuruṣa (“his man”) comes from the words tat (“he, that one”) and puruṣa (“man”). So, the word “tatpuruṣa” is itself a tatpuruṣa compound:

  • तस्य पुरुषः → तत्पुरुषः
    tasya puruṣaḥ → tatpuruṣaḥ
    his man

Understanding compounds

To understand a compound, it helps to know its context. For example, the word ”wallpaper” probably has a clear meaning to you. The strange interpretations below probably don't even occur to you:

  • “paper that is also a wall,” as in “I built this house with wallpaper.”

  • “paper that is on a wall,” as in “I hung my diploma next to my other wallpapers.”

These interpretations don't occur to you because you know the cultural context. You know what wallpaper is.

Many Sanskrit compounds are the same way. If you know their cultural context and are familiar with them, they are easy to understand. If not, they can be difficult to understand.

Thankfully, there are some basic rules of thumb that we can use to tell compounds apart. For example, if the words in a compound are all names, or all foods, or all flowers — that is, if they all have the same “type” — then the compound is probably a dvandva.

There are other basic rules we can use for the other types of compounds. We'll discuss these rules in a later lesson.

Review

  1. Describe the dvandva compound.

  2. Describe the tatpuruṣa compound. Think of your own English example.