Compounds

This is the last lesson in our set of core lessons. To finish our summary of Sanskrit grammar, let's learn more about compounds, one of Sanskrit's most prominent features.

Compounds are words that are made by combining multiple words. Usually, we combine two words at a time. In English, we have compounds like:

  • “wallpaper” (paper for a wall)

  • “graybeard” (someone whose beard is gray)

  • “songwriter” (writer of songs)

  • “singer-songwriter” (both a singer and a songwriter)

Compounds are short and simple, and they save time for both the speaker and the listener. This is part of the reason they are so common in Sanskrit.

In this lesson, we will learn about two basic types of Sanskrit compounds. Each of these compounds has many subtleties, which we will set aside for now.

dvandva

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

English has many different compounds, but it doesn't have a compound like the dvandva compound. Still, we hope that the idea here is clear.

tatpuruṣa

The second compound type we'll study has counterparts in English. Here are some examples:

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

Understanding compounds

Often, we must rely on context to understand what compounds mean. For example, someone who doesn't know the word “wallpaper” might think it means “paper that is also a wall” (as in “I built this house with wallpaper”) or “paper that is on a wall” (as in “I hung my diploma next to my other wallpapers”).

If you know English, you probably know that these interpretations of ”wallpaper” don't make sense. And likewise for Sanskrit compounds. If you know their cultural context and are familiar with them, they are easy to understand. If not, they can be difficult.

Thankfully, there are some basic rules of thumb that we can use to tell compounds apart. For example, if all of 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. And there are some other basic tips for the other types of compounds. We'll discuss these more in a later lesson.

Review

  1. Describe the dvandva compound.

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