Nominals

In the previous lesson, we learned about basic Sanskrit sentences. Sanskrit sentences use three main word types: verbs like paśyati, “naming” words like rāmaḥ, and a third type that we'll study in a later lesson.

“Naming” words like rāmaḥ are called nouns. But Sanskrit has many other kinds of words that behave similarly to nouns. These include:

  • adjectives (“happy”, “sad”, “delighted”)

  • pronouns (“he”, “she”, “they”)

  • numerals (“one”, “two”, “three”)

For convenience, let's call all of these words nominals. “Nominal” is a word that means “name-like.” So a nominal is a word that is like a noun.

Stems and endings

Let's start our discussion with some simple nominal words:

  • रामः
    rāmaḥ
    Rama (as the subject of the sentence)

  • रामम्
    rāmam
    Rama (as the object of the sentence)

Each of these words has two parts: a simple “core” that expresses the main idea of “Rama” and an ending that modifies this basic idea in some way:

  • राम + → रामः
    rāma + → rāmaḥ
    Rama (as the subject of the sentence)

  • राम + म् → रामम्
    rāma + m → rāmam
    Rama (as the object)

rāma is called a stem, and and m are called endings. Just as many flowers might grow from a single plant stem, many words might grow from the same word stem.

As you can see in the examples above, a nominal ending can show whether a word is the subject of the sentence or the object of the sentence. These endings can show other kinds of information too.

Specifically, a nominal ending shows three basic kinds of information in Sanskrit. Let's learn more about what these three kinds of information are.

Gender

The first kind of information we get from a nominal ending is its gender. In the examples below, notice how the nominal ending changes:

  • गजः पश्यति।
    gajaḥ paśyati.
    The (male) elephant sees.

  • गजा पश्यति।
    gajā paśyati.
    The (female) elephant sees.

Word gender is similar to our real-world concept of male and female genders. Usually, male-gendered beings use a masculine gender and female-gendered beings use a feminine gender. Sanskrit also has a neuter gender that is neither male nor female.

Each Sanskrit noun has its own gender. If a noun refers to a person or animal, it is usually easy to guess the noun's gender. But when a noun does not refer to a person or animal, it can be hard to guess what the gender should be. For example, consider the nouns below. None of these genders is obvious:

  • वृक्ष
    vṛkṣa
    tree (masculine)

  • नदी
    nadī
    river (feminine)

  • फल
    phala
    fruit (neuter)

  • योग
    yoga
    yoga (masculine)

  • कीर्ति
    kīrti
    glory (feminine)

  • वैराग्य
    vairāgya
    dispassion (neuter)

Fortunately, we can usually guess a noun's gender by examining how its stem ends. We'll explain this more in a later lesson.

Number

The second kind of information we get from a nominal ending is its number. Simply, “number” is the number of items the nominal refers to. It might refer to one item, which is called the singular:

  • गजः पश्यति।
    gajaḥ paśyati.
    The (one) elephant sees.

To two items, which is called the dual:

  • गजौ पश्यतः।
    gajau paśyataḥ.
    The two elephants see.

Or to more than two items, which is called the plural:

  • गजाः पश्यन्ति।
    gajāḥ paśyanti.
    The (many) elephants see.

Notice that the verb paśyati changes when the number of the noun changes. Verbs like paśyati have number as well. Usually, the verb's number and the subject's number should match.

Case

The third kind of information we get from a nominal ending is its case. ”Case” is a technical word that is hard to define. Roughly, a word's case is the role that the word plays in the sentence: whether it is a subject, an object, or something else.

In the examples below, all of the highlighted words use the stem gaja, which means “elephant.” But each example uses gaja in a different case. Notice that when the case change, the role of gaja in the sentence changes as well:

  • गजश् चरति।
    gajaś carati.
    The elephant walks.

  • रामो गजं चरति।
    rāmo gajaṃ carati.
    Rama walks to the elephant.

  • रामो गजेन चरति।
    rāmo gajena carati.
    Rama walks by means of the elephant.

  • रामो गजाय चरति।
    rāmo gajāya carati.
    Rama walks for the elephant.

  • रामो गजात् फलं चरति।
    rāmo gajāt phalaṃ carati.
    Rama walks from the elephant to the fruit.

  • रामो गजस्य फलम् चरति।
    rāmo gajasya phalam carati.
    Rama walks to the elephant's fruit.

  • रामो गजे चरति।
    rāmo gaje carati.
    Rama walks on the elephant.

  • हे गज रामं चर।
    he gaja rāmaṃ cara.
    Hey elephant! Walk to Rama.

Adjectives and nouns

In the previous examples, we saw that a verb's number might change to match a nominal's number. In the same way, an adjective must use the same gender, case, and number as the noun it describes:

  • कृष्णः खगः
    kṛṣṇaḥ khagaḥ
    black bird

  • कृष्णौ खगौ
    kṛṣṇau khagau
    two black birds

  • कृष्णाः खगाः
    kṛṣṇāḥ khagāḥ
    (many) black birds

  • रामः कृष्णं खगं पश्यति।
    rāmaḥ kṛṣṇaṃ khagaṃ paśyati.
    Rama sees a black bird.

To use a technical term, we say that an adjective agrees with the noun it describes.

Review

Nominal words are one of the three main types of Sanskrit words. In the next lesson, we'll learn about the second main type: verbs like paśyati and carati.

  1. Nominal words have two basic parts. What are those two basic parts?

  2. What are the three genders?

  3. What are the three numbers?

  4. Roughly, a nominal's case is the role the nominal plays in the sentence. Give an example of a role that a nominal could play.