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, which describe a noun:

  • कृष्णो गौः खादति।
    kṛṣṇo gauḥ khādati.
    The black cow eats.

  • श्वेता स्वपिति।
    śvetā svapiti.
    The white one sleeps.

  • सुखिनो गजाः पिबन्ति।
    sukhino gajāḥ pibanti.
    The happy elephants drink.

pronouns, which replace a noun:

  • खादति।
    sa khādati.
    He eats.

  • सा स्वपिति।
    svapiti.
    She sleeps.

  • ते पिबन्ति।
    te pibanti.
    They drink.

and numerals, which tell us how many of something we have:

  • एको गौः खादति
    eko gauḥ khādati
    One cow eats.

  • एका स्वपिति।
    ekā svapiti.
    One sleeps.

  • त्रयो गजाः पिबन्ति।
    trayo gajāḥ pibanti.
    Three elephants drink.

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. First, there is a simple core that expresses the main idea of “Rama”:

  • राम
    rāma
    Rama

Second, we have 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:

  • रामाय फलं ददाति।
    sa rāmāya phalaṃ dadāti.
    He gives a fruit to Rama.

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. This change shows a change in the noun's gender:

  • 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:

  • एतत् फलम्
    etat phalam.
    This is a fruit.

Each Sanskrit noun has its own gender. If a noun refers to a person or animal, we can usually 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)

  • फल
    phala
    fruit (neuter)

  • अग्नि
    agni
    fire (masculine)

  • कीर्ति
    kīrti
    glory (feminine)

  • नदी
    nadī
    river (feminine)

  • सेनानी
    senānī
    army leader (masculine)

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.

Sanskrit uses eight different cases. Case 1 is usually the subject of the action:

  • सिंहः पश्यति।
    siṃhaḥ paśyati.
    The lion sees.

Case 2 is usually the object:

  • सिंहो ग्रामं पश्यति।
    siṃho grāmaṃ paśyati.
    The lion sees a village.

Case 3 usually means “by means of”:

  • सिंहो मार्गेण ग्रामं गच्छति।
    siṃho mārgeṇa grāmaṃ gacchati.
    The lion goes to the village by means of the road.

Case 4 usually means “for”:

  • सिंहो मांसाय ग्रामं गच्छति।
    siṃho māṃsāya grāmaṃ gacchati.
    The lion goes to the village for meat.

Case 5 usually means “from”:

  • सिंहो वनाद् ग्रामं गच्छति।
    siṃho vanād grāmaṃ gacchati.
    The lion goes from the forest to the village.

Case 6 usually means “of”:

  • सिंहो ग्रामस्य नरान् खादति।
    siṃho grāmasya narān khādati.
    The lion eats the men of the village (or, the village's men).

Case 7 usually means “on” or “in”:

  • सिंहो ग्रामे चरति।
    siṃho grāme carati.
    The lion walks in the village.

And case 8 is the person being spoken to:

  • हे सिंह वनं गच्छ।
    he siṃha vanaṃ gaccha.
    Hey lion! Go to the forest.

Using adjectives

In Sanskrit, we can use adjectives without a noun:

  • कृष्णो गच्छति।
    kṛṣṇo gacchati.
    The black one goes.

  • सुन्दराः खादन्ति।
    sundarāḥ khādanti.
    The handsome ones eat.

If we do use a noun, the 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.

More technically, we can say that an adjective must agree 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. Choose one of the eight cases and explain what it means.