The nominal system

Nominals are “naming” words. Along with verbs and uninflected words, they are one of the three main types of Sanskrit word. We use the word nominal so that we can refer to many different types of words at once. These types include nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and numerals.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the basic parts of a nominal word. We'll also learn what kinds of meanings the different nominal endings can express.

Stems and endings

Every nominal word has two parts: a stem and an ending. In the examples below, we combine a stem with its ending to create a complete word:

  • सिंह + → सिंहः
    siṃha + → siṃhaḥ
    the lion

  • सिंह + स्य → सिंहस्य
    siṃha + sya → siṃhasya
    of the lion

  • सिंह + ऐः → सिंहैः
    siṃha + aiḥ → siṃhaiḥ
    by the lions

The stem contains the nominal's basic meaning. And the ending expresses three basic kinds of information: gender, number, and case.

The three genders

In the core lessons, we learned that Sanskrit nominals use three different genders. These are the masculine gender:

  • सिंहो गच्छति
    siṃho gacchati
    The (male) lion goes.

the feminine gender:

  • सिंहा गच्छति
    siṃhā gacchati
    The (female) lion goes.

and the neuter gender:

  • वनम् अस्ति
    vanam asti
    There is a forest.

Many nominal stems can freely use any of these three genders. But noun stems generally use a fixed gender. Noun stems use a fixed gender even if they don't refer to living beings:

  • योग
    yoga
    yoga (masculine)

  • नीति
    nīti
    wise conduct (feminine)

  • निर्वाण
    nirvāṇa
    nirvana (neuter)

How do we determine which gender a noun should use? We can usually determine a noun's gender by noticing the sounds at the end of a stem. Here are some basic rules that might be helpful:

  • Nouns ending in -a are never feminine.

  • Nouns ending in , , and are almost always feminine.

  • Nouns made with the -tra and -ana suffixes are usually neuter.

The three numbers

In the core lessons, we saw that Sanskrit nominals use three different numbers (vacana). These are the singular, which is used for one item:

  • सिंहः पश्यति।
    siṃhaḥ paśyati.
    The lion sees.

the dual, which is used for exactly two items:

  • सिंहौ पश्यतः।
    siṃhau paśyataḥ.
    The two lions see.

and the plural, which is used for three or more items:

  • सिंहाः पश्यन्ति।
    siṃhāḥ paśyanti.
    The (many) lions see.

Verbs also use all three of these numbers. In a Sanskrit sentence, the verb and the case 1 noun should have the same number.

The eight cases

Case, roughly speaking, is the name for the way that Sanskrit nominals express different roles in a sentence. Sanskrit uses eight different cases.

Case 1 can be thought of as the default case. Usually, it refers to the subject of the action:

  • सिंहः खादति।
    siṃhaḥ khādati.
    The lion eats.

But this depends on the prayoga of the verb. For example, consider the two sentences below. Both use siṃhaḥ in case 1. But the meaning of siṃhaḥ in each sentence is very different:

  • सिंहः खादति।
    siṃhaḥ khādati.
    The lion eats.
    (kartari prayoga. The lion is the subject of the sentence.)

  • सिंहः खाद्यते।
    siṃhaḥ khādyate.
    The lion is eaten.
    (karmaṇi prayoga. The lion is the object of the sentence.)

Case 2 is generally the object of the action. It is also used for destinations:

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

  • सिंहो ग्रामं गच्छति।
    siṃho grāmaṃ gacchati.
    The lion goes to the village.

Case 3 generally means “with” or “by means of”:

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

Case 4 generally means “for” or “for the sake of”:

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

  • सिंहः खादनाय ग्रामं गच्छति।
    siṃhaḥ khādanāya grāmaṃ gacchati.
    The lion goes to the village for eating (“to eat”).

Case 5 generally means “from,” “than,” or “because of”:

  • नरः वनाद् ग्रामं गच्छति।
    naraḥ vanād grāmaṃ gacchati.
    A man goes from the forest to the village.

  • सिंहो नराद् बलवत्तरः।
    siṃho narād balavattaraḥ.
    The lion is stronger than the man.

  • नरः भयाद् गृहं गच्छति।
    naraḥ bhayād gṛhaṃ gacchati.
    The man goes home from (because of) fear.

Case 6 generally means “of”:

  • सिंहो नरस्य गृहं गच्छति।
    siṃho narasya gṛhaṃ gacchati.
    The lion goes to the house of the man (or, the man's house).

  • सिंहो नरस्य मांसं खादति।
    siṃho narasya māṃsaṃ khādati.
    The lion eats the meat of the man.

Case 7 generally means “in” or “on”:

  • नरो सिंहे ऽस्ति।
    naro siṃhe 'sti.
    The man is in the lion.

  • 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.

Here is what these cases are called in other resources:

Our name Sanskrit name English name
Case 1 prathamā (“first”) nominative case
Case 2 dvitīyā (“second”) accusative case
Case 3 tṛtīyā (“third”) instrumental case
Case 4 caturthī (“fourth”) dative case
Case 5 pañcamī (“fifth”) ablative case
Case 6 ṣaṣṭhī (“sixth”) genitive case
Case 7 saptamī (“seventh”) locative case
Case 8 (no special name) vocative case

Stem families

Nominal stems can end with many different kinds of sounds:

  • सिंह
    siṃha
    (male) lion

  • अग्नि
    agni
    fire

  • मनस्
    manas
    mind

We can group these stems based on the last sound they use. So we can talk about -a stems (stems ending in a), stems, stems, and so on. We use this grouping because stems with different final sounds tend to use different endings.

For example, compare the endings we use for siṃha, (which ends in a short -a) to the endings we use for siṃhā (which ends in a long ). These two stems use endings that are quite different:

  • सिंह → सिंहेन
    siṃha → siṃhena
    (male) lion → by the (male) lion

  • सिंहा → सिंहया
    siṃhā → siṃhayā
    (female) lion → by the (female) lion

  • सिंह → सिंहस्य
    siṃha → siṃhasya
    (male) lion → of the (male) lion

  • सिंहा → सिंहायाः
    siṃhā → siṃhāyāḥ
    (female) lion → of the (female) lion

Roughly, we can combine all of these stem groups into five big stem families. All of the stems in a stem family tend to use similar endings. These families are:

  • the -a stems

  • the , , and stems

  • the -i and -u stems

  • the -ṛ stems

  • all other stems

Stem families may have some small differences, but they generally share most of their endings and follow consistent patterns.

Review

In this lesson, we learned that nominals have two parts: a stem and an ending. We also learned that nominal endings can express the following information:

  • three different genders

  • three different numbers

  • eight different cases

Finally, we learned about different stem families. Each stem family uses slightly different endings.

In the next lesson, we will learn about the basic nominal endings. These endings are common to all stem families, so they are important to know. But before you continue, here are some questions for review:

  1. What are the three genders and the three numbers?

  2. Give the basic meanings of each of the eight cases.