The suffix system

Suffixes (pratyayāḥ, “affixes”) are meaningful groups of sounds that are added to some base (aṅga). Most of Sanskrit grammar is about understanding what suffixes mean and what they do.

There are many different kinds of suffixes. There are nominal endings, which are called sup in traditional grammar; there are verb endings, which are called tiṅ; and there are various other verbs suffixes that we use when we convert a verb root to a complete verb.

In this topic, however, we'll focus on all of the other suffixes that Sanskrit has. These are usually suffixes that make new nominal words.

Root and nominal suffixes

Traditionally, these suffixes fall in two big groups. First are root suffixes, usually called kṛt-pratyayāḥ in Sanskrit or primary suffixes in English. Root suffixes are added directly to a verb root:

  • मन् + त्र → मन्त्र
    man + tra → mantra
    think + (means) → “means of thinking,” mantra, counsel

  • नी + त्र → नेत्र
    nī + tra → netra
    lead + (means) → “means of leading,” an eye

Next are nominal suffixes, usually called taddhita-pratyayāḥ in Sanskrit or secondary suffixes in English. Nominal suffixes are almost always added to a nominal stem:

  • मन्त्र + इन् → मन्त्रिन्
    mantra + in → mantrin
    mantra + (characterized by) → minister, counselor

  • कुरु + अ → कौरव
    kuru + a → kaurava
    Kuru + (descendant of) → “descendant of Kuru,” a Kaurava
    (one of the main factions described in the Mahabharata)

What sound changes do suffixes cause?

As you can tell from the examples above, adding a suffix is not as simple as just applying normal sandhi rules. Suffixes cause all kinds of changes to the bases they attach to.

The most common change is to strengthen the last vowel by making it a compound vowel, as we saw with netra above. And nominal suffixes often strengthen the first vowel to the highest level, as we saw with kaurava above.

But there are also suffixes that don't strengthen the last vowel at all:

  • नी + त → नीत
    nī + ta → nīta
    lead + (past suffix) → (has been) led

And there are also suffixes that cause a consonant at the hard palate (ca) to shift to the soft palate (ka):

  • शुच् + अ → शोक
    śuc + a → śoka
    grieve + (state) → grief, sorrow

  • त्यज् + अ → त्याग
    tyaj + a → tyāga
    abandon + (state) → abandoning, relinquishment

Technical names

In the examples above, you may have noticed that the suffix -a was used twice with two different meanings:

  • शुच् + अ → शोक
    śuc + a → śoka
    grieve + (state) → grief, sorrow

  • कुरु + अ → कौरव
    kuru + a → kaurava
    Kuru + (descendant of) → “descendant of Kuru,” a Kaurava
    (one of the main factions described in the Mahabharata)

In traditional grammar, these two suffixes are given highly technical names. For example, the first suffix is called ghañ. The word ghañ may seem like nonsense to you. And it's true: if you don't understand the system used to create it, this name is nonsense. But if you do understand that system, this name is extremely precise and useful.

The details of that system are too complicated and abstract for us right now. But, all of the suffixes in the upcoming lessons will be listed with their traditional names, so that it is easier to tell them apart. If these names are not useful to you, you can just ignore them.