Noun Basics


Congratulations! You've made it through the basics of Sanskrit verbs. Now you can say complete sentences in Sanskrit. Unfortunately, they're not very good sentences. We can describe an action, but we're missing our subjects and objects. Without subjects and objects, a simple sentence like gacchati could mean millions of different things based on the situation. We need a way to actually talk about things.

We can't refer to these things with the term "thing" because the word is too easily confused with other meanings. For that reason, let's use a more technical term and call these "things" nouns. Nouns are words that refer to people, creatures, locations, objects, and concepts. The word "noun" comes from the same word that gives us our English "name" and "nomenclature." Essentially, a noun is something can be named.

Our First Sanskrit Noun

Let's look at our first Sanskrit noun.

Take the time to pronounce this correctly. The syllable pattern for the entire sentence is "light, heavy, heavy, light, light." (gajaḥ gacchati). The -sound, which is called the visarga, is pronounced one of two ways: either like the "h" in "house," or as a softer echo of the vowel in front of it, like the English "huh."

Endings, Stems, and Noun Number

Now, what do we notice about this word? Well, we can't see very much with just this one noun, so let's bring in one more for comparison.

Now we notice something! The ending of the noun has changed. Appropriately, this ending is called the ending, just like the verb endings we discussed in the previous chapter.

Just as with verb endings, noun endings are attached to a "base" form. For nouns, this base is called the stem, just like the verb stems we discussed in the previous chapter. For example, the stem of the noun above is gaja. The stem is the most fundamental part of a noun; there is no such thing as a noun "root."

Note that the ending of the noun changed when the number of the noun changed. Nouns have number, just like verbs.


We can also see that the noun and the verb have the same number. This is because both the noun and the verb make reference to the same entity. That is, the word gajāḥ is not literally an elephant (or else Sanskrit would be a very dangerous language indeed)! Instead gajāḥ just refers to an elephant. Likewise, the verb gacchanti refers to the same entity by describing it as plural.

When two words refer to the same entity like this, they must have the same number. We can say that they agree in number. We can also say that they are in agreement. The subject of a sentence will always agree with the verb in number.

Pronouns and Noun Person

Now let's bring in another sentence:

What's changed? What's stayed the same?

The first thing we notice is that our subject is different. This word has the meaning of "I," which is part of a larger class of word like "he," "they," "you," and so on. These sorts of words can have person and number, but they can offer no further description. Such words are called pronouns. We say that aham is a first-person pronoun.

We also see that our verb has changed. Here, the verb's person has changed to match the noun's person. The subject of a sentence will always agree with the verb in person.


So far, it seems that nouns are like verb in many ways:

But nouns have some qualities that verbs do not. Let's look at one of those qualities. Consider the two examples below:

Let's compare the first sentence to the second. By doing so, we see that the ending changes. We also see that the meaning has changed, too. In the first sentence, we have "boy," and in the second, we have "girl." What has changed? We say that the gender of the noun has changed. Most pronouns have gender, but not all of them do.

But maybe "gender" is an unfamiliar concept. Let's look at "gender" in English. We have three genders in English, and you can see all of them in the examples below.

In English, we use "he" for male beings, so "he" is called a masculine pronoun. We use "she" for female beings, so "she" is called a feminine pronoun. We use "it" for everything else, so "it" is called a neuter pronoun. This is the full extent of gender in English.

Sanskrit also has these three genders, but they are used in much more complicated ways. Some nouns have genders that make sense — "man" is a masculine noun, "woman" is a feminine noun, and so on — but other nouns have genders that don't make much sense at all. "Fruit" is neuter, but "tree" is masculine! "City" is neuter, but "village" is masculine! "Army" and "knowledge" are feminine, but "action" is neuter! In truth, most nouns take a certain gender by default, and we cannot guess a noun's gender just by looking at a noun's meaning. So, we must learn both the noun's stem and the noun's gender to use it correctly. Fortunately, a noun's stem often gives us enough information to determine the gender.

In Sanskrit, the gender is called the liṅga, meaning "sign" or "gender." The Sanskrit terms for the three genders are below.

Notice that the Sanskrit terms have the same meanings as their English counterparts. This shows that the notion of words having "gender" is cross-cultural. So, "gender" isn't just some artificial grammatical concept; it's a real part of English and Sanskrit!

Grammatical Case

Let's look at one more sentence.

What's changed? What's stayed the same?

This sentence has two nouns. However, the two nouns don't work in the same way. The first noun (gajaḥ) is the subject of the sentence. The second noun (bālam) is something else. It's like a destination. We say that this is a change in the noun's grammatical case, or just case for short. Sanskrit nouns have eight different cases, and each modifies the role that the noun plays in the sentence. Just like nouns, pronouns have grammatical case.

You can see some other cases in the sentences below:


In this lesson, we've learned the following terms:

Something that can be named. In other words, a "thing": a person, creature, location, object, concept, and so on.
noun ending
A basic part of the Sanskrit noun. The ending is attached to the end of the noun stem, and it contains information about the noun's number and case.
noun stem
A basic part of the Sanskrit noun. We add endings to it to produce a full and usable noun.
When an idea is referred to by multiple words and these two words match in some way, they are said to agree. For example, two words agree in number if they have the same number and refer to the same entity.
The quality of agreeing with something.
A vague concept. In one sense, it refers to biological gender. In another, it refers to grammatical behavior. It sometimes defies expectations.
masculine gender
The "male" gender.
feminine gender
The "female" gender.
neuter gender
The "non-female and non-male" gender.
grammatical case
a quality that describes a noun's role in the sentence. There are eight of them.
A word that has person, gender, case, number, and nothing else.

Okay, let's start studying the Sanskrit nouns! We'll stick to nouns whose stems end in -a, and we'll talk about four of these cases in detail.