Roots and Classes
In this lesson, we'll discuss two fundamental parts of the Sanskrit verb: verb roots and verb classes.
Also known as: dhātu ("element")
All verb stems are said to come from a set of basic elements called verb roots, or just roots for short. Most verb roots are just one syllable long. But despite this short length, roots are capable of great diversity. There are about 2000 different verb roots in the traditional list.
Why should we learn verb roots? The answer is quite simple. In Sanskrit, a single verb root can be the origin of hundreds of new words. This single verb root transforms into these words by a rigorous and straightforward process. But the verb stem can only rarely become new words. If you want to learn new words quickly, you should learn both the stem and the root.
Of these 2000 verb roots, only about 800 have actually been seen in Sanskrit literature.
How do we find roots?
If we compare verb stems like bodha, smara, and hasa, we notice that all of them end in a, making it unlikely that a is a fundamental part of the verb. So, we could say that bodh, smar, and has are our verb roots. This is an easy and straightforward system. Notice that these roots all use medium-strength vowels. So, we could also call them medium-strength roots.
Unfortunately, almost nobody uses the system above. Instead, most people use the traditional system, which mostly uses weakened roots. This system is more complicated and more difficult to learn. But since so many people use the traditional system, it's important to know.
This leaves us with an important question: which system should we use? To keep things simple, let's use the medium-strength roots described above for now. At the end of the unit, we will switch over to the traditional system.
Now consider the verb stem gaccha. What is its root? Based on the verbs above, we might guess that the root is gacch. However, Sanskrit scholars say that the root is gam.
How could this happen? Why can't the root of gacchati simply be gacch? This is a good question with a complicated answer. The simple version of that answer is that verb roots represent how a verb appears in certain contexts. For example, gam can form other words like gamana, with no cch sound at all. With regard to Sanskrit grammar as a whole, it is easier to say that the root is gam.
Irregular roots are a very real part of Sanskrit grammar. Fortunately, only a few irregular roots are common.
Also known as: gaṇa ("class")
Thousands of years ago, Sanskrit grammarians sorted Sanskrit's verb roots into ten different verb classes based on how the roots form verb stems. Four of these ten classes contain verbs whose stems end in the letter a. This a helps to "stabilize" the behavior of the verb stem, and the process of adding endings to the verbs becomes less complicated. For that reason, let us call these four classes the simple verb classes. We will study three of these four classes below.
The strong a class
Two of the simple verb classes form stems by adding a to the end of the root. These two classes behave in slightly different ways. All of the verbs that we have studied so far are from what we could call the strong a class, or perhaps a+ for short. These roots all use an unchanged vowel.
The weak a class
Now we will study what we could call the weak a class, or a0 for short. For the verbs in this class, the root vowel goes to its weakest form. In most instances, this means that the vowel becomes short and simple.
The a0 class is usually illustrated with the verb root tod, meaning "strike" or "hit" :
For some stems, a nasal letter appears before the final consonant in the root. This nasal sound will belong to the same varga as the final consonant. For example, the a0 root ved forms the stem vinda.
The ya class
For now, the -ya class will be the last simple verb class we study. As you might guess, we add ya to the end of the root to produce the verb stem. The root vowel goes to its weakest form. As an example of this verb class, consider the root moh, which means "become confused" or "lose one's way."
The weak forms of some roots might use long vowels instead.
Devanagari: Common Consonants 1 - 5
Now we will start learning some real Devanagari. Although we started our study of Sanskrit pronunciation with the vowels, it's much better to start our study of Devanagari with the consonants; the reason for this will become clearer in the next lesson.
Now, although we started our study of the consonants with kavarga and moved through them in alphabetical order, such a strategy is not as helpful when it comes to Devanagari; for although the different Sanskrit sounds can easily be sorted into groups, the same cannot be said for the Devanagari letters.
For that reason, it's best to learn the most common Devanagari letters first. Even if you forget the letters we study later on, you will still know the most common ones best.
Earlier in the guide, I mentioned that consonants are usually discussed with an a sound after them and that
the combination of consonant and vowel creates some simple and intuitive names, which we use when talking about the letters. Here, this a vowel is not just some handy way to name the consonants; it is a fundamental part of the Devanagari letters themselves. त is always ta and never just t. Later on, we will learn how to express other sounds, like tu or to.
In this lesson, we've learned the following terms:
- verb root
- the basic element from which a verb grows.
- verb class
- a means of organizing verb roots based on how they form verb stems.
- strong a class (a+)
- Verbs in this class use the -a suffix after the medium-strength root.
- weak a class (a0)
- Verbs in this class use the -a suffix after the weakened root.
- ya class
- Verbs in this class use the -ya suffix after the weakened root.