The Ordinary Past Tense

Also known as: imperfect (in analogy with Greek), anadyatana-bhūta ("past action, not of today"), laṅ

Introduction

Although we've studied participles in the past, present, and future tenses, we've only studied "regular" verbs in the present tense. Now let's take a look at these sorts of verbs in the past:

Each of these sentences can be translated to Sanskrit. But we should not translate them hastily: Sanskrit has three different versions of the past tense, and each version represents one of the following:

The "recent past" and "distant past" are extremely old verb forms and are difficult to learn, so we'll stick with the "not-so-distant past" — which is the most common form of the past tense — for now. But "not-so-distant past" is a lengthy term, so let's just call it the ordinary past tense. Let's see how the sample sentences above look in the ordinary past tense:

Past participles (e.g. gata) can represent any of the three past tenses above.

Endings

We have three sets of endings to learn: P endings, A endings for the simple verb classes, and A endings for the complex verb classes. In this lesson, we'll study all three. But first, let's talk about that little a in front of the verb stem.

a

You might have noticed that the ordinary past tense has the letter a- in front of the stem. (I say a- instead of just a to emphasize that the letter is a prefix). This a- is sometimes called the "sign" or "mark" of the ordinary past tense. We attach this sign to the front of the normal stem to produce a special "past stem."

This a- sound is crucial for interpreting and recognizing the ordinary past tense. Fortunately, Sanskrit itself seems to recognize this fact; the a- of a past tense verb is never hidden. For instance, what do you think happens when a- is used with a verb that starts with a vowel, like iṣ? Based on the sandhi rules we've studied so far, you might guess that the past tense stem would be eccha. But the result is surprising:

Traditionally, this behavior is explained as follows:

If the root starts with a vowel, the a prefix combines with that vowel and makes it a strong vowel.

It's that simple! Now, let's start studying some of the endings that this verb form uses.

P Endings

The P endings are similar to the endings of the present tense, but they're not exactly the same. Take a look:

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For comparison, here are the endings for the present tense:

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Note the simple and elegant transformation from the present tense endings to the ordinary past tense endings. Each present tense ending loses its last letter; then, the rules of sandhi act to reduce the present endings to the past endings.

The complex verb classes use the same endings, as mentioned above. All of the verbs in the singular number use the strong stem.

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A Endings

These endings are significantly different from the ones above. Try to memorize them now, and use the exercises on the next page to reinforce your memory. But don't work too hard; this set of endings is used by three different verb forms, and you'll have plenty of time to practice.

Here are the endings for verbs from the simple verb classes.

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The endings for verbs from the complex verb classes are almost exactly the same.

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The changes are listed below:

These differences are exactly parallel to the difference in the present ātmanepada.

Verb Prefixes and the Ordinary Past Tense

The earlier lesson on verb prefixes mentioned that the verb prefix comes before the verb stem. But now we have another prefix: the letter a-, which marks the ordinary past tense. Which prefix appears first? The answer might surprise you: the verb prefix appears first!

Verb prefixes were once entirely separate from the verb itself. Over time, they came to be placed right in front of the verb, as in prati agacchat. The two forms combined, and the a- prefix was sandwiched in the middle.