The anglicized word Sanskrit is phonetically written as Saṁskṛta. This language is also called devabhāṣā, popularly translated as Language of the Gods. Another name is daivīvāṇī. Note that the last two words have the first term of these compound words deva and daivī, both of which are derived from the verb div meaning “shine / illumine”. Thus both these compounds mean ”language which is illumining/shining (by itself)”. Thus the very name for the language is self illumining. This word is formed from the verb kṛ “to do, make, create” with a prefix sam meaning “well, greatly” and the past participial suffix ta. Thus the name for the language means “well created, well made”.
This language is highly structured. The classical old-school type of learning, by rote memorization of different forms of words, is not feasible for a modern adult. This method, in addition, does not let one appreciate language structure, the way it is constructed, following well defined rules. The alternate but highly rigorous method, that is understand the structure – appears to be an interminable set of rules – is equally daunting and time consuming. Thus we have a conundrum when it comes to the best way of learning, not to mention mastering the language.
Even mastering the devanāgarī script (संस्कृत) is another issue, and correct transliteration using diacritics is not amenable to a regular computer keyboard. A newer method developed using just the available letters in a keyboard, called Kyoto-Harvard scheme is gaining more acceptance lately but still is not common due to strange way it looks – thus Saṁskṛtam using this scheme will be saMskRtam.
In this blog I present the basics of the structure of language, based on the work of the grammarian Pāṇini. Armed with this summary one will be able to understand my glossary page that describes the meaning and derivation of the terms I use in my blog posts.
There are thirteen vowels, seven semivowels, and twenty-five consonants in Sanskrit. In contrast to English, there are short and long vowels, contributing to phonetic precision. They are classified in terms of their point of articulation as well as the efforts used in utterance of these letters. A basic understanding of this is necessary for one to see how they combine when they come together in a word. These combination rules, called sandhi rules are critical to make a headway in learning the language. The following simplified table groups the alphabets in terms of point or articulation and effort.
Grouping of letters based on point of articulation
|Point of articulation||vowel||semi-vowel||consonants (including sibilants)|
k, kh, g, gh, ṅ
c, ch, j, jh, ñ ś *
ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ ṣ *
t, th, d, dh, n s *
p, ph, b, bh, m
|v is palato-labial|
Consonants in bold are called nasals. * are called sibilants
Grouping of letters based on effort
Point of articulation
|Throat (gutturals)||k||g, ṅ||kh||gh|
s, ś, ṣ
y, v, r, l
Language Building Blocks
1. Verb, dhātu
In Sanskrit the primary building block from which any word is formed is called a verb, dhātu.
Most grammar books translate it “root”. Etymologically the term dhātu comes from
the verb dhā, ‘to support, to sustain’. We use the more common term verb in this
book. Dhātu is like the infinitive form of a verb, a form one looks up in a dictionary.
To make it a useful entity in language one has to make it a ‘finite verb’, this process is called conjugation. There are about 2,200 such verbs in the language. Pāṇini lists them in ten
classes, usually shown in Arabic numerals in a dictionary. These are called ‘primitive verbs’ to differentiate from thousands of ‘derived verbs’ formed by addition of a special class of suffixes to these 2,200 verbs as well as to many nouns. In a dictionary listing there will also be a code P, U or A, they represent the represent the pada status of the verb – Parasmaipada, Ātmanepada or Ubhayapada. These codes are necessary to create finite verbs.
Pāṇini does not define the term dhātu. Patañjali, the commentator to this grammarian’s work, defines it as ‘that which expresses an action’. This definition corresponds to the common understanding of a verb in English, representing an action.
2. Substantive, prātipadika
There is no equivalent term in English grammar to describe a substantive. One can say that it is the equivalent of the infinitive form of a verb listing in an English dictionary. This applicable to nouns, that which ‘one looks up in the dictionary’. Like finite verbs are derived from verbs, nouns usable in a sentence are derived from these substantives. Like the verb, substantive also cannot stand independently except as a listing in a dictionary. For usage, it has to be declined, the process is similar to conjugation of verbs.
2.1. Substantives by addition of suffixes to verbs
Substantives are formed by the addition of two kinds of suffixes to a verb – suffixes defined by the grammarian Pāṇini in his work and another set of over 300 suffixes called Uṇādi.
2.2. More Substantives from Substantives
Many more substantives can be formed out of these substantives by addition of hundreds of suffixes called taddhitha suffixes defined by Pāṇini.
In addition, the user can create an almost limitless number of substantives can by a method called compound, samāsa formation. This is a way to combine a number of substantives or substantives and indeclinables to form one long word. There are basically four types of compounds with a few subtypes in each category. These major types are – tatpuruṣa, bahuvrīhi, dvandva, and avyayībhāva.
3. Suffix, pratyaya
Whether it is formation of finite verbs from verbs, or formation of words from substantives, or formation of substantives from verbs, one or more suffixes are added. Pratyaya is often translated as an affix, but I prefer the term suffix since it is added after a verb or a substantive. Pāṇini defines thousands of such suffixes in his grammar work.
4. Prefix, upasarga
Another set of syllables are called prefixes. Upasarga comes before the verb. It is not dissimilar to the letters that are prefixed to verbs – possible, impossible, tenable, untenable etc., In Sanskrit also the prefixes are fused to the verb but the meanings can be modified in many ways, even entirely different. For example the prefix ā means ‘all over’, when added to the verb gam “to go”, forming āgam, this prefixed verb means “to come”. But the prefix sam added to verbs only emphasises the verb meaning.
In Sanskrit, pada is a grammatical term. Only ‘words’ can be used in the language. Thus both substantives and verbs are only listed in a dictionary. One has to add appropriate suffixes to form useable words.
In addition, there are a number of words called indeclinables. An indeclinable, avyaya is one that remains the same in all genders, numbers and cases and persons. That is, no conjugational or declensional suffixes are added to them. For example, all prefixes as well as a number of other words are indeclinables.
6. Suffixes to form words
6.1. Conjugational suffixes
To form a finite verb, that is, a word, one adds a set of suffixes called conjugational suffixes. There are ten tenses and moods in the language, and both active voice and passive voice forms for the tenses and moods. In addition, the language has three persons and three numbers, singular, dual and plural. Thus one can form about 360 words from one verb, obviously one has to know how to form them since no dictionary will or can list them all.
6.2 Declensional suffixes
To form a word from a substantive, one adds a set of suffixes called declensional suffixes. They are 21 suffixes in seven cases and three numbers, thus from each substantive one can have 21 words. These words are like preposition+noun combination used in English except they are fused in one single word. This basic set of declensional suffixes undergo a number of changes depending on the final syllable of the substantive and its gender. Thus it is not just a simple addition of a suffix to a substantive.
To make learning less threatening to a beginner, the commonly used tenses and moods of verbs as well as commonly used sets of declensions are available as books. These are used by students, though it is better to memorize a few dozens of these declensions, or at least have a set of index cards.
6.3. Other Suffixes
6.3.1. Primary nominal suffixes
A set of suffixes are added to verbs to form substantives. These are popularly called primary nominal suffixes in many grammar books. There are dozens of such suffixes defined by Pāṇini in his grammar work. They result in formation of participles, abstract nouns, proper nouns, nouns with specified gender etc.,A subset of these is called kṛt suffixes.
6.3.2. Uṇādi suffixes
This set of 300+ suffixes are probably predates Pāṇini and mentioned in one aphorism by him in his work. These suffixes typically form common nouns with given meanings from verbs.
6.3.3. Taddhita suffixes
Hundreds of suffixes are defined with specific meanings that can be added to substantives to form many more substantives. These are called taddhita suffixes.
6.3.4. Class suffixes to verbs
These come after verbs when forming certain tenses and moods.
6.3.5. Other Suffixes
There are other suffixes such as samāsānta suffixes that must be added to compounds under certain conditions.
7. Augments during formation of substantives and words
In addition to the suffixes and prefixes a number of letters, called augments may have to be added during formation of substantives, verbs and words. These are also defined by Pāṇini in his grammar work. The most common augment is the vowel i.
8. Compound, samāsa formation
A very important aspect of the language is compound formation. This is a process where a number of words can be combined to form one long word. Based on my limited exposure to German, such compounds are common in that language. A couple of such compounds stick in my mind from my feeble attempts to learn the language decades ago – armbanduhr (wristwatch), tageszeitung (daily news paper).
There are four major types of compounds – tatpuruṣa , bahuvrīhi, dvandva and avyayībhāva with a few subtypes under each of these types. In my blogs I provide resolution of these compounds, either in the blog itself if necessary or in the Glossary Page.
9. Gender, Number, Case and Person
In contrast to English language where the gender is factual, it is formal in Sanskrit, akin to many other European languages. For example, the compound armbanduhr (German) is feminine gender while a wrist watch is a neuter gender noun. The equivalent compound word in Sanskrit is hastaghatī (feminine gender). Oft quoted example is the substantives for the word wife – bhāryā (feminine), kalatra (neuter) and dara (always plural).
Unique to Sanskrit is dual number, in addition to singular and dual.
The cases are similar to those in English, though the prepositions indicating the case are fused to the substantives. There are seven cases and one first case subtype used only in addressing / calling a preson.
There are no differences in ‘person’, they are first, second and third.
In the case of verbs, there are ten tenses and moods including three past tenses and two future tenses.
10. Rules, Rules and Rules
Pāṇini’s grammar work is called Aṣṭādhyāyin, a book of eight chapters lays down all the necessary rules of conjugation to form finite verbs, rules of declension to form words, rules to from substantives, derived verbs and compounds. In addition he also lists all verbs in a separate work. Aṣṭādhyāyin is in aphoristic style, something akin to lines of code in a modern programming languages. A number of commentaries and addenda to his work have been made over centuries. All grammar books published over the last several centuries, including current English books have these rules simplified, abridged and in many cases scrambled. In this brief outline, I will stress one set of important rules, called sandhi or fusion/junction rules.
The formal derivation of a word from the verb will look more like solving an algebraic equation.
[(prefix 1)+(prefix 2)….] + verb + [sufix 1 + suffix 2 + suffix 3 ….]
There is an order of addition, and many rules come to play during each of these additions bringing about a number of changes, even listing of these changes is beyond the scope of this brief introduction to the language. One set of very important rules follows.
10.1 Sandhi rules
When vowels or consonants come together, they undergo changes, they are called sandhi, junction or fusion rules. They are basically of three types – vowel sandhi, consonant sandhi and visarga sandhi. Sandhi formation is mandatory in a substantive, word, compound, and in writing. Thus the first step in trying to understand a long line is to be able to break sandhis, not a small task for the beginner since one has to have a decent vocabulary to know where the sandhi is formed. And, to have this vocabulary one has to know the language! This is the reason that in many Sanskrit books the sandhis are broken to facilitate easier learning.