The grammar of the Sanskrit language has a complex verbal system, rich nominal declension, and extensive use of compound nouns. It was studied and codified by Sanskrit grammarians from the later Vedic period (roughly 8th century BC), culminating in the Pāṇinian grammar of the 4th century BC.
The grammatical tradition of Sanskrit (vyākaraṇa, one of the six Vedāṅga disciplines) began in late Vedic India and culminated in the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini, a work which consists of 3990 sutras or aphorisms. Kātyāyana composed Vārtikas (explanations) on Pāṇini’s sũtras. Patañjali, who lived three centuries after Pānini, wrote the Mahābhāṣya, the “Great Commentary” on the Aṣṭādhyāyī and the Vārtikas. Because of these three ancient [Sanskrit grammarians] this grammar is called Trimuni Vyākarana or ‘grammar of three sages’. Jayaditya and Vāmana wrote the commentary named Kāsikā 600 CE, to elucidate the meaning of the sũtras,
Pāṇinian grammar is based on 14 Shiva sutras. The whole Mātrika (alphabet) is abbreviated here. This abbreviation is called Pratyāhāra. Kaiyaṭa’s (12th century AD) commentary on Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya also exerted much influence on the development of grammar, but more influential was the Rupāvatāra of Buddhist scholar Dharmakīrti which popularised simplified versions of Sanskrit grammar.
The most influential work of the Early Modern (Mughal) period was Siddhānta Kaumudi by Bhaṭṭoji Dīkṣita (17th century) and its various derivate versions by Varadarāja. European grammatical scholarship began in the 18th century with Jean François Pons and others, and culminated in the exhaustive expositions by 19th century scholars such as Otto Boehtlingk, William Dwight Whitney, Jacob Wackernagel and others.
Classification of verbs
Sanskrit has ten classes of verbs (plus one used in the Vedas: the Laṭa लाति lakār, for “take”, “receive” or “give”) divided into two broad groups: athematic and thematic. The thematic verbs are so called because an a, called the theme vowel, is inserted between the stem and the ending. This serves to make the thematic verbs generally more regular. Exponents used in verb conjugation include prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and reduplication.
The verbs tenses (a very inexact application of the word, since more distinctions than simply tense are expressed) are organized into four ‘systems’ (as well as gerunds and infinitives, and such creatures as intensives/frequentatives, desideratives, causatives, and benedictives derived from more basic forms) based on the different stem forms (derived from verbal roots) used in conjugation. There are four tense systems:
The present system includes the present tense and the imperfect (past imperfective), the optative and imperative moods, as well as some of the remnant forms of the old subjunctive. The tense stem of the present system is formed in various ways. The numbers are the native grammarians’ numbers for these classes.
The perfect system includes only the perfect. The stem is formed with reduplication as with the present system.
The perfect system also produces separate “strong” and “weak” forms of the verb—the strong form is used with the singular active, and the weak form with the rest.
The aorist system includes aorist proper (with past indicative meaning, e.g. abhūḥ “you were”) and some of the forms of the ancient injunctive (used almost exclusively with mā in prohibitions, e.g. mā bhūḥ “don’t be”). The principal distinction of the two is presence/absence of an augment – a- prefixed to the stem. The aorist system stem actually has three different formations: the simple aorist, the sibilant aorist, and the reduplicating aorist, which is semantically related to the causative verb.
The future system is formed with the suffixation of sya or iṣya and guṇa. Verbs then conjugate as though they were thematic verbs in the present system. The imperfect of the future system is used as a conditional.
Each verb has a grammatical voice, whether active, passive or middle. There also is an impersonal voice, which can be described as the passive voice of intransitive verbs. Sanskrit verbs have an indicative, an optative and an imperative mood. Older forms of the language had a subjunctive, though this had fallen out of use by the time of Classical Sanskrit.
Basic conjugational endings
Conjugational endings in Sanskrit convey person, number, and voice. Different forms of the endings are used depending on what tense stem and mood they are attached to. Verb stems or the endings themselves may be changed or obscured by sandhi.
Primary endings are used with present indicative and future forms. Secondary endings are used with the imperfect, conditional, aorist, and optative. Perfect and imperative endings are used with the perfect and imperative respectively.
Sanskrit is a highly inflected language with three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter)(Sanskrit: पुल्लिङ्ग, स्त्रीलिङ्ग, नपुंसकलिङ्ग) and three numbers (singular, dual, plural) (एकवचनम्, द्विवचनम्, बहुवचनम्). It has eight cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, and locative.
The number of actual declensions is debatable. Pāṇini identifies six kārakas corresponding to the nominative, accusative, dative, instrumental, locative, and ablative cases. Pāṇini defines them as follows (Ashtādhyāyi, I.4.24-54):
Genitive (Sambandha) and vocative are absent in Pāṇini’s grammar.
In this article they are divided into five declensions. The declension to which a noun belongs to is determined largely by form.
Basic noun and adjective declension
The basic scheme of suffixation is given in the table below—valid for almost all nouns and adjectives. However, according to the gender and the ending consonant/vowel of the uninflected word-stem, there are predetermined rules of compulsory sandhi which would then give the final inflected word. The parentheses give the case-terminations for the neuter gender, the rest are for masculine and feminine gender. Both Devanagari script and IAST transliterations are given.
A-stems (/ə/ or /aː/) comprise the largest class of nouns. As a rule, nouns belonging to this class, with the uninflected stem ending in short-a (/ə/), are either masculine or neuter. Nouns ending in long-A (/aː/) are almost always feminine. A-stem adjectives take the masculine and neuter in short-a (/ə/), and feminine in long-A (/aː/) in their stems. This class is so big because it also comprises the Proto-Indo-European o-stems.
i- and u-stems
ṛ-stems are predominantly agental derivatives like dātṛ ‘giver’, though also include kinship terms like pitṛ ‘father’, mātṛ ‘mother’, and svásṛ ‘sister’.
The numbers from one to ten are:
All numbers in Sanskrit can be declined in all the cases. Éka is declined like a pronominal adjective, though the dual form does not occur. Dvá appears only in the dual. Tríni and catvari are declined irregularly and higher numbers are only declined in the plural.
Personal pronouns and determiners
The first and second person pronouns are declined for the most part alike, having by analogy assimilated themselves with one another.
Note: Where two forms are given, the second is enclitic and an alternative form. Ablatives in singular and plural may be extended by the syllable -tas; thus mat or mattas, asmat or asmattas.
The demonstrative ta, declined below, also functions as the third person pronoun.
One other notable feature of the nominal system is the very common use of nominal compounds, which may be huge (10+ words) as in some modern languages such as German. Nominal compounds occur with various structures, however morphologically speaking they are essentially the same. Each noun (or adjective) is in its (weak) stem form, with only the final element receiving case inflection. Some examples of nominal compounds include:
A compound consisting of the same word repeated, but with the first occurrence being accented. Amreditas are used to express repetitiveness; for example, from dív (day) we obtain divé-dive (day after day, daily) and from devá (god) we obtain deváṃ-devam or devó-devas (god after god).
The first member of this type of nominal compounds is an indeclinable, to which another word is added so that the new compound also becomes indeclinable (i.e., avaya). Examples : yathā+śakti, upa+kriṣṇam (near kriṣṇa),etc. In avyayibhāva compounds, first member has primacy (pūrva-pada-pradhāna), i.e., the whole compound behaves like an indeclinable due to the nature of the first part which is indeclinable.
Unlike the avyayibhāva compounds, in Tatpuruṣa compounds second member has primacy (uttara-pada-pradhāna). There are many tatpuruṣas (one for each of the nominal cases, and a few others besides). In a tatpuruṣa, the first component is in a case relationship with another. For example, a doghouse is a dative compound, a house for a dog. It would be called a caturtitatpuruṣa (caturti refers to the fourth case—that is, the dative). Incidentally, “tatpuruṣa” is a tatpuruṣa (“this man”—meaning someone’s agent), while “caturtitatpuruṣa” is a karmadhāraya, being both dative, and a tatpuruṣa.
An easy way to understand it is to look at English examples of tatpuruṣas: “battlefield”, where there is a genitive relationship between “field” and “battle”, “a field of battle”; other examples include instrumental relationships (“thunder-struck”) and locative relationships (“town-dwelling”). All these normal tatpuruṣa compounds are called vyadhikarana tatpuruṣa, because the case ending should depend upon the second member because semantically second member has primacy, but actually the case ending depends upon the first member. Literally, vyadhikarana means opposite or different case ending. But when the case ending of both members of a Tatpuruṣa compound are similar then it is called a karmadhāraya tatpuruṣa compound, or simply a karmadhāraya compound.
It is a variety of Tatpuruṣa as shown above, but treated separately. The relation of the first member to the last is appositional, attributive or adverbial, e. g. uluka-yatu (owl+demon) is a demon in the shape of an owl.
In a karmadhāraya compound one part behaves like an adjective for the other. :If the part behaving like an adjective is a number, it is called dvigu. Dvigu itself is a compound : dvau+gāvau. In a dvigu compounds, later part is principal, like a tatpuruṣa compound.
Example : na + brāhamaṇa = abrāhamaṇa, in which ‘n’ vanishes and only the ‘a’ of ‘na’ remains. But with words beginning with vowel this ‘a’ becomes ‘an’ : na+aśva > (na > a > an) anaśva.
These consist of two or more noun stems, connected in sense with ‘and’. There are mainly two kinds of dvandva constructions in Sanskrit. The first is called itaretara dvandva, an enumerative compound word, the meaning of which refers to all its constituent members. The resultant compound word is in the dual or plural number and takes the gender of the final member in the compound construction. e.g. rāma-lakşmaņau – Rama and Lakshmana, or rāma-lakşmaņa-bharata-śatrughnāh – Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata and Satrughna. The second kind is called samāhāra dvandva, a collective compound word, the meaning of which refers to the collection of its constituent members. The resultant compound word is in the singular number and is always neuter in gender. e.g. pāņipādam – limbs, literally hands and feet, from pāņi = hand and pāda = foot. According to some grammarians, there is a third kind of dvandva, called ekaśeşa dvandva or residual compound, which takes the dual (or plural) form of only its final constituent member, e.g. pitarau for mātā + pitā, mother + father, i.e. parents. According to other grammarians, however, the ekaśeşa is not properly a compound at all.
Bahuvrīhi, or “much-rice”, denotes a rich person—one who has much rice. Bahuvrīhi compounds refer (by example) to a compound noun with no head—a compound noun that refers to a thing which is itself not part of the compound. For example, “low-life” and “block-head” are bahuvrihi compounds, since a low-life is not a kind of life, and a block-head is not a kind of head. (And a much-rice is not a kind of rice.) Compare with more common, headed, compound nouns like “fly-ball” (a kind of ball) or “alley cat” (a kind of cat). Bahurvrīhis can often be translated by “possessing…” or “-ed”; for example, “possessing much rice”, or “much riced”.
It is that variety of Karmadhāraya tatpuruṣa compound in which the middle part vanishes. E.g., devapūjakaḥ+brāhamaṇaḥ = devabrāhamaṇaḥ; Śrīyukta+Rāmaḥ = Śrīrāmaḥ
It is a variety of tatpuruṣa compound in which nouns make unions with verbs, like Kumbham+karoti = kumbhakāraḥ.
Case endings of the first constituent word do not vanish, e.g., ātmane+ padam = ātmanepadam,Parasmaipada,vanechar,yudhishira,sarasija In each of these compound words the first constituent has retained its case termination.
Because of Sanskrit’s complex declension system the word order is pretty much free (with tendency toward SOV). There are some normative syntax conventions to decrease ambiguity, though.
Published - August 2013
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