The nominal system
Nominals are “naming” words. Along with verbs and uninflected words, they are one of the three main types of Sanskrit word. We use the word nominal so that we can refer to many different types of words at once. These types include nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and numerals.
In this lesson, we'll learn about the basic parts of a nominal word. We'll also learn what kinds of meanings the different nominal endings can express.
Stems and endings
Every nominal word has two parts: a stem and an ending. In the examples below, we combine a stem with its ending to create a complete word:
सिंह + ः → सिंहः
siṃha + ḥ → siṃhaḥ
सिंह + स्य → सिंहस्य
siṃha + sya → siṃhasya
of the lion
सिंह + ऐः → सिंहैः
siṃha + aiḥ → siṃhaiḥ
by the lions
The stem contains the nominal's basic meaning. And the ending expresses three basic kinds of information: gender, number, and case.
The three genders
In the core lessons, we learned that Sanskrit nominals use three different genders. These are the masculine gender:
The (male) lion goes.
the feminine gender:
The (female) lion goes.
and the neuter gender:
There is a forest.
Many nominal stems can freely use any of these three genders. But noun stems generally use a fixed gender. Noun stems use a fixed gender even if they don't refer to living beings:
wise conduct (feminine)
How do we determine which gender a noun should use? We can usually determine a noun's gender by noticing the sounds at the end of a stem. Here are some basic rules that might be helpful:
Nouns ending in -a are never feminine.
Nouns ending in -ā, -ī, and -ū are almost always feminine.
Nouns made with the -tra and -ana suffixes are usually neuter.
The three numbers
In the core lessons, we saw that Sanskrit nominals use three different numbers (vacana). These are the singular, which is used for one item:
The lion sees.
the dual, which is used for exactly two items:
The two lions see.
and the plural, which is used for three or more items:
The (many) lions see.
Verbs also use all three of these numbers. In a Sanskrit sentence, the verb and the case 1 noun should have the same number.
The eight cases
Case, roughly speaking, is the name for the way that Sanskrit nominals express different roles in a sentence. Sanskrit uses eight different cases.
Case 1 can be thought of as the default case. Usually, it refers to the subject of the action:
The lion eats.
But this depends on the prayoga of the verb. For example, consider the two sentences below. Both use siṃhaḥ in case 1. But the meaning of siṃhaḥ in each sentence is very different:
The lion eats.
(kartari prayoga. The lion is the subject (kartā) of the sentence.)
The lion is eaten.
(karmaṇi prayoga. The lion is the object (karma) of the sentence.)
Case 2 is generally the object of the action. It is also used for destinations:
सिंहो ग्रामं पश्यति।
siṃho grāmaṃ paśyati.
The lion sees a village.
सिंहो ग्रामं गच्छति।
siṃho grāmaṃ gacchati.
The lion goes to the village.
Case 3 generally means “with” or “by means of”:
सिंहो मार्गेण ग्रामं गच्छति।
siṃho mārgeṇa grāmaṃ gacchati.
The lion goes to the village by means of the road.
Case 4 generally means “for” or “for the sake of”:
सिंहो मांसाय ग्रामं गच्छति।
siṃho māṃsāya grāmaṃ gacchati.
The lion goes to the village for meat.
सिंहः खादनाय ग्रामं गच्छति।
siṃhaḥ khādanāya grāmaṃ gacchati.
The lion goes to the village for eating (“to eat”).
Case 5 generally means “from,” “than,” or “because of”:
नरः वनाद् ग्रामं गच्छति।
naraḥ vanād grāmaṃ gacchati.
A man goes from the forest to the village.
सिंहो नराद् बलवत्तरः।
siṃho narād balavattaraḥ.
The lion is stronger than the man.
नरः भयाद् गृहं गच्छति।
naraḥ bhayād gṛhaṃ gacchati.
The man goes home from (because of) fear.
Case 6 generally means “of”:
सिंहो नरस्य गृहं गच्छति।
siṃho narasya gṛhaṃ gacchati.
The lion goes to the house of the man (or, the man's house).
सिंहो नरस्य मांसं खादति।
siṃho narasya māṃsaṃ khādati.
The lion eats the meat of the man.
Case 7 generally means “in” or “on”:
नरो सिंहे ऽस्ति।
naro siṃhe 'sti.
The man is in the lion.
सिंहो ग्रामे चरति।
siṃho grāme carati.
The lion walks in the village.
And case 8 is the person being spoken to:
हे सिंह वनं गच्छ।
he siṃha vanaṃ gaccha.
Hey lion! Go to the forest.
Here is what these cases are called in other resources:
|Our name||Sanskrit name||English name|
|Case 1||prathamā (“first”)||nominative case|
|Case 2||dvitīyā (“second”)||accusative case|
|Case 3||tṛtīyā (“third”)||instrumental case|
|Case 4||caturthī (“fourth”)||dative case|
|Case 5||pañcamī (“fifth”)||ablative case|
|Case 6||ṣaṣṭhī (“sixth”)||genitive case|
|Case 7||saptamī (“seventh”)||locative case|
|Case 8||(no special name)||vocative case|
Nominal stems can end with many different kinds of sounds:
We can group these stems based on the last sound they use. So we can talk about -a stems (stems ending in a), -ī stems, -ū stems, and so on. We use this grouping because stems with different final sounds tend to use different endings.
For example, compare the endings we use for siṃha (which ends in a short -a) to the endings we use for siṃhā (which ends in a long -ā):
सिंह → सिंहेन
siṃha → siṃhena
(male) lion → by the (male) lion
सिंहा → सिंहया
siṃhā → siṃhayā
(female) lion → by the (female) lion
सिंह → सिंहस्य
siṃha → siṃhasya
(male) lion → of the (male) lion
सिंहा → सिंहायाः
siṃhā → siṃhāyāḥ
(female) lion → of the (female) lion
Roughly, we can combine all of these stem groups into five big stem families. All of the stems in a stem family tend to use similar endings. These families are:
the -a stems
the -ā, -ī, and -ū stems
the -i and -u stems
the -ṛ stems
all other stems
Stem families may have some small differences, but they generally share most of their endings and follow consistent patterns.
In this lesson, we learned that nominals have two parts: a stem and an ending. We also learned that nominal endings can express the following information:
three different genders
three different numbers
eight different cases
Finally, we learned about different stem families. Each stem family uses slightly different endings.
In the next lesson, we will learn about the basic nominal endings. These endings are common to all stem families, so they are important to know. But before you continue, here are some questions for review:
What are the three genders and the three numbers?
Give the basic meanings of each of the eight cases.