Category Archives: Nouns

Whaddaya Tawki’na’bowt? Intro to Sanskrit Noun Use

Sanskrit recognizes eight ways to use a noun. We tend to call them “cases.” In Sanskrit they are called विभक्ति (vibhakti), and are referred to by number (“first”, “second”, “third”, etc). For some reason, perhaps showing the influence of Western Indology, most people use confusing Latin names for the cases.

I will now introduce the cases, and try to make the Latin names easier to handle and remember.

Using the cases involves “declination” – which means changing the ending of the word. Exactly how you change the word’s ending depends on many things: the case you want to use; whether the word is singular, plural or dual; whether it is masculine, feminine, or neuter; and its natural ending. For the examples here, I will use simply use singular, masculine nouns ending naturally in -a.

The eight cases are:

  1. Subject (“Nominative”)
  2. Objective (“Accusative”)
  3. Method (“Instrumental”) “by”
  4. Purpose (“Dative”) “for”
  5. Origin (“Ablative”) “from”
  6. Possession (“Genitive”) “of”
  7. Location (“Locative”) “in”
  8. Evoking (“Vocative”) “hey”

Cases 2-7 show how the subject relates to the object. Let’s go case by case.

Case 1: The Subject — “Nominative”

The Latin here is easy, because “nominative” is the base of our English word “name” and that’s what the case does, it names the subject of the sentence.

कृष्णो वनं गच्छति

kṛṣṇo vanaṁ gacchati

Krishna goes to the forest

Here the word “Krishna” is in the first case (nominative), as kṛṣṇaḥ (which changes to kṛṣṇo due to sandhi). This shows Krishna is the subject of the sentence.

Case 2: The Objective / Cause of Action— “Accusative” 

The Latin here is a little weird. It sounds like “accuse.” When we accuse someone we claim that they are the cause of something (“he is accused of murder”), and that’s what this case does: it identifies the cause / objective of the subject’s action. (If you look carefully, you can see the word “cause” (cuse) in accusative.)

कृष्णो वनं गच्छति

kṛṣṇo vanaṁ gacchati

Krishna goes to the forest

Here the word “forest” (vana) is in the second case (accusative), as vanam, to show that it is the objective of Krishna’s movement. The forest is the motivator that causes  his movement.

Case 3: The Method to Accomplish the Objective — “Instrumental”

The Latin here is easy. An instrument is the tool we use to accomplish an objective, and that’s what this case is for: it indicates how the subject accomplishes its objective. In English we usually what this case accomplishes by using the words by (“I’ll go by car”) or with (“I drink with a straw”), or sometimes using on (“I will get there on a bike”).

कृष्णो पादेन वनं गच्छति

kṛṣṇo pādena vanaṁ gacchati

Krishna goes to the forest on foot.

Here the word “foot” (pāda) is in the third case (instrumental), as pādena, to show that his feet are the instrument Krishna uses to go to the forest. 

Case 4: Purpose of the Objective — “Dative”

This Latin is particularly difficult, because it sounds like “date,” which misleads me into thinking this is a case for describing time. In Latin, however, date means “what will be obtained,” and that’s what the case does – it shows what the subject hopes to gain from the objective. In English, we usually accomplish this with the words for (“I work for money”) or to (“I work to make money”).

कृष्णो वनमानन्दाय गच्छति

kṛṣṇo vanam ānandāya gacchati

Krishna goes to the forest for joy.

Here the word “joy” (ānanda) is in the fourth case (dative), as ānandāya, to show that joy is what the Krishna hopes to gain by going to the forest.

Case 5: Origin of the Objective — “Ablative”

The Latin here is also difficult. It conveys the sense of something “abating” (going away). This case lets us show where something comes from – literally or conceptually. Conceptual movement from one thing towards another is how Sanskrit shows causality and also how it makes comparisons. 

In English, we usually accomplish this using words like from (“I come from New York”), and out of (“He overeats out of stress.”). We can also use because of and due to for accomplishing the conceptual-conceptual sense of this case.

कृष्णो ग्रामात्चरति

kṛṣṇo grāmāt carati

Krishna walks from the village.

Here the word “village” (grāma) is in the fifth case (ablative), as grāmāt, to show Krishna’s movement brings him from the village. This is an example using the case literally.

भ्रमन्ति सुखात्

bhramanti sukhāt

They wander due to happiness.

Here the word “happiness” (sukha) is in the fifth case (ablative), as sukhāt, to show that they wander as a result of their happiness. This is an example using the case conceptually, to show causality.

कृष्णो चन्द्रात्सुन्दरः

kṛṣṇo candrāt sundaraḥ

Krishna is more beautiful than the moon.

Here the word “moon” (candra) is in the fifth, ablative case (candrāt) to show that beauty moves away from the moon, towards Krishna. This conceptual movement is how Sanskrit makes a comparison expressing that Krishna is more beautiful than the Moon. 

Case 6: Possessive — “Genitive”

The Latin word for this has to do with producing (and therefore owning) something. Parents, for example, are progenitors, who give us their genes. In English we use “-’s” or “of” to accomplish what this case does.

कृष्णस्य शक्तिः

kṛṣṇasya śaktiḥ

Krishna’s potency. -or- The potency of Krishna.

Here the word kṛṣṇa is in the sixth case (genitive), as kṛṣṇasya, to show that Krishna is the producer, and thus the possessor, of the śakti.

Case 7: Location — “Locative”

The Latin here is mercifully simple. We use this case to express a position in either space or time. In English we accomplish this using words like “in”, “on”, “at”, and so on.

मनः कृष्णे निवेशयेत्

manaḥ kṛṣṇe niveśayet

Invest your mind in Krishna. -or- Set your mind on Krishna.

Here, the word kṛṣṇa is in the seventh case (locative), as kṛṣṇe. It therefore signifies the location upon which / in which the mind’s thoughts and emotions should exist.

Case 8: Evoking — “Vocative”

Here, too, the Latin is mercifully easy. We use this case to call to (“evoke”) someone, or directly address them by name. In English we just use a person’s name without modification, but we can make our evocation more explicit by by using hey, as in, “Hey John” or “Hey you!” In older English they used O, as in “O Lord.”

हरे कृष्ण

Hare Kṛṣṇa

Hey Hara! Hey Krishna!

In Sanskrit too, this case involves little change to the original names. With kṛṣna (a male noun ending in “a”) the eighth case (vocative) involves no change at all. With hara (a female noun ending in “a”) the eighth case (vocative) changes it slightly, to hare.

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All Noun Cases

As you’ll recall, the way a noun is inflected reveals the way it is used in the sentence. There are eight ways of inflecting a noun – so there are “eight cases.” These are the eight, with their main meaning/use.

Case 1: Subject

Case 2: Object

Case 3: With

Case 4: For

Case 5: From

Case 6: Of

Case 7: In

Case 8: Address

Here’s an example. The word gaja means elephant, and the word gaccha means go.

गजो गच्छति (gajo gacchati) means “the elephant goes.” Gaja is in Case 1, and gaccha is in 3rd person singular.

गजं गच्छति (gajaṁ gacchati) means “he goes to the elephant.” Gaja is in Case 2, and gaccha in 3p singular.

गजेन गच्छामि (gajena gacchāmi) means “I go with the elephant” – The ending “-ena” on gaja reveals that it’s in case 3. And the ending “-ami” on gaccha reveals that it’s first person singular.

गजाय ग्च्छति (gajāya gacchati) means “he goes for the elephant” (on behalf of the elephant, for the sake of the elephant). Case 4 noun.

गजाद् गच्छति (gajād gacchati) means “he goes from the elephant.” The noun, gaja is in case 5.

गजस्य गच्छति (gajasya gacchati) means “The elephant’s going” (like, the movements of the elephant). case 6 noun.

गजे गच्छति (gaje gacchati) means “he goes into the elephant”. Case 7 noun.

गज गच्छति (gaja gacchati) means “hey elephant! he goes!” Case 8.

Inflection Table

So as to avoid information overload, let’s only look at the singular versions of all 8 cases (we can keep the duals and plurals for the cases we already learned). And of course, let’s just look at masculine nouns for now.

SINGULAR DUAL PLURAL
CASE 1 (subject / “by”) -ḥ -u -aḥ
CASE 2 (object / “to”)
-m
-u
-an
CASE 3 (“with”) -(a)ena
CASE 4 (“for”) -aya
CASE 5 (“from”) -at
CASE 6 (“of”) -sya -yoḥ -anām
CASE 7 (“in”) -(a)e
CASE 8 (address)  – -u -aḥ

“Of” (Case 6 for Nouns, “Genitive”)

If we want to say “The teacher’s son goes to the forest” we need to inflect the noun “son” in a way that lets the hearer know that the son belongs to the teacher. We need an inflection will say “teacher’s” not just “teacher”.

This is accomplished by using “Case 6” inflections for the noun.

Here they are (for masculine nouns):

Case 6 (“of”) -sya -yoḥ -anām

The teacher’s son goes to the forest

So, to say “The teacher’s son goes to the forest” – take the word for teacher, ācārya, and give it the singular case 6 inflection -sya, so you wind up with ācāryasya.

The word for son is putra. He is the subject of the sentence, so the inflection is case 1 singualr: putraḥ. 

The word for forest is vana. It’s the object of the sentence and singular, so the inflection is -m: vanam. 

The word for “goes” is gaccha. And it should be inflected to match the subject, which means 3rd person singular, -ti: gacchati.

So you get the sentence: ācāryasya putraḥ vanam gacchati,   which blends together to become: आचार्यस्य पुत्रो वनं गच्छति ācāryasya putro vanaṁ gacchati.

The son of the heroes stands

  • son = putra
  • hero = vīra
  • stand = tiṣṭha

Son is the subject, so it’s putraḥ. Hero needs to be plural and needs to be in the “of” case, case 6 (heroes’ / of the heroes). Plural case 6 influection is –anām, so: vīrānām. The verb is third person singular to match the subject, so tiṣṭhati. With sandhi you get:

पुत्र वीरानां तिष्ठति
putro vīrānaṁ tiṣṭhati

They go to the elephants’ forest

You don’t need to explicitly state the pronoun “they” – the inflection of the verb “go” will include it. Forest is the object, they is the unspoken subject.

  • they go = gacchanti
  • elephants’ = gajānām
  • forest = vanam

गगानां वनं गच्छन्ति
gajānāṁ vanaṁ gacchanti

The hero has a black horse

The way you say it in Sanskrit is simply “The hero’s black horse.”

वीरस्य कृष्णो ऽश्वः
vīrasya kṛṣṇo ‘śvaḥ

Case 6 Pronouns

Case 6 (“of:)
First Person (M) तस्य

tasya
तयोः

tayoḥ
तेषाम्

teṣām
Second Person तव

tava
युवयोः

yuvayoḥ
युष्माकम्

yuṣmākam
First Person मम

mama
आवयोः

āvayoḥ
अस्माकम्

asmākam

Working with Neuter Nouns

Vocabulary

Masculine Nouns

सूर्य sūrya – sun

चन्द्र candra – moon

वृक्ष vṛkṣa – tree

ग्राम grāma – village

Neuter Nouns

नगर nagara – city

फल phala – fruit

पत्त्र patra – leaf / plume

वन vana – forest

जल jala – water

निमित्त nimitta – cause / omen

English to Sanskrit

“That is the beautiful black lion”

First figure out the words you need.

  • lion – siṁha
  • black – kṛṣṇa (adjective of lion)
  • beautiful – sundara (adjective of lion)
  • that – saḥ

Now inflect the words the right way (see the reference tables link in the menu bar if you need). “Lion” is the subject of the sentence.

  • lion – siṁhaḥ
  • black – kṛṣṇaḥ
  • beautiful – sundaraḥ
  • that – saḥ

Put it together: saḥ siṁhaḥ kṛṣṇaḥ sundaraḥ

Blend the words: sa siṁhaḥ kṛṣṇaḥ sundaraḥ

That is the Sun

sa sūryaḥ

That is the fruit

tat phalam

The pronoun is “tat” not “sa” because the subject is neuter, so the pronoun must be neuter. The neuter noun gets a neuter p3s inflection.

I see the white sun

The subject is “I” (aham). The action is seeing (paśya, inflected as paśyāmi). The object is the sun (sūrya, inflected as sūryam), which is described as white (śveta, inflected as śvetam).

Putting this all together: aham śvetam sūryam paśyāmi.

With sandhi: ahaṁ śvetaṁ sūryaṁ paśyāmi

He sees the beautiful moons

Subject: he (saḥ)

Action: sees (paśya : paśyati)

Object: moons (candra : candrān), which are beautiful (sundara : sundarān)

saḥ sundarān candrān paśyati

With sandhi: sa sundarāṁś candran paśyati

He wants them (n)

Subject: he (saḥ)

Action: wants (iccha : icchati)

Object: them, neuter (tāni)

saḥ tāni icchati : sa tāny icchati

Note that the neuter pronoun resisted “mating” fully with the next word during sandhi.

The elephants strike the black trees

Subject: elephants (gaja : gajān)

Action: strike (tuda : tudanti)

Object: trees (vṛkṣa : vṛkṣān) which are black (kṛṣṇa : kṛṣṇān).

gajān kṛṣṇān vṛkṣān tudanti : gajān kṛṣṇān vṛkṣāms tudanti

The hero grieves for the forest

S: Hero (vīraḥ). A: grieves (śocati). O: forest (vanam)

vīraḥ vanam śocati : vīro vanaṁ śocati

They (m) conquer the men

S: they, masculine (te). A: conquer (jayanti). O: men (narān)

te narān jayanti : te narāñ jayanti

 

Gender-Neutral Nouns & Pronouns

Neuter gender nouns are similar to masculine nouns, except in the three cases we’ve already studied for masculine nouns. So – we might as well learn the three cases of neuter gender right now.

Neuter

SINGULAR DUAL PLURAL
CASE 1 (SUBJECT) -m -e -ani
CASE 2 (OBJECT)
CASE 8 (ADDRESS)

Here’s an example of inflection using the neuter noun, फल (phala) {“fruit”}

फल

SINGULAR DUAL PLURAL
CASE 1 (SUBJECT) फलम्phalam फले
phale
फलानि
phalāni
CASE 2 (OBJECT)
CASE 8 (ADDRESS) फल
phala

Neuter Pronouns

Let’s just look at third-person for now (“it”)

Third Person (“it”)
तद् Singular Dual Plural
Case 1 (subject) तत्

tat

ते

te

तानि

tāni
Case 2 (object)

Practice

तद्वनम् tad vanam {“that is a forest”}

Tat became tad because it blends with the next word. The first letter of the next word “v” in vanam is a semi-vowel, so it’s a “voiced” sound. So the unvoiced “t” at the end of “tat” changes to the voiced version of the same sound: “d”.

Notice that vana is inflected in the object case. So, it’s the object of the sentence, not the subject. That’s why the sentence means “That is a forest.” rather than “That forest.” If you want it to say “That forest” you say तद्वनः tad vanaḥ.

तन्मां गच्छति tan māṁ gacchati   {“it goes to me”}

Tat became tan because of blending with the next word. The next word starts with a nasal (“m”) so the t at the end of “tat” changes to a nasal (“n”).

Notice that the object is the first-person pronoun. So the sentence means “it” “to me” “it goes”.

Addressing People Directly (हे राधे)

As we’ve been learning, Sanskrit nouns are inflected in various “cases” befitting various uses. We learned how to inflect a noun to be used as the subject of a sentence (case 1). We learned how to inflect a noun to be used as the object of a sentence (case 2). Now we are going to skip the next five cases and go to the last one, case 8 – because it’s a very easy and commonly used case. This is the case for using a noun as a way to call somone. Like “hey Joe!” Joe in that example is being used in case 8.

पुत्र त्वं नरः

putra tvaṁ naraḥ

“Son, you are a man.”

In that sentence, putra (son), is used in the 8th case (“vocative”) – because it is directly addressing a person.

Here’s a slightly more confusing example:

नर गच्छति

nara gacchati

“My dear man, he goes”

Here we are talking to “my dear man” and saying “he (some other person) goes (somewhere).” It’s a little confusing because it really looks like we are saying “the man goes.” But if that were the case the word nara would have to be inflected as a subject – it would have to be naraḥ, which would blend with gacchati to be naro gacchati. That’s not exactly what is in the sentence, so it’s not saying “the man goes” is saying “My dear man, he goes.”

That counfusion could become a real problem, though, if you were talking too or about men (plural) and instead of wanting to say “he goes” you wanted to say “they go.” For example, if you wanted to say, “My dear men, they go” you would have an ambiguous Sanskrit sentence (to be fair, it’s pretty ambiguous in English, too): narā gacchanti.

The reason you can’t disambiguate this is because the inflection for addressing plural people is the same as the inflection for addressing plural subjects. It’s also true for the dual case, it’s the same. So, if your unspoken subject is also the same plurality as the persons you are addressing, you’ll get an ambiguous sentence.

It’s easy to avoid the ambiguity by simply naming the subject and not leaving it unspoken. So usually ambiguity is used intentionally – for multiple meanings, artistic appeal, or just for fun.

Here are the case 8 endings listed with case 1 and case 2:

SINGULAR DUAL PLURAL
CASE 1 (Subject)
-ḥ
-u
-aḥ
CASE 2 (object)
-m
-u
-an
CASE 8 (address)
-u
-aḥ

(The singular form of address makes no change to the noun root)

Here’s another example:

पुतरेचछसि कृष्णम्

putrecchasi kṛṣṇam

What does it mean?

First undo the blending so you can see the words more clearly. Putreccasi is a blending of two words, putra and icchasi.

Putra means “son” – it’s not inflected at all, it’s the root noun, so it must be case 8 – so the sentence must be talking directly to the son “O my son…”

Icchasi is the root iccha {“desire”} with the inflection “-si” – singular 2nd person inflection: “you desire.”

Kṛṣṇam is the root kṛṣṇa used as a noun, and inflected with “-m” which is the object case, singular. So the desire of the son is directed towards Krishna.

The sentence means: O my son, you want Kṛṣṇa.

Pronouns in Case 8

There are no pronouns in case 8. A pronoun is by nature an indirect address. Obviously you can’t directly address someone indirectly.

Exclamations

Similar to case 8 nouns, and often used with them, are several short words that are simply exclamations like “hey” or “oh!”. Common ones are

  • he हे
  • aho अहो
  • bho भो

Here is an example: हे राधे he rādhe!  {“O Rādhā!” said in the sense of calling to her, case 8} Or हे कृष्ण he kṛṣṇa! {“O Krishna!” again in the sense of calling to him}

Exclamation words are always pronounced as they are – because they are exclamations – they don’t blend with the next word. They are stronger than the next word, so there is no blending. So there’s no worry about sandhi rules when you deal with these little exclamation words.