Tag Archives: Linguistics

Rooting out the Meaning

Noun = Prefix(es) Root Suffix(es)
lābha labh a
Profit to gain
 māna man a
 Regard to think
 saṁtāra sam tar a
 Inclusively Surpassing to surpass
 nindana nind ana
 Defamy, censure to insult
 bhaga bhag a
 Opulence, Fortune to divide / share
 vartana vart ana
Motion to move
 bodhana bodh ana
 Comprehension to comprehend
 sthāna stha ana
 Place  to stand
 darśana dṛś ana
 Audience / Meeting to see
 ādarśa ā dṛś a
 Illustration / Display to see

English to Sanskrit

Let’s figure out how to say, “With his eye, the man sees the bliss of the village.

“Eye” can be akṣa or nayana or netra. Let’s use netra. We have to conjugate it in the “with” case. That’s case 3, and the ending is -ena, e replacing the a. So, netreṇa means “with his eye.”

The man is the subject: naraḥ.

The man sees: paśyati.

Bliss is ānanada. Village is grāma. We need village to be in the “of” case,  Case 6, where the ending is -sya. So, grāmasya. Now the two words form a pair, we’ll put the thing that possesses the other thing first. Villiage possesses bliss, so village first, followed by bliss: grāmasya+ānanda = grāmasyānanda. We have to make sure this is understood to be the object of the seeing, so the compound should get the inflection of an object, -m. So, grāmasyānandam

Put the words together: naraḥ netreṇa grāmasyānandam paśyati. Make considerations for Sandhi: naro netreṇa grāmasyānandaṁ paśyati. 

नरो नेत्रेण ग्रामस्यानन्दं पश्यति


How to Make Sanskrit Words (viz BG 1.2)

One of the most wonderful things about Sanskrit is how we can combine root words together and with prefixes and suffixes to make very specific, expressive, detailed words. Learning how to do this is one of the most important steps towards learning Sanskrit.

Here’s an example:

mar is a simple Sanskrit root meaning “die.” Suffixes and prefixes can make this root mean “immortality”!

 मर् मृत अमृत अमृतत्व
 mar mṛta amṛta amṛtatva
 die death without-death without-death-ness

With prefixes and suffixes, one root, mar, can refer to a death thing, mṛta, a thing without death – an immoral, like a god or like the soul, or like the divine elixir that cheats death, or even to the abstract nature of immortality, amṛtatva.

Another example:

भज् भग भगवत् भागवत
bhaj bhaga bhagavat bhāgavata
love happiness the beloved, happy one – God pertaining to God – the devotee

There are four ways to make words:

  1. Turn a verb into a new verb with prefixes and suffixes
  2. Turn a verb into a noun
  3. Turn a noun into a new noun with prefixes and suffixes
  4. Combine two nouns into a new noun

Verb Prefixes

There are about 20 verb prefixes in Sanskrit. Here are five of the more common and important:

Together / Apart

Sam- and vi- are opposite prefixes. Sam- indicates togetherness, and vi- indicates separateness and distinction.

सम्- (sam-) 

This is like the English prefix con-. It means “with, together, fully, completely.”

वि- (vi-)

This is like the the English prefix di- (as in divide and distance)It means “separation, distinction”


ā- and upa- both indicate nearness. ā- is nearness coming toward but not surpassing a thing. upa- is nearness coming up from below a thing, humbly.

आ- (ā-)

This means “towards, up to.”

उप- (upa-)

This is like the English prefixe sub- and a bit like  hypo-. It means “near, towards, under, below.”


अ- (a-)

The same prefix is used in English, sometimes as an- (as in atheist or anaerobic). Be careful to distinguish it from the ā- prefix, which is quite different in meaning.

Prefix Sandhi

You use normal sandhi rules for spelling and pronunciation when you add prefixes (or suffixes) to roots.


Here are examples using the root गम् (gam) {“movement”}.  We’ll use this root in third person singular, so it is inflected as गच्छति (gacchati) {“he moves”}.

Add the prefix आ- (ā-) {“towards”} and you get आगच्छति (āgacchati) {“towards-movement”, in other words, “he comes”}

Add instead the prefix उप- (upa-) {“near” humbly, from below} and you get उपगच्छति (upagacchati) {“humble, near-movement”, in other words, “he humbly approaches”}. 

Add instead the prefix सम् (sam-) {“with, together”} and you get संगच्छन्ति (saṁgacchanti) [changing the inflection a little to make it plural so it makes sense] {“together-movement” in other words, “they come together” or “they assemble.”}

We can see that prefixes are extremely useful for making very specific and expressive words from simple, basic roots. The same is true in any language, of course, but in Sanskrit the rules for it are uncommonly clear,  systematic and thorough.

Multiple Prefixes

We’re not limited to using just one prefix per root. We can use as many as we need or like. Here’s an example: उपसंगच्छन्ति (upasaṁgacchanti). The root is gacchanti {“they move”} but the movement is qualified with the prefixes sam- and upa-. The prefix some changes the root to mean “together-movement” (assembly, coming together in a group). And upa- changes it further to mean “humbly from below, towards something” So the one word upasaṁgacchanti means “humbly approaching for assembly as a group.”

When there are multiple prefixes, the one closest to the root is most prominent in forming the meaning. So, if we put the same two prefixes, upa- and sam- , in different order, we get a different word: समुपगच्छन्ति (samupagacchanti) which means, “they assemble to humbly approach (someone or something).”

Prefixes in Bhagavad-Gītā 1.2

दृष्ट्वा तु पाण्धवानीकं वि-ऊढं दुर्योधनस्तदा

dṛṣṭvā tu pāṇḍavānīkaṁ vi-ūḍhaṁ duryodhanas tadā

(But having seen the Pāṇḍava’s army arrayed, Duryodhana then…)

आ-चार्यम् उप-सं-गम्य राजा वचनमब्रवीत्

ā-cāryam upa-saṁ-gamya rājā vacanam abravīt

(… assembled to humbly approach his teacher, and the King spoke)

“But then, when King Duryodhana saw the array of the Pāṇḍava army, he gathered himself to humbly approach his teacher and speak some words.”

The first prefix used here is vi-, added to the word ūḍham. Because of the rules of sandhi, the combination of the two becomes vyūḍham. The root ūḍha means something like “a push, a movement, a demonstration.” The root vi- indicates separation, so the combination, vyūḍham indicates a separating movement that pushes and displays some demonstration. The word is used to describe the separation of an army into a specific formation or array.

The next prefix used here is ā-. It’s added to the root cārya which means “exemplar” (cār means behavior. cārya is means example). The prefix ā- means “towards, up to”. The whole word ācārya means someone who points towards, moves up to, demonstrates exemplary behavior. Aka, “teacher.”

Two prefixes are then used together, upa- and sam- are added to the root gam {“movement”}. We discussed this combination already.

Pronouncing / Spelling “n” in the Middle of Sanskrit Words

N will frequently show up as “Ṇ” when you don’t expect it, and it’ll seem like a misspelling.

Sanskrit sounds (probably all languages too, with a few exceptions) are made in five places in the vocal structure of your mouth and throat: (1) in the throat, (2) back of the mouth, (3) top of the mouth, (4) on the teeth, (5) on the lips.

“k” is the sound made with the tongue muscles that are in the throat. “c” is the sound made with the tongue muscles at the back of the mouth. “ṭ” is made with the tongue on the roof/top of the mouth. “t” is made with the tongue on the teeth, and “p” is made with the lips.

Those are the sounds without voice or air. If you add voice and air you get a whole bunch of other letters, as described in Pronunciation of Consonants, and Sanskrit Letters.

The sounds made with the tongue on the roof of the mouth are the characteristic sounds people make to imitate the Indian accent. The technical term for it is “retroflex” (which just means “curling back”, referring to the tongue). It takes a bit more effort to curl the tongue back and stick it on the top of the mouth, compared to the effort it takes to get the tongue into other positions for pronouncing the other types of letters, sooooo there’s a special rule about these letters:

Once you get your tongue into a retroflex position, it can stay there until some other consonant forces it into a different position. This means that once you have a retroflex letter, the rest of the letters in the word will become retroflex too, unless a non-retroflex consonant comes along before the word ends.

Vowels are produced by the shape of the mouth, not the tongue, so they don’t interfere with this. So, once your tongue goes into retroflex, it can stay there through the rest of the vowels in the word, and any other consonnant that’s not in some other position.

Well, just about every other consonnant is in some other position, so basically we’re just talking about the nasal letters (produced mainly in the nose). In other words, we are talking about “n”.

Let’s look at some examples:

Aruna अरुन = Aruṇa अरुण

The word starts with a vowel, a, followed by the semivowel, “r.” Say the “r” sound out loud. Notice that your tongue gets retroflex? R is a retroflex sound. So now, at the second letter of the word, our tongue got into a retroflex position.

The third letter is a vowel, “u” so our tongue doesn’t have to change position. The fourth letter is “n”. N is a nasal, and nasal sounds can be made with the tongue in any of the five positions. Since our tongue is in retroflex, we keep it there, so the “n” becomes “ṇ” (big hint: just about any letter with a dot under it is retroflex). The word finishes with a vowel, “a” which is important. To complicated to explain why.

Arjuna अर्जुन (no change)

The r is retroflex, but it’s followed by a “j”, which is a consonant that forces the tongue to the back of the mouth, out of the retroflex position – so  by the time we get to the “n” in “Arjuna” our tongue is free to pronounce it as its originally supposed to be “n” (tongue on teeth).

Rāmāyana रामायन = Rāmāyaṇa रामायण

The first letter, “r” puts the tongue in retroflex. Then there’s a vowel – so no change to the tongue position. Then a nasal, “m” – again no change to the tongue. Then there’s another vowel. Then there’s “y” which is a semi-vowel and doesn’t change the tongue position. Then another vowel, again no change. So by the time we get to the “n” our tongue is still in retroflex, so the “n” becomes a retroflex n, “ṇ” to make pronunciation easier and more natural.

Kurvanti कुर्वन्ति (no change)

The third letter, “r” puts us in retroflex. “v” is a semi-vowel, followed by a vowel, so when we get to “n” we think we should make it “ṇ” but it’s not a real, full “n” because it has no vowel. It’s joined to “ti” to make a single letter “nti” न्ति. So it’s really a “t” which changes the tongue position to the teeth, therefore the “n” stays a dental nasal, and doesn’t become reflexive.

Brahman ब्रह्मन् (no change)

Again, the “r” sets up the retroflex, and “ahma” don’t change it (h is just air, and m is all lips), so again we expect to change the “n” to retroflex – but again, like in kurvanti, it’s not a full/real “n” because it has no vowel, it’s just the end of the previous syllable, not a syllable on its own. So it doesn’t get changed.

Brahmana ब्रह्मन = Brahmaṇa ब्रह्मण

This is the same as above, but in this word, the n is a real n, a syllable unto itself, because it has a vowel following it. So in this case the n does retroflex to ṇ.

When to worry about it

Usually word stems are already defined with this rule in mind, so generally you only have to worry about it when you’re adding the inflection (ending) to the word.

For example, take the word nara (man). If you want to use this word in Case 6, plural (“men’s”) you are supposed to add the inflection –anām. So go ahead, and you get narānām. But now notice that the “r” gets you into retroflex and there’s no vowel to get you out of retroflex before the “n” comes, so the real spelling/pronunciation is narāṇām.

Similarly if you want to use a neuter noun with a plural inflection, the ending should be –ani. For example (“leaves” – pattra), pattrāni. But the “r” in the root word retroflexes the “n” in the inflection, so the correct version is pattrāṇi.

So, really, you only have to worry about it in the inflections. And even then only in the inflections that have “n” in them, followed immediately by a vowel. So that means only the two cases shown above (as far as the cases we’ve already learned)

Putting Words Together! – “Sandhi” (pt 1/5)

How do you pronounce “what’s the matter”?

“Whudtz da madder?”

Lots of times we pronounce it that way, or something like that, because its a hell of a lot easier to say than “what’s the matter.” But we are always supposed to spell it “what’s the matter,” no matter how we pronounce it.

It’s not like that in Sanskrit.

How do you say “the”? Sometimes thee. Sometimes tha. Sometimes da. But the spelling is always the same t-h-e.

Again, it’s not like that in Sanskrit. Sanskrit takes ease-of-pronunciation into its fundamental rules of grammar, unlike English where the idea is that you only talk like that if you are lazy. Well everyone is lazy, and Sanskrit considers it something important to standardize.

This part of Sanskrit Grammar, about effects on the borders between words, is named sandhi. Since I want to start making two-word sentences with you, it’s time to explain it.

There are four different types of word-joining, so I’ll show them to you in four different posts, with a fifth one to recap and put it all together. This is the first of five posts on the topic of sandhi.

The Easiest Joining of Words: Vowel + Consonant

The absolute easiest is the case where the first word ends with a vowel and the next word starts with a consonant. It’s so simple because absolutely nothing changes. The words will already blend together easily, so there is no need to make any adjustments.

Here’s an example using a word you already know, śocati (he cries) and a new, very simple word, na (“no”).

na śocati – he doesn’t cry.

You don’t have to change anything at all from the original words because the first word, na, ends with a vowel and the second word, śocati, starts with a consonant.

This Principle in Bhagavad-Gita

By the way, na śocati is a famous phrase in Sanskrit, you’ll find it in a famous Bhagavad-Gita verse (18.54) brahma-bhūtaḥ prasannātmā na śocati na kāńkṣati – “The very satisfied spiritual soul doesn’t lament or hunger.”

Notice that na kāńkṣati is a junction of words that is also of this ultra simple type (word 1 ends with a vowel, word 2 ends with a consonant). And also between  śocati and the na that comes after it. This is another case of vowel + consonnant, so nothing needs to change. So the whole like na śocati na kāńkṣati is a beautiful example of this simplest type of sandhi, where nothing needs to change at all.

You can also notice, referring back to the topic of how to end words, that the two action-words, śocati (“cry”) and kāńkṣati (“desire / hunger”) have the –ati ending… meaning they are singluar and third person words – in simpler terms, it means that they point to a single person (he or she). In this case the person they point to is brahma-bhūtaḥ prasannātmā – “the very satisfied spiritual soul… he  doesn’t cry, he doesn’t want.”

And if you go back to the post on how to end nouns, you’ll notice that the  words brahma-bhūtaḥ prasannātmā (“The very satisfied spiritual soul/person”) have endings indicating that they are the subject of the sentence. So “the spiritually satisfied person” is the subject of this sentence, and the verbs “doesn’t cry, doesn’t want” pertain to him or her.

It’s All About How You End It! (Intro to Sanskrit Sentences)

Word endings are absolutely super important in Sanskrit!

In English I would say

He ran home with the money.

In Sanskrit all I have to say is

Ran home money.

Its the way I end the words that tells you “(He) ran home (with the) money.” If I end the words differently, the same words could mean all sorts of different things: They ran home to the money; she ran home for money; we run from the money in our home, etc.

What’s really cool is that you can put the words in any order you like, the meaning doesn’t change. This is fantastic for making rhymes and beautiful cadence. Sanskrit is a poet’s dream come true.

Before becoming a poet, though, the important thing for now is to realize that Sanskrit has no little words like “with”, “to”, “in” etc.  These little words are incorporated into the endings of the big, important words. Sanskrit does have pronouns (he, she, it, they, we, etc), but you don’t have to use them unless you specifically want to, because they also get incorporated into the ending of the word.

Sanskrit endings incorporate “case” “number” and “gender”. I’ll introduce you to each, now.

Case: What’s Going On?

The most confusing yet important thing the word endings do is tell you what the word is doing. Is he running to the house? or from it? or with it? etc. There are eight different things a word can do, these are called the eight cases.

A word can be:

  1. The agent
  2. The agent’s objective
  3. The instrument the agent uses to attain the objective
  4. The recipient of the objective
  5. The starting point of movement
  6. The location in which everything transpires
  7. The possessor of something
  8. An  invoked name

The underlined words below are examples to illustrate which case would be used to end the Sanskrit word.

The agent: “John is cool.”

The objective: “Sam fixed the schoolhouse.”

The instrument: “Sam fixed the schoolhouse with a hammer.”

The recipient: “Give Sam the hammer.”

The starting point: “The leaf falls from the tree.”

The location: “The Sun is in Scorpio.”

The possessor: “Janet’s fingers.”

The invoked: “That’s cool, John.”

Not sure if you noticed, but all of the underlined words in the examples are nouns. That’s no coincidence. These eight cases apply to nouns. Here are the bookworm terms for these eight cases, in case you need to coordinate your study with bookish sources:

Official Linguistic term My Term
Nominative Agent
Accusative Objective
Instrumental Instrument
Dative Recipient
Ablative Starting point
Locative Location
Genative Possessor
Vocative Invocation

How Many?

Sanskrit word endings also tell you how many things are involved. We have this in English, too. If one thing is involved, its singular (“cat”). If more than one thing is involved, its plural (“cats”). Sanskrit, though, has another distinction:

  • Singular – one thing
  • Dual – two things
  • Plural – three or more things

So, each of the eight cases has three numerical formats too. So that means there are 24 different ways to end a Sanskrit noun! “But wait, there’s more!”

Are You a Boy or a Girl?

Sanskrit words also have gender, three genders:

  • Masculine
  • Feminine
  • Neutral

So we might have as many as 72 different ways to end a Sanskrit noun! That’s a lot to memorize, so don’t expect to learn it in a week. In upcoming posts I’ll give you tables that you should keep handy whenever you use Sanskrit, for as long as you need. The next posts will start using real Sanskrit, so stay tuned!

Pronunciation of Consonants

Consonants are the shape around the edges of a vowel. We create different consonant shapes by putting stress on different parts of our throat and mount at the beginning and end of saying the vowel. There are five places you can put stress:

Throat You put tension in the thoat when you make the sound
Back-Mouth The back of your tongue moves towards the back of your mouth
Roof of Mouth The tip of your tongue curls to lightly tough the roof of your mouth
Teeth The tip of your tongue is right on the bottom tip of your teeth
Lips Your lips touch and make sound without the tongue

Clicky / Poppy Sounds

If you make a sharp, quick sound in any of those places you get the following consonants:

Throat k
Back-Mouth c
Roof of Mouth
Teeth t
Lips p

The roof-of-mouth sound is the most unfamiliar to us English-ers. To make it you have to curl your tongue so its tip lightly touches the top of your mouth. Do that while making a “t” sound (quickly, without lots of sound) and you have pronounced “ṭ” (and also probably suddenly feel very Indian!).

The teeth sound is a lot like a normal English “t” but try to force your tongue lower than normal, right onto your teeth, and don’t put much stress on the sound at all, say it lightly.

Those are the first five consonants. The next five are the strong versions of the same sounds. The pronunciation is the same, they just have more air behind them. They are a lot of fun to pronounce correctly.

Throat k kh
Back-Mouth c ch
Roof of Mouth ṭh
Teeth t th
Lips p ph

Some pointers:

  • c is different from ch. It’s pretty easy to do the “ch” sound. Concentrate on making the “c” different from it, by making it very light and gentle.
  • Don’t ever let yourself say “th” like windy sound in “the”.
  • Don’t ever pronounce “ph” like the weird English variant where it sounds like “f”.

Sounds with “Voice”

So now you have the first ten Sanskrit consonants! Congrats! The next 10 are exactly the same as these, they just have more “voice.” That means you use a little tone to sound them out, not just the click and pop of the first group of ten.

Throat k kh g gh
Back-Mouth c ch j jh
Roof of Mouth ṭh ḍh
Teeth t th d dh
Lips p ph b bh

The difference between the “ḍ” in row three and the “d” in row four is the same as the difference between the “ṭ” and “t”: like all letters with dots under them, you need to curl your tongue and touch the roof of your mouth to pronounce them. All teeth letters need your tongue-tip touching your teeth (and pick a pack of pickled peppers, while you are at it!).


“Nasals” are sounds you make by forcing the air in your nasal passages to vibrate. These are all the “n” type sounds, basically. Sanskrit recognizes five:

Throat k kh g gh
Back-Mouth c ch j jh ñ
Roof of Mouth ṭh ḍh
Teeth t th d dh n
Lips p ph b bh m

The “ṅ” is a very difficult sound, at least for me, to pronounce. It’s like saying a “g” while holding your nose – that’s the best I can do to describe it. Remember the tension is in the throat, yet its a nasal sound. Think of it as an “n” with some “g-ish-ness.”

The “ñ” is a more familiar sound, because its common in Languages like Spanish. The tongue is pushing backwards, towards the back of the mouth – and the result is that there’s a slight “y-ish-ness” to the “n.”

The “ṇ” is fun and not too hard to say. Just curl your tongue and touch the roof of your mouth while making the “n” sound.

The naked “n” is close enough to the normal English “n.” And the nasal sound that you make on your lips is what we write in Enlgish as an “m.”


It’s not so important, but the consonants called semi-vowels get that name because you can sort of sound out all by themselves (vowels are “vowels” because they can sound out all by themselves). Sanskrit, at least as we currently have record of it, does’t recognize a semi-vowel sound from the throat, only in the four other positions: back of the mouth, roof of the mouth, on the teeth and on the lips.

Throat k kh g gh
Back-Mouth c ch j jh ñ y
Roof of Mouth ṭh ḍh r
Teeth t th d dh n l
Lips p ph b bh m v

These are all straightforward, familiar sounds to English-speakers. A technical note is that “r” and “l” with dots under them are slightly different and are thought of as full vowels. But this is purely scholastic, if you ask me.

How Many Ways Can You Pronounce “s”?

Sanskrit has three kinds of “s” sounds. This is really very important to get right, early on, or your pronunciation will be way off. Pronounce “ś” with the body of your tongue reaching towards the back of your mouth. Try to make it a relatively high-pitched “shh” sound.

Pronounce “ṣ” with a curled tongue, the tip touching the roof of your mouth. It should make a rich, deep, lower-pitched “shh” sound.

Every English speaker knows how to pronounce the unadorned “s.” It is the familiar, whistle-loving s with the tongue on the teeth.

Here are the three S’ in their correct positions on the table:

Throat k kh g gh
Back-Mouth c ch j jh ñ y  ś
Roof of Mouth ṭh ḍh r  
Teeth t th d dh n l  s
Lips p ph b bh m v

Just Three More to Go!

OK! You got through learning 32 Sanskrit consonants, awesome! There are just three more left.

The simplest is “h” – although ancient Sanskrit probably pronounced it differently (with actual voice, not just air), from the classics onward it’s close enough to the same “h” we have in English. It’s never “silent” – there are no “silent letters” in Sanskrit spelling.

Then there is a dotted h: “ḥ” – it always follows a vowel (almost always at the end of a word, too). Its just supposed to be air that comes after a vowel. But most people enunciate this air by faintly echoing the preceding vowel.

Finally there is a dotted m: “ṁ” (sometimes written as “ṃ” – I don’t like it that way, though). It also always follows a vowel and is almost always at the end of a word. Pronounce it by nasalizing the conclusion of whatever vowel came before it.

How to Practice

Just wait a bit, as we start to look at Sanskrit words, in the next posts, you’ll get more than enough chance to practice all this stuff.