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May 6, 2012 / A

Suppletive forms in Sanskrit

I am working through 2.4 whenever I have the time and patience. Unlike the other chapters in book 2, which are tightly focused — 2.1 and 2.2 on compound formation, and 2.3 on the uses of case endings — 2.4 touches on three main topics:

  • gender and number rules for compounds
  • Base substitution in verbs and pronouns
  • Linguistic deletion, especially लुक् deletion

Of these, the second is by far the more interesting. Here the Ashtadhyayi describes the notion of suppletive behavior: the treatment of multiple forms as part of the same word.

Via Flickr.

That’s an abstract explanation. So here’s an example. The English verb “be” is the most irregular verb in the language. We have “am,” “are,” and “is,” but we also have “was” and “were,” and “be” and “been” and “being.” These three sets of forms are all treated as the same verb “be.” But historically they come from three different sources. And each has a cognate in Sanskrit: अस् (“be”), वस् (“live,” “dwell”), and भू (“be”).

Or consider a word like “person.” We can have one person and many people. “Person” is from Latin persona, but “people” is from Latin populus. Two sources, treated as one word.

Sanskrit has suppletive forms, too. One common example is the pronoun इदम् , which has forms like इमे and इमानि but also has forms like अनेन and  अस्मै. Clearly these forms are dissimilar; yet they complete each other, giving us a full (albeit irregular) set. Other pronouns are usually like this too.

But to my surprise, I find that several verbs behave this way too.

Sure, I knew about हन् (aorist अवधीत्) and अद् (participle जग्ध). But there were many others that hadn’t even occurred to me:

In front of लुङ् (aorist) or सन् (desiderative), घसॢ replaces अद्
[e.g. अघसत्, जिघत्सति]
इङो गा लुङि
In front of लुङ् (aorist), गा replaces इ “go”.
[e.g. एति, अगात्]
(In front of an आर्धधातुक suffix) वच् replaces ब्रू
[e.g. ब्रवीमि, वक्तव्यम्]

Suppletive forms are usually used to complete parts of a missing paradigm of forms. Given the relative transparency of the Sanskrit verb system, I would have thought there wouldn’t be any such forms. But the basis for these forms seems to be cultural; इ does have a causative आययति (among others), but it’s only used in certain circumstances.

On this subject S. D. Joshi mentions a cute passage by Patanjali. The subject is the use of the form प्रवेतृ instead of प्राजितृ, due to base substitution.

एवं हि कश्चिद्वैयाकरण आह । को ऽस्य रथस्य प्रवेतेति
Thus a certain grammarian once said: “Who is the driver (प्रवेतृ) of this chariot?”
सूत आह । आयुष्मन्नहं प्राजितेति
The charioteer: “O long-living one, I am the driver (प्राजितृ).”
वैयाकरण आह । अपशब्द इति
The grammarian: “That’s an अपशब्द (degraded word)!”
सूत आह । प्राप्तिज्ञो देवानांप्रियो न त्विष्तज्ञः । इष्यत एतद्रूपमिति
The charioteer: Your honor knows the application of rules, but not desired usage. This very form (प्राजितृ) is desired.
वैयाकरण आह । अहो खल्वनेन दुरुतेन बाध्यामह इति ।
The grammarian: Well, then! By this दुरुत (pun on सूत, as if from सु-उत; the actual meaning is “bad weaver”) we’re quite hard-pressed.
सूत आह । न खलु वेञः सूतः । सुवतेरेव सूतः । यदि सुवतेः कुत्सा प्रयोक्तव्या । दुःसूतेनेति वक्तव्यम्
The charioteer: Ah, but सूत is not from वे “to weave,” but from सू “impel” instead. If your insult had come from सू, you should have used दुःसूत (“bad charioteer”).

Thus base substitution seems to be a largely cultural issue, at least for verbal bases. Pronoun forms don’t seem to have that sort of flexibility, which indicates that they come from a much older version of Sanskrit


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