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July 19, 2013 / A


At first glance Sanskrit is a language with millions of different words. This is part of the reason that Sanskrit seems so intimidating at first. But as we learn more about the language, we see that these millions of words are closer to thousands of words, and that the bewildering forms we’ve seen in the past are formed according to basic patterns. Thus the -अ nouns, though their stems are very different, form words in the same way:

  • गजेन
  • ऐरावतेन
  • इन्द्रप्रस्थेन
  • वेदान्तेन
  • जनकतनयास्नानपुण्योदकेन

There are several patterns like this, and each pattern governs at least a few nouns.

But there is one noun that doesn’t have a single pattern. Although it is very similar to other nouns, there is no other noun like it in Sanskrit. As you might have guessed, that noun is स्त्री (“woman”).

What makes this word so special? A special rule in the Ashtadhyayi, which gives it two additional forms. First, some background:


Chapter 6.4 of the Ashtadhyayi focuses on the अङ्ग, the basic form to which suffixes are added. (In fact, its first rule is just अङ्गस्य, which governs the rules that follow.) It governs a variety of insertions, deletions, and substitutions that coordinate various pieces of grammatical matter into a single word. Among the chapters I’ve read so far, it’s the most “low-level” part of the Ashtadhyayi.

Among other rules, 6.4 contains this bit of internal sandhi:


6.4.77 अचि श्नुधातुभ्रुवां य्वोर् इयङुवङौ
Before any vowel, the vowels इ, ई, उ, and ऊ are replaced, respectively, with इय् and उव् if they are at the end of (1) श्नु, (2) a धातु, or (3) the word भ्रू.

This is why we have words like आप्नुवन्ति, धियः, and भ्रुवौ instead of *आप्न्वन्ति, ध्यः, and भ्र्वौ. These rules also apply to a variety of nouns that are derived directly from verb roots:

  • नी
  • ली
  • श्री
  • पू
  • भू

A later rule extends the scope of 6.4.77 to स्त्री as well:


6.4.79 स्त्रियाः
(This substitution also occurs) for स्त्री.

I suppose this rule is pretty straightforward. It gives us forms like स्त्रियम् and स्त्रियाः instead of *स्त्र्यम् or *स्त्र्याः. But now we come to the rule of intererst:


6.4.80 वांशसोः
But optionally before अम् and शस्.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Ashtadhyayi, take a moment to work out what’s going on here. 6.4.77 states a general principle. 6.4.79 extends that principle to स्त्री, so we can lump those two rules together. And 6.4.80 states that the general principle is optional for स्त्री when followed by अम् or शस्. Unfortunately, we have to bring in one more rule to figure out what sorts of forms 6.4.80 gives us:


We bring in 6.4.101 for context:

6.4.101 अकः सवर्णे दीर्घः
Two similar vowels combine and become long.

Then 6.4.102 for the general combination rule:

6.1.102 प्रथमयोः पूर्वसवर्णः
In the first two (noun cases), (two vowels) (not necessarily homogeneous) combine and the result is similar to the first (and long).

There are many exceptions to 6.1.102, but they don’t apply here.

With 6.1.102 in hand, we see that we can derive the extra forms स्त्रीम् and स्त्रीः. Other nouns may have these forms (e.g. नदीम्, नदीः), but no other also has the forms allowed by 6.4.77 (स्त्रियम्, स्त्रियः).


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