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Adjectives, Comparatives & Superlatives

Adjectives, Comparatives & superlatives
Following on from the last post discussing Noun Attributes in Pali, we can now look at adjectives specifically, as well as Comparatives & Superlatives.

Adjectives as Attributes

An adjective is a word that describes, or qualifies a noun and describes a quality or characteristic. They are often termed 'describing' words:
  •  red, quiet, obedient, cold, new etc.
Well actually, in the phrase 'the large cat' technically both 'large' & 'cat' are each nouns, but 'large' is being used as an attributive adjective because it is qualifying another noun, while 'cat' is termed a substantive noun because it represents an actual thing. This is important because in Pali many nouns can function either as substantives or adjectives.

In Pali, adjectives take the same case, gender and number as the substantive nouns they qualify and are usually placed before their substantive. If they come after, this is often for emphasis or there is an implied apposition or copula ‘is’ as we saw in the last post.
Here's a tutorial on Pali adjectives:

Learn Pali Grammar - Adjectives

This tutorial looks at how adjectives operate in Pali and explains the agreement of adjectives with their substantive nouns.

Adjectives usually come before their substantive - the noun to which they agree - an exception to this is when:
  • there are multiple adjectives to a single noun. In this event, one adjective often precedes and the rest follow the noun. 
  • Adjectives qualifying multiple nouns are usually plural. If there are multiple nouns which differ in gender the adjective may default to neuter or male.

setā
rasmiyo
setā
patodalaṭṭhi
setaṃ
chattaṃ
setaṃ
uṇhīsaṃ
setāni
vatthāni
nom
pl
fem
adj
nom
pl
fem
nom
sgl
fem
adj
nom
sgl
fem
nom
sgl
neut
adj
nom
sgl
neut

nom
sgl
neut
adj
nom
sgl
neut
nom
pl
neut
adj
nom
pl
neut

white reins
a white driver’s stick
a white parasol
a white turban
white clothes

Positives, Comparatives & Superlatives

Many adjectives have three distinct forms:
  • the straightforward adjective - traditionally called the positive form;
  • comparatives a special form which expresses a sense of ‘more than’ or ‘better than’
  • while superlatives mean ‘best of’ or ‘most’.
positive:
tall
sure
clever
comparative:
taller
surer
cleverer
superlative:
tallest
surest
cleverest

English is quite irregular but we can see that:
  •  -er is generally added to form comparatives, 
  • while -est forms superlatives.
In Pali, the suffixes:
  •  –tara, -iya or –īya (sometimes -iyya or -īyya). are generally added to any kind of adjective to form the comparative; 
  • while –tama, -iṭṭha or - issika form the superlative.  
It's important to note that theses suffixes are then declined to match their nouns.

Another feature of comparative constructions is the noun to which the comparison is made will be in Instrumental or Ablative case. English uses the word ‘than’ where Pali uses the ablative.


Instr / Abl
she is
clever
than him

Comparisons may also expressed simply by an Ablative followed by an adjective!

With superlatives the compared noun will be in either Genitive or Locative plural. English uses the word ‘of’ where Pali uses the Genitive.

For example,
mānusakehi
kho
āvuso,
kāmehi
dibbā
kāmā
abhikkantatarā
Instr, abl
pl
m
adj

indec
voc
pl
male

instr, abl
pl
male

nom, abl
pl, sgl
m,
adj

nom,abl
pl,sgl
male

nom,abl
pl,sgl
m
Comp adj

human
indeed
friend
desires
divine
desires
more brilliant
Indeed friend, divine desire/s, (are) more brilliant (than) human desires

If you look up each word in this example there are lots of variant declensions – more than I’ve listed – and so we need to thin them out. First of all, kho is an enclitic and thus can’t begin a sentence and this is true of anything in vocative too - so these can be moved to the start. The only nouns in the rest of sentence are both masculine and as adjectives must agree with their nouns we can use this to cut down the variants. So mānusakehi must be instrumental or ablative plural and dibbā must be either nominative plural or ablative sgl. Now we can see that mānusakehi agrees with kāmehi therefore ‘human desires’ and dibbā agrees with kāmā - and with Abhikkantatarā too. Which means this is the the thing compared; ‘divine desire/s’ are ‘more brilliant’.  And we know that the noun to which the comparison is made is in instrumental / ablative so ‘more brilliant’ than ‘human desires’ .

Finally this leaves choosing whether ‘divine desire/s’ is singular or plural. I would say that as there is an implied ‘is’ linking the two halves of the comparison and ‘human desires’ is definitely plural so this would force dibbā kāmā to be plural also. And this will cast the whole thing into nominative making it the subject. A bit long winded I know but hey...

As an example of a superlative:
virāgo
seṭṭho
dhammānaṃ
nom
sgl
male

nom
sgl
m
Super adj

gen/dat
pl
male

Absence of infatuation
(the) best
dhammas
The absence of infatuation is the best of the dhammas
> Beware  pronominal forms of 'Ka': katara ‘which one?’ and katama ‘which?, which one?’ that look like comparatives but are not...

Creating Adjectives from Nouns

Though Pali has words which are specifically adjective in meaning, it doesn't really distinguish between nouns and adjective. Any noun stem can be turned into an adjective by use of suffixes:
-vant, -vat before nouns stems in a/ā,
-(v)in also to stems in a,
-mant, -mat to the other stem endings

Nouns stems ending in the above often have a meaning of possession and can be rendered in English  by -ed. For instance, possessing wings = winged

Others adjective suffixes include:
-āla
-ālu
-ava
-ita
-ila

They then decline like past active participles in –ant, –va, –ma or –(v)in; This means that although they must match their qualified noun in case, gender and number, they may not be identical in form.
  • Dhana  = wealth; 
  • Dhanin = wealthy, a wealthy person
Some dictionaries drop the final n of –(v)in.

Creating Adjectives from Verbs

Verbs can also take the suffix -in (and be declined like participles) which can be rendered in English by -ing. For instance flying, falling etc. These are similar to present participles but tend to act as adjectives: the flying kite.

For more details see my post Pali Adjectival Suffixes.

Adjectives functioning as Nouns

Adjectives may also stand alone as substantives nouns (where there is no substantive noun), in which case they are always in neuter. This is sometimes called a pronominal.
  • Dhanin = a wealthy person
It is possible to make an adjective into an adverb (easy -> easily) by placing it in the neuter accusative singular:
rassaṃ
assasāmi’ti
pajānāti
acc
sgl
m,n,f
adj

Pres, act
sgl

1st pers

Pres, act
sgl

3rd pers

short
(I) inhale
(He) knows clearly
He knows clearly ‘I inhale shortly’

Note here 'ti is an enclitic indicating direct speech.

Numerals

I include numerals here as they are often used adjectivally - 'the three men' etc.
The way numerals behave in Pali is unusually varied. For instance:
  • Numerals 1, 3 & 4 act like adjectives and decline in number, gender and case agreeing with their nouns.
  • However, 2 & 5 through 18 are always plural and without gender distinction, but still change to reflect the case of their nouns.
  • Numbers 1-18 behave adjectivally - while 19 and above act in apposition to their nouns thus generally taking the same case as the noun they qualify but are either feminine or neuter in gender and always singular!


See also compounds and participles for more info...

Next post: Pronouns in Pali

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