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Pali Noun Cases & Declension - what are they?

What is noun declension? How are noun cases used? 

Well, the inflection of nouns is called declension . Inflection is where a word changes form (spelling) to indicate its grammatical role. The individual declensions are grouped into cases, and together they form a case system.

If you are at a loss, then this series of posts is for you. Lets start with some terminology.
Sentence subjects & objects

Sentence Structure -  subject  and predicate

First to understand Pali we must understand how sentences are constructed. A sentence can be broken down into structural parts called phrases and each phrase plays a different role in the meaning of the sentence. A phrase is just one or more linked words that play a specific role.


A sentence consists in a minimum of a noun phrase + a verb phrase. A noun describes a thing or person while a verb describes an action or state of being of that person or thing. e.g.

 Jesus wept.

More often, especially in traditional grammars, this division is termed the  subject and the  predicate . The subject is generally the person or thing that the sentence is about. It’s often the person or thing that performs the action of the verb, and thus is also sometimes referred to the agent of the verb. The predicate is what happens to the subject and is expressed by the verb phrase. (Note the term predicate gets used in many ways...).

Operator
Subject
Predicate
--
The cat
sat on the mat.
--
John
gave Mary a book.
Has
he
done his homework?


Some verbs take objects . The object (less commonly referred to as the patient ) is what undergoes the action of the verb.

Subject
Predicate
 
Verb
Direct Object
John
kicked
the ball


Not all verbs take objects - verbs having no objects are called intransitive while transitive   verbs take an object. Some verbs, like 'to call, tell, ask & bring, take, or give' can take two objects, one direct object (as above) and one indirect object. The direct object is the thing or person that is affected by the action of the verb while an indirect object is usually a person (or animal) who receives a direct object.

Subject
Predicate
 
Verb
Direct Object
Indirect Object
John
carried
the ball
to Jennie

 

Subject
Predicate
 
Verb
Indirect Object
Direct Object
John
told
Jennie
a secret


There are also prepositional objects.

Subject
Predicate
 
Verb
Preposition
Object
John
is waiting
for
the bus


Prepositions  indicate a relationship, often spatial or temporal, of one noun to another. Some common prepositions in English are: 'at, by, for, from, in, into, on, to, & with'.

Noun cases

A students first challenge when learning Pali is usually getting to grips with noun cases . In English, the subject and object nouns of a sentence are both normal in their form (i.e. nominative); that is, they contain no indication of their grammatical role. The distinction between the subject & object is expressed by the word order of the the sentence alone.
For instance, if the sentence 

John kicked Jennie

was split into its structural parts and rearranged e.g. 

kicked Jennie John

This is because in English, nouns do not change their forms (spelling) to indicate their role. 
However, pronouns in English do change their form dependent on the role they play - and with their gender and the number (single, plural) also. So if we restated the above sentence as:

 He kicked her 

and then rearranged the structural parts e.g. 

kicked Her He

we can actually work out who kicked whom - because ‘her kicked he’ makes no sense! 

This is possible because pronouns have specific forms (spellings) dependent on their role, gender and number. And these forms can be groups into 'cases'.

English Personal Pronouns

 
SINGULAR
PLURAL
Case:
nominative
accusative
genitive
nominative
accusative
genitive
subjective
objective
possessive
subjective
objective
possessive
1 st pers.
I
me
mine (my)
we
us
ours (our)
2 nd pers.
You (thou)
You (thou)
yours (your)
you
you
yours (your)
3 rd pers. male
he
him
his
they
them
theirs (their)
3 rd pers. female
she
her
hers (her)
they
them
theirs (their)
3 rd pers. generic
it
it
its
they
them
theirs (their)


This morphing of pronoun form is termed declension and is used to indicate the role - technically termed:  case   of the underlying noun. Now in Pali, as well as pronouns, adjectives and nouns too change form (specifically their endings) to indicate their role i.e. case, gender and number. Put simply, declension marks each Pali word to indicate the subject, object and prepositional object of a sentence (verbs too are marked by inflections but this is a whole other story).

The following introductory videos to noun cases in Pali covers the above as well as a bit on verbs too.

Grammar Concepts #2 : Subjects & Objects | Learn Pali Basics

This video tutorial looks at the different roles that nouns & verbs play in an English sentence. We discuss the concepts of subject and object nouns; we look at different types of object: direct and indirect; and go on to discuss simple types of verbs: transitive and intransitive, as well as linking verbs in English grammar.

The 8 Pali noun cases

Now in the Pali language, the 3 English cases - subjective, objective, and possessive - are expanded into 8 with the additional cases roughly aligning with prepositional objects in English; as follows:

English grammar equivalent
Pāli case*
Generally used to denotes
Common English prepositional substitute
Subject
The subject of a verb and its attributes
 
 
Forms of address
 
Direct object
Destination of action or motion, i.e. The object of a transitive verb
Done to (a place or object)
Possessive
union, ‘whose?’, owner or possessor of a thing;
x‘s, of/by, to have
Indirect object / Prepositional object
Beneficiary. To whom or for whom an action is done or to whom something is given.
Purpose of action
To, for
In order to
Prepositional object
Separation. cause or direction; from whom, what, where or when an action proceeds
From, out of,
as, after
Prepositional object
The instrument by or through which the action is achieved.
The  agent  of passive verbs
By, with, through, due to, because of
Prepositional object
The place (in time or space) where the action takes place
At, in, on, among, regarding
 

[*] These names of the Pali cases are borrowed from Latin grammar.
[†] The dative case overlaps with genitive in form, which makes them hard to tease apart. Thus guide books differ on which functions are dative and which genitive. Most authors follow the paradigm set by the other classical languages i.e. Latin & Greek. But you may see differences among guides.

The above table is only a rough overview. There are many guides available (Warder, Perniola, Wijesekera) which describe the uses of each Pali cases in detail. And I'll cover this more in further posts .
So the subject of a Pali sentence is in the nominative case whilst a direct object will be in the accusative case. This means that word order in a Pali sentence is not critical as the role of words can be worked out from their cases!

Nominative & Accusative Noun Cases, an Intro | Learn Pali Grammar

This video deals with the basic nominative and accusative cases of Pali and the concepts of subject & object.

Inflection

Pali is a highly inflected language. This means that the endings of most of its words change to mark their function in a sentence. Consequently, one of the most important aspects of translating Pali is examining and identifying the endings of the words in a sentence so one can work out what role they are playing.

The modification of a word to express different grammatical information (such as tense, case, person, number, gender) is termed inflection . Generally, the inflection of verbs is called conjugation while the inflection of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, participles, prepositions, numerals etc. is termed declension .

Some words are " indeclinable " meaning they are incapable of taking declension, ie. they do not change form to indicate their role. These include in Pāli all: adverbs, prefixes, conjunctions and interjections.

Inflection is based on a stem to which suffixes are added. The rules by which the suffixes combine with stem are called Sandhi .
For instance:

"the world",
stem form = loka;
nominative: loka + o = loko,
accusative: loka + ṁ = lokaṁ


And here's a brief explanatory video to Pali noun declension:

Learn Pali Grammar - Nouns - Basic Declension

This video deals with the basic concept of noun declension in Pali.  Dictionaries usually list nouns in their stem form (without case suffixes) or sometimes in nominative    singular, while verbs are usually listed in the third person singular of their present tense rather than their root.


Next up:  How to identify the subject of a Pali sentence

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