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Identifying the Subject of a Pali sentence

Identifying the Subject of a sentenceWhen translating Pali, it is useful to begin by identifying the subject of the sentence, the verb corresponding to that subject, and then any objects of the verb. In order to do this, the first task is to determine the stems, case, gender and number of each word in the sentence. I gave brief details of my methods for parsing stem endings in the previous post.

So let’s look at an example, consider:
Sāriputto mahāpañño dhammaṃ deseti bhikkhunaṃ (SN 8.6)
If we use DPR or Pali lookup we can fill out the table below

sāriputto
mahāpañño
dhammaṃ
deseti
bhikkhunaṃ
Case:
Number:
Gender:


Nom
sgl
male

Nom
sgl
male

Acc
sgl
male

Pres, Act.
sgl

3rd pers.
Dat/Gen
pl
male
Function:
Subject
Direct object
Verb
Prepositional object
Dictionary:
Sāriputta
(the) very wise
(the) doctrine
(he) teaches
(to) the monks
Translation:
Sāriputta, the very wise, teaches the doctrine to the monks

This is fairly straightforward, but lets go through the steps: 
First pass:
  • sāriputto = the proper name Sāriputta + o inflected as nom. m, sgl
  • Pali general doesn't use articles (a, the) so these have to be added.
  • The verb root √dis, ‘to teach’, conjugates to present stem ‘dese’ + ti indicating 3rd person sgl. Pali doesn't always include pronouns as these are indicated in the verb ending. So a 'he' could be inserted.
  • bhikkhunaṃ = bhikkhu + naṃ inflected as dat/gen, plural. It is therefore a preposition or indicates ownership. As there is nothing to be owned we can decide on the preposition 'to'.
As explained previously, the noun declension or case information helps determine the role the word is playing in the sentence. The subject of the sentence is generally expressed in the nominative case whilst a direct object will be in the accusative case.  This, along with other rules, helps direct the deciphering of the sentence.

Word order

In Pali, word order in a sentence usually goes: 
  • subject, object, verb.
Because each word contains case info about the role it is playing in the sentence, word order in Pali is not critical and sometime the sequence is altered for effect. 
  • Sometimes the subject and object are reversed for emphasis.
  • Sometimes placing the agent after the verb implies a rhetorical or emotive sense.
  • Imperative verbs (expressing commands and also invitations) often occur at the beginning of a sentence.

Agreement of the Verb with its Subject

The main (finite) verb of the sentence must agree with the subject in number and person. Some call this 'concord'.

The Paḷi verb can be inflected in three persons (1st, 2nd, 3rd):
  1. The person(s) speaking (= ‘I’, ‘we’);
  2. The person(s) spoken to, that is, the person(s) being addressed (= ‘you’);
  3. The person(s) or thing(s) spoken about, that is, everyone or everything else (= ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’; ‘they’).
And, as with the noun, they can be inflected in two numbers: singular and plural.

For example, the phrase ‘sāriputto deseti’ or ‘sāriputta teaches’, the verb is singular because ‘sāriputta‘ is singular. Moreover, because ‘sāriputta’ is in the third person (i.e. not: 'I' or 'you'), the verb is also in the third person.

sāriputto
mahāpañño
dhammaṃ
deseti
bhikkhunaṃ
Nominative
sgl
male

Nom
sgl
male

Acc
sgl
male

Pres, Act.
sgl

3rd pers.

Dat
plural
male

Subject
Direct object
Verb
Prepositional object
sāriputta
(the) very wise
(the) doctrine
(he) Teaches
(to) the monks
Sāriputta, the very wise, teaches the doctrine to the monks

Taken together, the case (nominative) and the agreement with the verb, identifies the noun sāriputta as the subject of the sentence. And here's the accompanying video tutorial.

Learn Pali Grammar - Verbs - Present Singular

In this tutorial we begin our look at verbs in Pali. The idea of grammatical person is explored and 'subject - verb agreement' which is a key concept in learning Pali grammar.


We'll look at Pali noun cases in more detail and noun attributes in the next post.....
More posts

Comments

French Truly said…
Thank you for posting such great article it helped me a lot.
regards:
Learn French Online

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