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Simple Present tense - Verb Conjugation - Part 1

Pali verb conjugationThe inflection of verbs is known as “conjugation”. It consists of changes in form to show differences in person, number, tense, mood, and voice. In this post we will start our look at the present tense in Pali.

By now you may have realised that the available tools (DPR & Pali Lookup) are good but not infallible when it comes to detecting the inflections of Pali verbs.

Nouns tend to be straightforward, there are many groups but the ending are fairly regular. However, verbs and their derivatives can be very irregular and multitudinous and not all the variations are caught by the automated parser - nor the dictionary. This then can cause the amateur translator hours of frustration in their attempts to search for that one illusive word not in the dictionary.
So at some point in ones studies it becomes pragmatic to delve into the process of inflection. This and then next few posts will hopefully shed some light on the whole affair. 

The various Pali grammar guides out there use differing methods to classify verbs and employ different terminologies resulting in a whole mass of confusion – for me at least. In this post I’ll try to keep it as simple as I can from what I’ve managed to glean. As such accuracy maybe compromised – so be warned.

First, here's an introductory video tutorial about the mechanics of verb inflection which explains many of the terms we'll be using below.

Intro to Verb Inflection: Learn Pali Language #21

An introductory tutorial looking at the basic mechanics of Verb Inflection [conjugation] in the Pali language. It explains the terms: 'root, stem & base' as well as words such as 'affix, suffix & infix.

 Roots, stems & bases

When grammarians analyse a word they break it down into root, stem and base. These are convenient grammatical fictions and never appear as actual words themselves.
  • A root is an element, not further analysable at the grammatical or lexical levels. It carries a basic meaning which may be very vague and general. They are often marked by the √ symbol as in the verb root √gam = 'to go'. There is a glossary of Pali roots here .
From a root, families of stems can be derived.
  • Stems have specific dictionary meanings whereas roots don’t! 
In Pali, the process of going from root to inflected verb is complex but can be broken down into several stages. For instance, from the root √kam, is derived kāme 'to love' which is called the stem form or the present stem . Just as a word of warning, although the term conjugation has the general meaning of adding tense to a verb, the Pali grammarians use it specifically to refer to the derivation of present stems from roots!

Now stems in Pali are not yet words. Once you have the verb stem , you may attach prefixes – of which there are about 20 – an augment which represents the past tense and infixes indicating tense/mood to form a verb base . Primary endings, also called personal endings, are then added to this base in order to indicate the person and number thus rendering an inflected verb!

Verb Base

Present stem

Root √gam 
=> gaccha

+ ti
(s/he goes)
present, act, 
3 rd per, sgl
ā +
+ ma
(we come)
present, act, 
1st per, pl

The terms stem and base are often used interchangeably. But here I'm using the term base to mean the form before a personal ending, indicating number and person, has been added. A stem may become an inflectional base itself or further prefixes and infixes added to form the base upon which personal endings are attached to form actual inflected verbs.

So lets go one step at a time...

The Conjugations - Derivation of Stems from Roots

Now the ancient Sanskrit grammarians sorted Sanskrit's verb roots into ten different classes according to how the roots form their present stems . The ancient Pali grammarians followed the same pattern, with the majority identifying seven (some eight) such classes. Note these classes are referred to as conjugation by Warder and others. The transformation of root to stem is convoluted and I leave it to the reader to investigate further - : Duroiselle pg.55, Perniola pg.75.

What is more important I think for the amateur translator is to be able to identify the tenses, but I include some details here for clarification.

The conjugation of root to stem is often referred to by number – first conjugation and so on. Note verb tense modes (see below) are also often denoted to by number so it’s easy to get muddled. Here's a table that lists the Pali root conjugation classes. The descriptions are included for illumination only.

Root conjugation
Strengthen root vowel
e→ay, o→av
+ a,
√bhū → bho → bhav+a
Nasal insertion ñ
+ a
√bhuj → bhuñj+a
Addition of -ya*
√man + ya → mañña
Addition of -ṇo
Addition of - ṇā
√ñā + nā → jānā
Addition of -o
√kar + o → karo
Strengthen root vowel
+ e or aya
√kam → kām → kām+e
√dis → des → des+aya
  * –ya often assimilates and produced a (re)duplicated consonant.

So there are seven conjugation classes though the fourth is merged with the fifth; however the numbering scheme is still used as it matches that of Sanskrit.
The important thing to note here is that the root to stem conjugations result in present stems which end in either:
-a,  -nā,  -e, or  -o. 

Tenses & mood

In a previous post I gave an overview of verb tense, aspect and moods or modes where I listed the various tenses and modes. To recap. In Pali there are three tenses (times):
  • Present : refers to an action occurring at the present time.
  • Past (sometimes called Aorist or preterite): refers to the general indefinite past or previously completed events. It is also used in prohibitions.
  • Future : implies an action or an event that will occur at some unspecified point in the future. It can also be used to express the probable, a mild imperative.
In addition to these are also moods or modes through which the purpose of the sentence expressed:
  • Indicative mood is used to make a statement.
  • Imperative : is used for commands but also invitations and wishes and to form prohibitions.
  • Optative : is used to express possibility, probability, fitness, agreement, or permission.
  • Conditional : is rather strange. it refers to a future event which may not eventuate due to some impediment or obstruction and so is used to suggest impossibility, potential failure or non-realisation of an action.
As the various Pali grammar guides out there use differing methods to classify verbs and employ different terminologies, it can be hard to figure out what’s going on. Just to add to the confusion the Sanskrit grammarians often denoted their tenses by number and some Pali guides also follow this custom which can easily be confused with the root conjugation numbering.

Pali doesn’t make a distinction between tense and mood and so many guides refer to six Pali tenses alone or they break them down in differing orders; but we can distinguish:
  • Present (indicative),
    •  imperative,
    •  optative
  • Future,
    •  conditional.
  • Past, preterite or Aorist,
    •  perfect,
    •  imperfect
The imperative and optative are technically seen as a subset of the present tense - thus it is not possible to have a future-optative combination. And the conditional is sometime grouped with the future tense.

The three main past-like tenses or aspects of Sanskrit, the aorist, imperfect and perfect; have almost completely merged into a single tense in Pali - sometime called the preterite - though most forms derive from the Sanskrit aorist and so it is often referred to as Aorist.

This means that these six: present (indicative), imperative, optative, future, conditional & past/aorist; can be thought of as fundamental.

Now in this and future posts I'll go through these one by one.

Present Indicative

A present tense verb is formed by adding present indicative endings to the present stem . We saw above how present stems are derived from roots.

The following present indicative endings are then added to these stems.
Present stems endings

Active voice

Reflexive voice††


3rd person**

-(a)nte, -re
2nd person

1st person*
- (ā)mi
- (ā)ma

- (ā)mhe
(-ā mahe, - ā mha)

Now this table may appear a little more complicated than the ones in the grammar guides and short-forms. As the reason for this guide is to catch those irregular derivations, I have attempted to be quite comprehensive. I'll go through this table now step by step...

Reflexive voice

First notice the two parallel tables labeled 'Active voice' and 'Reflexive voice'. If you remember, a previous post explained the difference between active voice and passive voice sentences. Well Pali inherits a third voice from Sanskrit, sometime called Middle voice (from Greek), or Reflexive voice (and even 'passive' voice by some authors because that's its name in Sanskrit but is very confusing).

The reflexive endings survive as a relic from Sanskrit. Technically, the active voice implies: the subject is performing the action but is not being acted upon themselves, i.e. the action of the verb is impacting on an object different from the agent.
Jack kicked the ball
Reflexive voice implies the agent themselves is being acted upon, that is to say that the action of the verb is being directed towards or only involves the agent. Mazard suggests intransitive self-referential actions.
I went for a walk
You’ll be pleased to know, the distinction between active and reflexive has mostly disappeared from Pali. The endings are rarely found in prose, though examples are common in poetry. However, it is just these sort of endings that are hard to identify when parsing a word.

Now lets go back to the present stem endings above.  I've marked up the table with several footnotes explained below.

Remember that after conjugation the present stems end in either:-a,-nā,-e, or -o. So if we take the stem 'paca' to cook:
the 3rd pers, sgl is formed by adding -ti  =  paca+ti, s/he cooks;
the 2nd pers sgl, -si  =  paca+si, you cook;
and 1st pers sgl -mi  =  paca+mi, I cook,
but the 1st pers. becomes = pacāṁ because:
* the stem endings in -a becomes -ā- before the 1st person singular and plural endings: -mi, -ma, -mhe, indicated by brackets in the table. (The other stem ending aren't effected).
stems in –a taking –āmi, can lose the final i (by law of mora, sandhi) to become –āṁ
Also note:
** stems ending in -nā become -na before the 3rd person plural, and
†† stem ending in –e always add the infix -aya- before the reflexive endings

Thus we can derive the paradigm table below taking present stems ending -a,-nā,-e, & -o.
For example:
the root √pac, ‘to go’, conjugates to present stem ‘ paca ’:
the root √ki, ‘to buy’, conjugates to present stem ‘ kiṇā ’:
the root √dis, ‘to teach’, conjugates to present stem ‘ dese
the root √kr, ‘to make’, conjugates to present stem ‘ karo



paca (cooks)
3rd pers
2nd pers
1st pers
pacāmi pacā ṁ

core / coraya (steals)
3rd pers
2nd pers
1st pers

kiṇā (buys)
3rd pers
2nd pers
1st pers

karo (does)
3rd pers
2nd pers
1st pers

Pali makes no distinction between the simple present tense and the continuous present tense, in contrast to English. For example, passati can mean both ‘He sees’ (simple present) and ‘He is seeing’ (continuous present). Similarly, pucchanti can mean both ‘They ask’ and ‘They are asking’.

 in the next posts I'll follow up on the Pali Verb moods...

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This is very helpful. Thank you.

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