Lesson 23 – Compound words

A short YouTube version is available here. [Expand to the full article to be able to click on the link].

In Lesson 22, we took a story, “The hermit, and the mouse that was changed to a tiger”, from the Hitopadeśa (book iv, fable 6) and analysed it.

In the next few lessons we will look at compound words.

Compound words

Compounding is a process of word formation in which two or more stems are joined together to form compounds which are then treated as if they are simple words with respect to construction and inflection. The meaning of the compound word may be similar to or different from the individual words in the compound. For example, in the previous lesson we saw the word mūṣikaśāvaka (mouseling) which is compound of the words mūṣika (mouse) and śāvaka (young one). The word mūṣikaśāvaka is then declined like one word.

Compounds are called samāsa समास by Sanskrit grammarians.

[Note the addition of prefixes  (see lesson 14) to verbs and verbal adjectives and nouns (like participles, infinitives, gerunds, etc.), or other affixes and declensional and conjugational endings should not be confused with compounding. For example mūṣikam (accusative of mūṣika) is not considered a compound of mūṣika and m; similarly saṃvardhitaḥ which is vardhitaḥ with the prefix sam is not considered a compound word]

Note that sandhi rules apply when the stems are joined together.

Compounding is common in all languages.

In Hindi, in addition to compound words directly taken from Sanskrit, there are some compound words. For example, रसोईघर (kitchen) or चौराहा (four roads).

In Tamil the word kovil (palace) is ko (king) + il (house) (here note the sandhi addition of “v” in between).

Compounding is very common in European languages. English has many. For example, footpath, blackboard, daydream, blackbeard etc. In English, in many a case, compounded words are shown as two separate words or two words with a hyphen. For example car park, animal lover, well-known, angry-sounding etc.

German also commonly employs compound words. For example, the English compound word undertake (under + take) is unternehmen (unter + nehmen). Snow owl is Schneeeule (schnee + eule).

Formation of compounds

Compounds are all formed in generally the same way. The stem forms of the words (nouns, adjectives) or the whole preposition or adverb are put together applying the rules of sandhi. Only the last member of the compound is declined. If a stem has a distinction of strong and weak forms, it regularly enters the compound in its weak form, and if it has a distinction of strong, middle and weak forms, it enters the compound in its middle form.


  1. Sometimes, a modified stem is used in the prior member. Eg. mahātapas महातपस्; mahā used for mahant
  2. Sometimes, the prior member may enter a compound in its case form Examples are: dhanaṃjaya धनंजय (accusative form in the prior word); bhāsāketu भासाकेतु (instrumental); nareṣṭhā नरेष्ठा (dative); balātkāra बलात्कार (ablative); rāyaskāma रायस्काम (genitive) ; divicara दिविचर (locative). These types of compounds are said to be aluk अलुक् by the Sanskrit grammarians.
  3. Sometimes, a dual or plural from is used in the prior member if the dual or plural meaning is to be conveyed. Eg. hanūkampa हनूकम्प (dual) and rujaskara रुजस्कर (plural)
  4. Sometimes, a prior member enters the compound in its feminine form if a distinct feminine meaning is to be conveyed. Eg. dasīputra दसीपुत्र; gopīnātha गोपीनाथ etc.
  5. Some pronouns have special stem forms:
    1. aham – mat; vayam – asmat; tvam – tvat; yūyam – yuṣmat – sa (and other genders of tad) – tat

Compounds of more than two words

A compound may, like a simple word, become a member in another compound and this in yet another, and so on, without any limit. In such cases where a compound has more than two component words, the compound should be analysed (unless it is a dvandva द्वन्द्व compound with many components) by a series of bisections.  A compound of four components ABCD should be split and analysed first as ABC + D; then the ABC is analysed as AB + C and then the AB as A + B. For example, the compound word nadītīragrāma (village on the shore of a river) should be first split as nadītīra (shore of a river)  + grāma (village). nadītīra should then be analysed as nadī (river)+ tīra (shore).

In ancient Sanskrit, it is quite rare that more than two words are compounded together, except that sometimes, to a heavily used and familiar compound used as one integral word, a further word is added. However, in classical Sanskrit compounds of a large number of words are common. For example nadītīragrāmavāsin (resident in a village on the shore of a river)

Types of compounds

Sanskrit grammarians recognize four types of compounds. This classification is based on what is called syntactic predominance or प्राधान्यम् prādhānyam.

  1. Compound words where the प्राधान्यम् prādhānyam is on the second element of a compound are called tatpuruṣa तत्पुरुष compounds. For example, in the word, nadītīram नदीतीरम् (the bank of a river), the syntactically important word is tīram तीरम् (bank). A special class of tatpuruṣa compounds is called karmadhāraya कर्मधारय. We will look at these in a later lesson.
  2. Compound words where the प्राधान्यम् prādhānyam is on the first element of a compound are called avyayībhāva अव्ययीभाव compounds. For example, in the word upakumbham उपकुम्भम् (near the water jar), the syntactically important word is upa उप (near to).
  3. Compound words where the प्राधान्यम् prādhānyam is equally on both the elements of a compound are called dvandva द्वन्द्व compounds. rāmakr̥ṣṇau रामकृष्णौ (Rama and Krishna). Note that the second element is in the dual.
  4. Compound words where the प्राधान्यम् prādhānyam lies outside the compound itself on an antecedent word are called bahuvrīhi बहुव्रीहि compounds. For example, mahābāhu महाबाहु (who has great hands).

Dvandva द्वन्द्व compounds

We will deal with dvandva compounds first. Two or more nouns (and sometimes two or more adjectives) are connected as if by a conjunction like and.

Dvandvas fall into two classes

Itaretara dvandva, where the compound has the gender and declension of the final member and is in the dual or plural depending on whether it has two or more elements or according to its logical value.

Eg. devāsurāḥ देवासुराः (gods and demons – plural); candrādityau चन्द्रादित्यौ (moon and sun – dual); brāhmaṇakṣatrīyavaiśyaśūdrāḥ ब्राह्मणक्षत्रीयवैश्यशूद्राः (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra – plural)

Samāhāra (composite) dvandva, where the the compound word is always singular and neuter. The series of things in the compound is seen as a composite unit.

Eg. bhūtabhavyam भूतभव्यम् (past and future); ahorātram अहोरात्रम् (a day and night)

Note 1: Adjectives also form these pairs. For example, śuklakr̥ṣṇa शुक्लकृष्ण (light and dark). [Some grammarians may classify this as a karmadhāraya कर्मधारय.]

Note 2: There are some pairs that are connected by the conjunction or. For example, jayaparājaya जयपराजय (victory or defeat).

Note 3: Compound adjectives of direction fall into this category. Eg. uttarapūrva उत्तरपूर्व (north-east)

Note 4: Compound numerals also fall into this category. Eg. ekādaśa एकादश

Note 5: Also, repeated words dive-dive दिवे-दिवे (day by day).

Ekaśeṣa एकशेष

This is a special type of compound where two or more nouns (and pronouns) are connected as if by a conjunction like and, but only one of them is retained with the necessary number.


rāmaḥ + rāmaḥ –> rāmau राम: + राम: –> रामौ;

rāmaḥ + rāmaḥ + rāmaḥ–> rāmāḥ  राम: + राम:+ राम: –>रामाः

If a masculine is combined with feminine, the form of the masculine is retained.

haṃsī + haṃsaḥ –> haṃsau हंसी + हंसः –> हंसौ

If a neuter is combined with any other gender, the form of the neuter is retained.

This principle applies also to certain dissimilar words of the same character.

mātā + pitā –> pitarau माता + पिता –> पितरौ

putraḥ + duhitā –> putrau पुत्रः + दुहिता –> पुत्रौ

saḥ + sā –> tau सः + सा –> तौ

saḥ + rāmaḥ –> tau सः + राम: –> तौ

saḥ + sā + tat –> tāni सः + सा + तत् –> तानि

Please study the first few verses (I have reached up to verse 12)  of the नळोपाख्यानम् naḷopākhyānam   – The story of Nala – that I have analysed on a first level and uploaded here. This will help you understand how to analyse Sanskrit verses.

This is the end of lesson 23. In this lesson we looked at compounds in general and also at dvandva द्वन्द्व compounds in particular.







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