To the Pāli Scholars and Students: No Distinct Class of Adjectives in Pāli

I found an interesting paper by a burmese Pāli teacher (ven. Pandita) who writes the following about the class of adjectives in Pāli, I thought I might share a short quote and the whole work with you, just in case you have not heard about it (work found under the link after the quote):

[…] (This tradition is still maintained in the traditional grammars and dictionaries in Burma, which denote adjectives in Paliastiliṅga [“a noun having three genders”],usually abbreviated as ti.) This is not surprising, given that “Both the ancient grammar of Sanskrit by Pāṇini and the early grammars of Greek and Latin — which began the western tradition — failed to make any distinction between noun and adjective.” (Dixon,“AdjectiveClasses”12). Then why do modern Pali grammars have adjectives as a separate word class? It is only an imported product from the West […]

( … rts_Draft_)

A. Bhikkhu


We have adjectives as a separate class because it is a concept that we are familiar with, which helps us to understand the language better. Just as western grammar has happily adopted Indic concepts like sandhi, Pali grammarians should be grateful to adopt any ideas that will help students.

Having said which, note that more recent dictionaries use “mfn”. instead of “adjective”.

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I think Ven Pandita might have missed a distinction used in Western linguistics concerning “nouns”.

What is typically described as a “noun” is technically described as a “substantive noun”. Adjectives are also classed as “nouns”, since these function adnominally.

Apparently, the traditional Pali grammars also have this distinction into namanama and gunanama, cited by Warder.

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Huh. Well, i did not know that.

Edited adding questions…

“mfn” ?
Google says “most-favored nation”. Can’t find a grammatical definition.


English dictionaries? or Pali dictionaries? A dictionary will actually use ‘mfn’ instead of ‘adj.’, i.e. right after the word definition entry?

Starting with Latin, more than 60 years ago, case+number+gender alignment of nouns and modifiers is pretty much ingrained, and found (in later study) in classical Greek, German, and other European languages; so now in Pali (another Indo-European language) it’s no great shock. Perhaps in languages like Pali, Greek or German, where it’s acceptable to freely fabricate compound words from what we in English know as individual ‘words’ (a teacher once characterized as “indivisible knowledge stones”), there’s then some more extensive system for describing word functions? In my experience, using such compound words is frowned-upon in English – as found sometimes in rather dismissive critiques of German usage.

Who describes/classes nouns as ‘substantive nouns’ and adjectives as ‘nouns’?

To use terminology I know from European languages, nouns are words that can be used as subject or object (direct, indirect, of prepositions, or in functions like vocative, locative, etc.). Adjectives modify nouns, but can become nouns also, e.g. ‘white’; and can be derived as verbal forms, as in participles (which can also stand as nouns as well as adjectives).

‘Noun’ comes from root meaning basically ‘name’, if I recall. Is it then that the name of ‘some thing’ (subject/object) makes it a ‘substantive noun’, and as name of a quality, modification it’s also naming and hence a ‘noun’?

Perhaps you can direct us to some document that outlines the system of nomenclature you are referring to?

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Substantive nouns in Pali are gendered, whereas adjectives, or guṇanāma if we adopt the Pali term proposed by Sylvester, are declined to agree with the corresponding substantive. Thus they may appear in any of the three genders, hence mfn.

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Warder’'s, not mine.


I think ven. Pandita was actually pointing to some restrictions in the variety of possible translations and some problems which some of his students met with when thinking in terms of Western categories of adjectives … (about some reference to the mentioned distinction referred to by Sylvester I would be really grateful).

As seen above, Pali adjectives are open to three types of usage—predicative, adjectival, and pronominal. Of them, the first two are available with the English adjectives but not the last one. This is I believe why my students get stuck whenever they find a Pali adjective used as a pronoun. Moreover, when an adjective serves as a pronoun, it can also be a substantive at the same time, susceptible to be qualified by other adjectives. This leads to an interesting flexibility in translation. For example:

• samaṇo gotamo
– The ascetic named Gotama.
– (OR) Gotama, an ascetic

• buddho bhagavā
– The Buddha, who is blessed
– (OR) The Bhagavant who is enlightened.

With these examples, of course, it may not be important whichever version we choose, but in certain contexts, correct interpretation may require the ability to see all possible versions and to choose the appropriate one. But, it is difficult for modern students to achieve such ability as long as they see Pali adjectives as a separate word class. On the other hand, the students of the Burmese monastic education, having never known Pali adjectives as separate from nouns, do not have such difficulties. (p. 4)

If I may ask further: In which cases would you see it being of more help to work with a distinct class of adjectives, do you have anything particular in mind?

Having said which, note that more recent dictionaries use “mfn”. instead of “adjective”.

That’s Interesting. They were following ancient grammar in that I suppose?

Blessings :pray:

That is an interesting point, thank you, and yes, it is a genuine problem when translating. It’s not an area where I use any strict principles, but simply try to do what seems best in each case.

In this case the grammatical situation seem to mirror the culture or at least the culture as represented in texts. For we often find a blurring of lines between proper name and descriptive epithet. The same thing happens in English of course; people think “Buddha” is his proper name. But it’s much more common in Pali.

I assume so, although I haven’t actually seen a discussion of this point.


Try these -

For the English language treatment -
English Grammatical Categories : And the Tradition to 1800, Ian Michael, Cambridge UP (2010), pp 87 - 90.

These represent the older approach to categorisation of the parts of speech. It is also found in the recent textbooks on Sanskrit, presumably because Sanskrit also organises “nouns” in like fashion.

Hope the above help, Bhante.

Frankly, I wouldn’t fuss too much over these grammatical categorisations; notice I did not say “categories”. The latter implies some Essentialist nature to words, while the former acknowledges its source.

What is probably more important than the philological obsession to fit words into neat categories is an ad hoc analysis of how a word is functioning syntactically in a particular sentence. If we insist that words are governed by their dictionary entries, we would not be able to make sense of actual usage.

Eg bhūta. We know this is a past participle, but this does not stop it from functioning adnominally as a substantive noun in “bhūte sati”.

I agree, but I think Ven Pandita’s point is that certain kinds of categories tend to dispose you to see things in certain ways, which is a valid point. It’s not that one is right or wrong, just to recognize how that perspective shapes what we see.

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Perhaps we could stick with the classical Western categorisation of nouns when handling MIA languages?

Even then, I would extend Ven Pandita ''s point to say that even Pali syntactic categorisations are only useful up to a point, since the “part of sentence” analysis is a functional one, while the philological categories are too rigid to accommodate the syntactic allowances such as the example above.