Elementary Pali Compound Reference Sheet:



This elementary reference could not have been compiled without the very helpful comments and constructive criticisms of the following people:


Everett (Rett) Thiele, Stephen Hodge, Dr. Ole Holten Pind, and Ong Yong Peng.


And the following references:


Some borrowed examples from these books:  “Introduction to Paa.li” by A.K. Warder, “Teach Yourself Sanskrit” by Michael Coulson, “Sanskrit Grammar” by William Dwight Whitney, “A Concise Elementary Grammar of the Sanskrit Language” by Jan Gondas, and “A Practical Grammar of the Paa.li Language” by Charles Duroiselle.





Knowing the differences between the different types of compounds and how they are used is important when translating Paa.li.  Though in some cases one might mistake one compound for another and still translate the passage in an acceptable way, there are definite cases where misunderstanding of the type of compound in question can lead to unfortunate mis-translations.


There are six types of compounds found in Paa.li literature; namely:


1) Tappurisa compounds: Dependent Determinate Compounds

2) Kammadhaaraya compounds: Descriptive Determinate Compounds

3) Bahubbiihi compounds: Possessive or Attributive Compounds

4) Dvanda Compounds: Copulative or Aggregative Compounds

5) Digu compounds: Dependent Determinate Compounds

6) Avyayiibhaava compounds: Adverbial Compounds


Compounds are created by combining adverbs, adjectives, participles, pronouns and nouns in order to form more complex words with richer meanings.  When compounds are formed, if declension is necessary (as is usually the case) then only the final word is declined with the prefixed words being in their stem form (with the exception of words in –ant and –an which are resolved to –at and –a respectively).


Each of these types of compounds will be discussed at length below, though the text will still only be scratching the surface and therefore this reference should be seen as "elementary." It does not deal with the exceptions that one might find, but rather covers the "usual" compound formation rules.


If you are having some trouble analyzing a compound, and are therefore having trouble deciding upon its meaning, please try the Compound Algorithm below.




1) Tappurisa compounds:


Tappurisa compounds are composed of two or more words (adjectives, participles, pronouns, and nouns) and can be used as a noun or an adjective.  The prefixed word is associated with the posterior word (which predominates) via a direct relation that may have the quality of the following cases, i.e., accusative, instrumental, dative, genitive, ablative, or locative.


A Tappurisa compound which helps to illustrate this is “mad-house.”

This may be explained by a dative relation such as “house for the mad” as is the common usage of the word in English, or if it is indeed that “the mad” own the house, then it may be “house of the mad” with a genitive relation, though this sense of the term “Mad-house” in English is not usual.


One could create a variety of other tappurisa compounds with the other case relations such as:




Fish-fry (acc): a frying session that cooks fish

Sword-fight (ins): fight by sword

Birthday-cake (dat): cake for a birthday

Book-learning (abl): learned from a book

Door-knob (gen): knob of a door

Home-made (loc): made in a home





Ara~n~nagato (acc): gone to the forest

Buddhabhaasito (ins): Spoken by the Buddha

Buddhadeyya.m (dat): Worthy to be offered to the Buddha

Rukkhapatito (abl): fallen from the tree

Raajaputto (gen): a son of a king (prince)

Ara~n~navaaso (loc): living in the forest




It is important to keep in mind that though tappurisa compounds are often used as nouns, they may also function as adjectives.


To borrow the example of “home-made” above, it is possible to say:


“These brownies are home-made” with “home-made” helping to clarify the quality of the brownies, i.e., they were not bought from a store.

In this case, “home-made” serves as an adjective in relation to “brownies.”


The key is that when the final member of a tappurisa compound is an adjective then we have a tappurisa functioning as an adjective rather than a bahubbiihi compound (see below) which would function adjectivally but end with a noun.


An important rule to remember for tappurisa compounds is that if the words were separated, the second member would keep the same case as the former compound while the prefixed member would have the case of the relation between the two words.  Example, if “sword-fight” were separated, then “fight” would keep the case that the compound originally had, and “sword” would have the instrumental case.





2) Kammadhaaraya Compounds:


There are four general types of kaamadhaaraya compound constructions:


1) adj+substantive(noun)
2) adjective (or adverb)+adjective(or participle)
3) substantive+adj

4) substantive+substantive




1)     Black-bird: a bird that is black

2)     Soft-spoken

3)     Ice-cold: cold like ice

4)     Girl-friend: friend who is a girl




1)     Akaalamegho: untimely cloud

2)     Sammaapaṭipanna: rightly disposed, rightly seen (as in right view)

3)     Paa.nasama: lit: ‘The same as life', hence: 'dear as life'.

4)     Raajisi: “king-sage” (there is elistion of the –an)


The key to recognizing these compounds is noting that the anterior term qualifies the posterior term (which predominates) adjectivally, and so in these compounds, if the two components were to be separated, the first word would be in the same case as the second word.  “Black” would conform to the case of “bird” which would remain in the case of the former compound.  Compare this to tappurisa compounds where the anterior member would change cases according to the case relation (instrumental, dative, genitive, etc.)


Further guidelines for kammadhaaraya compounds:


(a) In kammadhaaraya compounds, the adjective: mahanta assumes the form: mahaa, and, if the consonant which follows is reduplicated, the form: maha.
(b)The word: santa, good, being, takes the form; sa (Sanskrit sat).
(c) The word: puma, a male, rejects its final a.
(d) When the two members of a kammadhaaraya are feminine, the first one assumes the form of the masculine.
(e) The Prefix na, not, is replaced by a before a consonant and by an before a vowel.
(f) Prefix ku, meaning bad, little, may become ka before a consonant, and kad before a vowel.
(g) In their uncompounded state, the two members of a kammadhaaraya are in the same case.




3) Bahubbiihi compounds:




Note: Since this section has been written, a more thorough investigation has been undertaken. This section is still relevant, but is simplified. Please see the discussion about Bahubbiihi compounds here for more information.

Bahubbiihi compounds are a difficult type of compound to understand.  First, it is important to know that bahubbiihi compounds are actually a special usage of other types of compounds (tappurisa, kammadhaaraya, etc.) and are not a different formulation of compound in that sense.  The key with differentiating a normal kammadhaaraya, for example, from a bahubbiihi is context, and we will speak more of this below. 


There is some confusion regarding these type of compounds, however.  Some grammarians call them “relative compounds,” others call them “possessive compounds”, others call them “attributive compounds” and others still call them “exocentric compounds.”  What confuses things is that there does not seem to be a full agreement about what is and is not a bahubbiihi.  In terms of formation (setting agreement/declension aside to be covered below), the most common type is a two-part compound beginning with an adjective or noun and ending with a noun.  However, it is also possible, and fairly common, rather than the last member being a noun, for it to be a substantive-adjective, which is an adjective, which stands for something substantial instead of simply describing.  One example in English would be the difference between the formal adjective “blue” in the sentence:


“This car is blue.”


And the substantive-adjective “blue” in the sentence:


“In paintings, blues are always very useful. 


However, the formation of bahubbiihi compounds is not this simple as sometimes those which would normally be formed as adjective+noun such as chinna:hattho (severed-hand 
can be written inversely as noun+adjective such as hattha:cchinno (hand-severed), and in this case, the adjective does not have to be a substantive adjective, but can simply be
qualifying the preceeding noun (or substantive).  Finally, there are some examples of bahubbiihi compounds given by some grammars that don’t seem to fit the above pattern at all. 
These are compounds that end in formal adjectives and are preceeded by adverbs.  Examples of this nature can be found in various Pali Grammars (Warder, Periola, Duroiselle).
While other grammars seem less accepting of such compounds as being bahubbiihis (Whitney, Gondas, Coulson), they are, at any rate, mentioned by some.  However, though there
may be some bahubbiihi compounds such as these that don’t fit the above guidelines, it is important to understand the main rules above as most bahubbiihis seem to fit the model
quite well.  In addition to the above guidelines for this common type of bahubbiihi, there are a few other guidelines below that will be helpful for identifying and understanding them.


Bahubbiihi compounds refer to an outside object, and they must be considered in relation to that object in order to be fully comprehensible.


One example of an English sentence using a compound of this type is:


“Hey big-mouth, get over here!”


“Big-mouth” in this case obviously does not literally refer to a “big-mouth” that someone is calling, but to a person who HAS a “big-mouth,” or more specifically, a person who talks too much or too loudly.  The referent in this case is a person, and thus even though “big-mouth” is a noun, it is qualifying the referent which is a person and is hence acting attributively or adjectivally. To gloss the term “big-mouth” as literally referring to a big mouth would be a mistake and the resulting translation would be quite incorrect.


One may note that “big-mouth” is in fact formed just like a kammadhaaraya compound and the only thing that makes it a bahubbiihi is the context.  As a bahubbiihi it is acting adjectivally in relation to the referent, and the referent is not in the compound itself.  If we were indeed speaking of a “big mout”h such as in the phrase:  “wow, look at that big-mouth” and we literally meant that there was a “really big mout”h that were looking at, then it would simply be a kammadhaaraya in the form of (adj+substantive).


This rule applies to other bahubbihi compounds which may be formed as tappurisa compounds (or the other types of compounds for that matter) such as “baby-face” where the case relation is genitive between the members, i.e., “face of a baby,” yet if we were to speak to an adult thusly: “Hey baby-face, get over here!”  then this compound that is formed as a tappurisa would be used as a bahubbiihi compound and thus would function adjectivally related to the referent which is not specifically mentioned here(the adult).  In sentences with bahubbiihi compounds, however, the referent may be either stated or implicit.


An example of a bahubbihi in Paa.li would be in the following phrase:


“ka.nhadanta.m passaami” = I see “black-tooth.”
In this case, "black-tooth" is not a black tooth that someone sees, but a person whose single tooth (or perhaps plural) is black (or very dark) and is therefore referred to as 
“black-tooth.”  If we wanted to really specify the referent, we would have to translate this as: “I see [the person] who HAS the black tooth(/teeth).”  
Thus, because “black-tooth” refers to a non-present referent in this sentence, it is adjectival and a bahubbiihi.  Additionally, as explained above, we can see that this bahubbiihi
is formed as a kammadhaaraya type 1 as explained above, i.e. adj+substantive.
One final, very important point is that Bahubbiihi compounds, due to acting adjectivally, will be in the same case, gender, and number (singular or plural) as the noun they
are referring to.  Thus, even if the final member of a bahubbiihi is normally a feminine noun ending in "aa," if the noun it is referring to is plural and masculine, it will be inflected
in the same manner as an adjective that would be qualifying a plural and masculine noun.
'upaadaanuupaniso bhavo'
The first word of the above phrase is a kammadhaaraya composed of upaadaana +upanisaa being used as a bahubbiihi compound.
Normally 'upanisaa' is a feminine noun ending in "aa," yet here as part of a bahubbiihi compound it is inflected to agree with "bhavo," a masculine singular noun in the 
nominative case. 





4) Dvanda Compounds:


Dvanda compounds are two nouns that are added together with no added meaning due to the compounding.


Examples in English:


Sixty-seven: sixty+seven (not) sixty 7’s

Bitter-sweet: Bitter+sweet



Examples in Paa.li:


Candimasuriyaa: the sun and the moon

Sama.nabraahmanaa: Samanas and Brahmins





5) Digu Compounds:


Digu compounds begin with a number and are followed by a noun.


Examples in English:






In these compounds, the numbers are telling us literally how many of the nouns are involved.  In the case of “four-score” we have four scores, with a score being twenty of something-- years for example-- and so the term here is designating 80 [years].  In the second case we have the term describing how many single pence there are; “ten.”


Examples in Paa.li:


Tiloka.m: the three worlds

Catusacca.m: the four truths

Navasata.m: nine-hundred = 9 multiplied by 100, (not) 9+100 =109.





6) Avyayiibhaava Compounds:


Avyaiibhaava compounds are used as adverbs and as such are indeclinable.  They must refer to a verb in some way.  In this type of compound, it is the first word rather than the following word that predominates and this first word as well as the compounded whole, is also an indeclinable.  The indeclinable form taken is usually based on the neuter nominative/accusative singular ending.


Examples in English:






Examples in Paa.li:


Bahigaamaa: outside the village

Anutiire: along the bank

Antaravithiyam: in the street



In these cases, the indeclinable compounds refer to where or how the action (verb) is being done and thus function as adverbs.






Compound Algorithm:

It can sometimes be difficult to know which type of compound we are dealing with.  Here is an algorithm that can help you to figure out the compound type. When you think that you have found the correct compound, consult the above compound guide to double check:

  1. If the compound is composed only of numbers as members and the first number is larger than the second then it is a dvanda; if the second number is larger then it is a digu.

  2. If the compound starts with a number and is followed by a non-numeral, there are two possibilities.  If the two members would be in the same case if they were to be separated, then the compound is a digu; if the two members would be in different cases, then it is a tappurisa. 

  3. If the compound starts with an indeclinable that qualifies a following noun in the compound, and the whole compound is acting as an adverb, the compound is an avyayiibhaava. 

  4. For all other compounds, try to determine the case of the last member as well as what the case of the first member would have been, had it not been compounded with the last.

·        If the cases would certainly differ, see 5 below

·        If the cases would certainly be the same, see 6 below

·        If it is impossible to tell for sure, see 7 below


5.  If the cases certainly differ, then it is a tappurisa compound. 

6. If the cases would certainly be the same, then it is a kammadhaaraya or a dvanda. A dvanda will have two or more words that don’t qualify each other but are simply being added together as with the word “and” between them.  In a kammadhaaraya, however, the first member of the compound will help to qualify the final member.

7. If it is impossible to tell the cases of the parts of the compound, then it may be a tappurisa or kammadhaaraya compound and context and doctrinal familiarity should be your guide to figuring out the solution.  Not all compounds are easily analyzed.

8. If you have a compound that fits the “type” of one of the above compounds but the last member is a noun, or is used as a noun, i.e. is a substantive, but yet this last member is agreeing (case, gender, number) with an external noun as would an adjective, regardless of its normal gender, then you are dealing with a bahubbiihi compound. Such a compound will have an exocentric focus and be "possessed" by an external noun rather than having a relationship to it via simple apposition.


9. If you have a compound that fits the “type” of one of the above compounds but the last member is not a noun, there may still be a chance that it is a bahubbiihi compound if this last member is agreeing (case, gender, number) with an external noun.  In this case, however, despite the exocentric nature of the compound, one will not be able to say that the external referent possesses this compound, but it must be related via a relative clause.



Please see the above sections on compounds for more thorough information.





Concluding Statments:


Remember; knowing the differences between the different types of compounds is important for efficient and accurate translations. 


Please e-mail me at: alanmcclure.esangha “at” gmail.com (replacing “at” with @) if you have any comments about this reference.