The mother-tongue of all Indo-European languages was a root-based language, meaning that all or most of its verbs, nouns and adjectives could be reduced to a meaningful core, an atom of meaning, so to speak, which itself could not be broken down into smaller units. The number of available roots was large but finite, so too was therefore the number of meanings. But the modern and the ancient Indo-European languages alike, from modern English, German or French, to Latin, ancient Greek and Sanskrit, contain clear traces that the mother-tongue also had a very ingenious device to circumvent the limitations of its atomic inventory of meanings: the use of prefixes – also atoms, but their function was rather to give additional meaning, or multiply meaning, than be meaningful on their own. Especially in the more ancient Indo-European languages, different meanings of nouns or verbs based on one and the same root are frequently discriminated by the addition of such prefixes – sometimes just one, sometimes two or three in a row. This more specialised meaning can either result from the purely mechanical combination of the meanings of the root and the prefix and concern, for example, the direction, intensity or quality of the action expressed by the root, but it can also result from a kind of internal metaphor and thus produce new meanings altogether, which are sometimes more and sometimes less closely related to the primary meaning of the root, depending on the degree of transparence of the analogy that gave rise to the metaphor. Finally, prefixation can also be used in a purely expressive way, meaning that it is used with the utmost license – like an abstract painter uses colour for its own sake – as the result of a playful impulse originating from the possibilities offered by formal combination and recombination. It becomes apparent, that by this process of prefixation, which can be carried out in various degrees of transparence, not only with one and the same prefix, but also with several prefixes at once, the number of possible meanings is being extrapolated into a nearly infinite number of semantic molecules, which, clustering together in uncomputable rows of digits, give matter to constellations of thought and imagination ever expanding into the unsounded depths of the cosmos of our mind, where no solitarily crackling radio-signal disrupts the dead silence of potentialities.

Sanskrit has a large repertoire of such prefixes, to which only that of ancient Greek can be compared as being of similar extensiveness and productivity, both in forms and meanings. Since many Sanskrit words are part of the more formal or specialised vocabulary of modern Hindi, many of these prefixes have also made it into the language as part of these words. But, as the system is no longer producing new forms today and no longer used consciously by users of the language, a discussion of the exact meanings of the prefixes inherited by Hindi from Sanskrit is often omitted or carried out only very superficially in courses teaching the language. This article is intended for students of modern Hindi, who, though maybe no aspiring Sanskritists, wish to get a better understanding of how the meanings of roots are multiplied by the process of prefixation. Below the reader will find a list of the most important prefixes, their meanings, their application in modern Hindi words and, if possible, their counterpart in the closely related repertoire of prefixes of ancient Greek. Note, that as a rule of sandhi (for which, see the article vowel sandhi 101 and vowel gradation 101) the vowels इ (i) and उ (u) are transformed into their corresponding semivowels य (y) and व (v) when they come into direct contact with a vowel. The prefixes treated here are the ones called उपसर्ग (upsarga) in traditional Sanskrit grammar. They are all widely used with verbs as well as nouns and adjectives. Other prefixes, such as the privative अ/अन् (a/an) or the pair of positive and negative prefixes दुः (suḥ) and सु (su) have a much narrower range of application and of meanings, they are therefore not included in the present discussion.

1. अति (ati), beyond, excessive, very. An entirely straightforward and literal use of this prefix is found in the adjective अतिप्राचीन (atiprācīna), very ancient. But the word अतिमानव (atimānava) involves a playful descriptive metaphor similar to the type discussed in the article Sanskrit words for animals: haikus of first impressions. In this case the meaning of the resulting word has to be deduced, rather than constructed by mechanically combining two parts. अतिमानव (atimānava) is the one who is beyond or more than मानव (mānava), man, i.e. the Yeti. That in this case not everything is spelled out entirely plainly, that deduction, partly based on cultural knowledge, is needed to end up with the correct meaning, becomes apparent when one thinks that Superman or God could equally well be referred to by the word अतिमानव (atimānava). The word Superman actually contains the Latin equivalent of the Sanskrit prefix अति (ati). Both the following nouns also involve a certain amount of deductive combination and metaphor. अतिक्रमण (atikramaṇa), from the root क्रम् (kram), to step, literally means the act of stepping beyond, which, by a slight metaphor, becomes encroachment or transgression. अत्याचार (atyācāra), goes back to the root चर् (car), to move, from which the noun आचार (ācāra), conduct, behaviour, originally esp. proper behaviour, has been formed by the addition the prefix आ (ā), which together with the prefix अति (ati) results in the meaning what is beyond proper behaviour, i.e. tyranny. Note the change of इ (i) to य (y) before the आ.

2. अधि (adhi), over, upon, superior, excess. Using the very literal meaning upon the noun अधीक्षक (adhīkṣaka) is formed. The root is ईक्ष् (īkṣ), to see or look, giving अधीक्षक (adhīkṣaka) the meaning one looking upon or over, a superintendent, or, etymologically more correctly, a supervisor, from Latin supervidēre to look upon. Taking the meaning superior, the noun अध्यात्मा (adhyātmā) is formed, the supreme आत्मा (ātmā), soul, i.e. the supreme spirit. When one combines the prefix with the root कृ (kṛ), to do or to make, the result is अधिकार (adhikāra), authority. This is one of the examples where the exact meaning of the combination of prefix and root is more difficult to determine in advance by logic or deduction.

3. अनु (anu), after, following, according to. Two common examples of this prefix are found in the words अनुवाद (anuvāda) and अनुशासन (anuśāsana). The former is based on the root वद् (vad), to speak, literally अनुवाद (anuvāda) means the act of speaking along, of speaking by following someone else’s words instead of one’s own, hence translation. The latter is based on the root शास् (śās), to rule, from which the noun शासन (śāsana), order, is formed, the combination of which with अनु (anu) results in the action of following an order, the acting according to orders, hence discipline. An example of a slightly more abstract employ of this prefix is the noun अन्वेक्षण, investigation, which is constructed from the already encountered root ईक्ष् (īkṣ), to look, and literally means the act of following with one’s eyes (note the change of उ (u) to व (v) before the vowel). For those interested in the finer details of the derivational process and the reason for the change of the vowel in the root from ई (ī) to ए (e) will find what they are looking for in the article entitled vowel gradation 101.

4. अप (apa) means away or it can add a morally negative meaning to the basic meaning of the root. This prefix is identical with Greek απο (apo), which is for example found in the word apotropaic, having the nature of averting, lit. turning away, ill fortune. Words using the second meaning of the prefix are more frequent in modern Hindi, but a very literal meaning away is found in the noun अपहरण (apaharaṇa), which is based on the root हृ (hṛ), to seize or take, giving the word the meaning the act of taking away, hence kidnapping or abduction. In अपमान (apamāna), insult, the prefix adds a morally negative meaning to the root मन् (man), to think, form an opinion. So does it in अपशब्द (apaśabda), harsh words.

5. अभि (abhi), to, towards, upon, over. Words formed with the literal meanings of the prefix are very few. In most of them the exact effect of the prefix is difficult to predict or describe. One noun in which the prefix really means to or towards is अभ्यागत (abhyāgata). आगत (āgata) means arrived or come, the addition of अभि (abhi) makes it to a visitor or guest, i.e. one who has come to or arrived at a certain place. The common noun अभ्यास (abhyāsa), practise, also makes use of this prefix (note the change of  इ (i) to य (y) before the vowel). Its root is अस् (as), to throw. When this root is combined with the prefix in question the meaning becomes to add, from the literal meaning to throw upon, to pile up. From this meaning of addition, the notion of repeating or practising a subject arose. In the word अभिमान (abhimāna), arrogance, the idea of superiority inherent in the meanings upon or over is used in a transferred sense of thinking (c.f. मन् (man) above) above others.

6. अव (ava), down. The well known word अवतार (avatāra) is an example of the employ of this prefix. For a discussion of its meaning and derivation the reader may turn to the article Avatar: the one who has descended.

7. आ (ā), with verbs of motion: back. Apart from its function of inverting the motion expressed by a verb, this prefix is also very productive in the field of the less transparent type of prefixation. The various and rarely logically traceable meanings arising from this type of prefixation cannot be discussed here. For the transparent type one example shall suffice: the root गम् (gam) means to go, the noun आगमन (āgamana) therefore means return.

8. उद् (ud), up, out, forth, arising. The root पद् (pad) means to fall or to go. By addition of the prefix उद् (ud) the noun उत्पत्ति (utpatti) is constructed: the act of going forth, hence the origin. Note that the द (da) loses voice and becomes त (ta), when in direct contact with another voiceless sound such as प (pa). A common noun using this prefix in a more metaphorical way is उच्चारण (uccāraṇa), pronunciation. Here the द (da) both loses its voice, as above, and also changes its pronunciation spot to that of the following च (ca), by which process it itself becomes a च (ca). The root here is चर् (car), to go or move, making उच्चारण (uccāraṇa) the act of moving out (from the mouth in this case), hence pronunciation.

9. उप (upa), towards, near to, sub-. This corresponds to the Greek prefix ὑπο (hypo), which normally means under, as in hypothermia, the state of having a considerable reduced bodily temperature. Words using the most basic meaning towards are difficult to find in Hindi. Often the exact nature of the meaning added by the prefix is difficult to determine by logical deduction. One example of the meaning sub- or secondary is to be found in उपग्रह (upgraha), satellite. ग्रह (graha) on its own means planet, a satellite is therefore literally a sub-planet. Much less transparent is the meaning of the prefix in nouns such as उपकार (upakāra), help, उपचार (upacāra), remedy, and उपयोग (upayoga), use. The first of them is based on the root कृ (kṛ), to do or make. The idea of help or assistance was probably developed from the notion of doing something for someone else, of directing an action towards someone else. उपचार (upacāra) is based on चर् (car), to move. The meaning remedy maybe arose from the idea of a substance or action going towards, i.e. against, something undesirable.

10. नि (ni), down, down into. In the noun निधन (nidhana) the prefix very clearly means down. The word is formed from the root धा (dhā), put or set, so originally it meant the act of setting down, which literal meaning was then transferred to death as the setting down of life. Using the same root and the same prefix the noun निधि (nidhi) can also be formed: that which has been put down, i.e. stored, hence a fund or a treasure. The common noun नींद (nīnda), sleep, which goes back to the earlier form निद्रा (nidrā), also contains the prefix. The older form is based on the root द्रा (drā), to sleep, making निद्रा (nidrā) something like the act of falling asleep, of going down into sleep. The root यम् (yam) means to hold or check. From it the noun नियम (niyama) is formed, which means rule, holds down, i.e. that which controls. In nouns such as निवेदन (nivedana), request, the exact effect of the suffix is very difficult to determine.

11. निः (niḥ) out, without. The suffix well illustrates the general behaviour of the word-final स् (s) in Sanskrit. The base form of the suffix is निस् (nis), but the sound स् (s) cannot occur in word-final position in Sanskrit, where it becomes an aspiration called visarga (the two dots at the right of the letter). Neither can it occur before a voiced sound, vowel or consonant, where it becomes a र् (r). When is comes into contact with another स् (s) is remains a visarga. Examples for this suffix are as numerous as they are usually transparent. निराशा (nirāśā) means disappointment, from आशा (āśā) hope, therefore literally the state of having no hope. निःसंतान (niḥsantāna) is an adjective meaning childless, the state of being without संतान (santāna), which word itself contains an interesting metaphor, as it is formed from the root तन् (tan), to stretch, making the child the one who stretches out the family line, who continues the lineage. Two other examples are निर्जन (nirjana) and निर्भय (nirbhaya), desolate and fearless; meanings very transparently produced by joining the prefix in question to the words जन (jana), people, and भय़ (bhaya), fear.

12. प्र (pra), forth, onward. This suffix corresponds to Greek προ (pro), both in form and in meaning. One straightforward use of the prefix is to be found in the noun प्रगति (pragati), progress, literally the act of going forward; from the root गम् (gam), to go. But the exact meaning of the prefix is frequently not predictable. It is found in the common nouns प्रयोग (prayog), use, and प्रकार (prakāra), type or kind. The root of the former is युज् (yuj), to yoke (for which also see the article The mental yoke). It is clear that the meanings to yoke and to apply or employ for a certain task are very closely related, but the exact reason why the prefix प्र (pra) brings out this particular meaning is less evident. The root serving as basis of the latter word is कृ (kṛ), to do, make. Here it is even more difficult to say why the prefix extracts this exact meaning from the root and not another one.

13. प्रति (prati), against, indicating reciprocity. This prefix corresponds to Greek προτι (proti) and its alternative form προς (pros). The use of the suffix is mostly unproblematic. It frequently adds a meaning of reciprocity to an existing noun. बिंब (bimba), for example, means image, प्रतिबिंब (pratibimba) is the counter-image, i.e. the reflection. क्रिया (kriyā) is action, and प्रतिक्रिया (pratikriyā) reaction. It is needless to say, that the English nouns action and reaction make use of a parallel device of prefixation. The frequency with which Sanskrit makes use of prefixation and the highly structured nature of the language itself made it more prone than others to express such concepts related by laws of reciprocity through prefixation. The related concepts of sound and echo are thus in Sanskrit expressed as sound and counter-sound: ध्वनि (dhvani) and प्रतिध्वनि (pratidhvani).

14. वि (vi), opposition, separation, against, indicating reciprocity. The idea of separation very clearly appears in the noun विदेश (videśa), a foreign land, the देश (deśa), country, which is separated from one’s own. Along the same lines योग (yoga), from युज् (yuj), to yoke, means union, and वियोग (viyoga) separation. The meaning opposition can also be developed into wrongly or badly, i.e. going counter to proper procedure. Such a meaning for this prefix is to be found in the nouns विकृति (vikṛti) and विकार (vikāra). Both nouns are formed on the root कृ (kṛ), to make or fashion. The first uses it as part of the noun कृति (kṛti), the act of fashioning, which makes विकृति (vikṛti) the result of fashioning badly, i.e. deformity. Another result of being fashioned badly is expressed by the second noun:  विकार (vikāra) a defect. The Prefix can also take on a purely intensive meaning: नाश (nāśa) is destruction, विनाश (vināśa) complete destruction, annihilation. An intensive meaning might also be behind the noun विज्ञान (vijñāna), science. The root ज्ञा (jñā), means to know, the noun ज्ञान (jñāna) knowledge, and विज्ञान (vijñāna) might literally mean deep knowledge, specialised or intense knowledge, but here the use of the prefix already has the character of a free morpheme, a versatile minimal building block of the language, so that this is less than certain. It is the nearly infinite number of steps between the straightforward, literal use and the use as a free morpheme with a life and a will of its own, that makes each prefix into a prism breaking one root into a rainbow of meanings.

15. सम् (sam), together. The use of this suffix is mostly quite straightforward. It corresponds closely to Greek ὁμο (homo) which is for example found in the word homophone, a word sounding exactly like another one, despite a possible difference in spelling. The same suffix is also found as part of the German word zusammen, together. गम् (gam) means to go, so संगम (saṅgama), is the act of going together, hence confluence. The prefix is also part of the word Sanskrit itself, which is based on the already repeatedly encountered root कृ (kṛ), to make or fashion. Literally संस्कृत (saṅskṛt) is that which is put together, which is fashioned with the intention of it being formally refined, of being the opposite of प्राकृत (prākṛta), natural, i.e. unfashioned and unrefined.

16. परा (parā). In Sanskrit this prefix, which also frequently functions as an independent word, has many meanings, all of which contain a basic idea of separation. The separation can be in space, yielding meanings such as remote, distant, far and more specifically foreign, strange, alien; in time: ancient, past, but also future, later, next; or in quality: better or worse than, inferior or superior than. One word which well represents this basic meaning is पराकाष्ठा (parākāṣṭhā), climax, literally the highest summit. In other cases the resulting meaning is not equally transparent. Defeat, for example, is पराजय (prājaya). Here the prefix seems to mean something like other, opposite or removing – which might represent a development of the basic meaning of separation – as जय (jaya) on its own means victory. पराक्रम (prākrama) means valour. The root is क्रम् (kram), step or advance. This gives पराक्रम (prākrama) the more literal meaning bold advance, but the exact effect of the prefix is not easy to assess and its use probably governed more by the overall expressive effect of the resulting new word, than by the logical addition of two meanings.

17. परि (pari), around. This prefix corresponds to Greek περι (peri), both in form and in meaning. Its use is quite straightforward and its meaning, in various degrees of literality, is always around. परिभाषा (paribhāṣā), is a description. The root भाष् (bhāṣ) means to speak, so the literal meaning of the word परिभाषा (paribhāṣā) is something like the act of speaking around, which is very similar to the word periphrasis, in which the corresponding Greek form of the suffix is to be found. Description and periphrasis are both processes by which we speak around something, refer to it without actually naming it directly. From the root वृत् (vṛt), to turn, the noun परिवर्तन (parivartana) is formed, literally the state of being in a circular motion, revolution, hence change.

The comparison with the noun revolution, which has nearly exactly the same transferred and literal meanings as the noun परिवर्तन (parivartana), though it consists of etymologically entirely unrelated elements, makes it apparent that the multiplication of meaning is a process inherent in the nature of meaning itself and that it has a dynamic of its own; whether or not it can be apprehended by logic or deduction is something that only concern us, not meaning itself. The multiplication of meaning is thus a manifestation of those most essential qualities of all living matter: independent and spontaneous growth – evolution. The independent mirroring of the two analogies reflects that words and their meanings are not mere lifeless signs or sounds, but forms of life following laws of their own; not inanimate things we have invented, but flowers grown from the semantic pollen scattered across the soil of our mind by the very breath of existence. Just as matter, meaning was created in the cosmic forge of the big-bang, when existence was first electrified by the atomic shock of its own awareness. Meaning is the natural phenomenon by which balance is given to the raw matter of the universe. If matter is the warp of life’s tapestry, then meaning is its weft – living itself means to mean. Meaning lives and life means: the two words have all the usual traits of synonyms, too strange that no dictionary lists them as such.


Silvio Zinsstag,

teacher for ancient languages