There is an urban legend that goes something like this:
Reasercehrs at Cabmrdige Uniervisty haev disocvreed that yuor mnid can raed this…a bored person, probably
It’s an approach that claims the human brain can make out words (and thus the sentence) solely from the position of the initial and final letters, and the length of the words. The sentence — despite the bad spelling — is still legible because only the spelling of the words is affected and not where the words go. Now imagine if the same sentence went something like this:
At Cambridge University have researchers discovered that your mind this read can…me
It’s a bit harder to parse, even though the above sentence carries the exact same value or meaning as the first one (albeit with better spelling). In fact, speakers of some languages like German would parse the sentence exactly in the way above, and for them it would be completely normal! What is going on?
For a language to work properly, we need to not only know the correct parts, words and declensions, but also the structure of the language. The arrangement of words, phrases and clauses in a sentence in a predictable way so that it makes coherent sense to another speaker is called sentence structure.
Every language has some form of sentence structuring and Nepali is no exception. In this lesson, we shall explore basic sentence structuring and see where parts of a sentence fit in the grand scheme of Nepali.
|धेरै (dherai)||Very; a lot|
PARTS OF A SENTENCE
Before we proceed, we need to first understand what a sentence is, and how many parts it has. A sentence is a set of words that is complete in itself and describes an action, a question, a command or a thought. An example in English would be:
John is eating an apple.
The sentence above is an example of a complete sentence, where complete information is provided. We can also answer several questions pertaining to the Statement: Who is eating an apple? John is eating an apple. When a person, entity or something is doing something, we call it the action-doer. In this case, John is the action-doer, since he is doing an ‘action’. We have a special word for the doer of an action; in linguistics, the doer of an action is called the subject.
However, what is an action? Although we know that John is doing some action to an apple, we have not defined what an action is! In simple terms, an action is the process of doing something to achieve an effect. Here, John is doing the action of eating. Thus, ‘is eating’ is the action word. In linguistics, an ‘action word’ is better known as a verb.
Finally, what/whom is the action being done upon? In other words, what takes the effect of the action? Certainly, an action such as ‘eating’ needs something to take the action of being ‘eaten’. This recipient, who receives the effects of an action, is called the object.
Note | Not all verbs require an object. Verbs that take no object are called intransitive verbs, but we will discuss those later. These verbs include actions like sleeping, sitting, standing etc. There are also several types of objects, which we will explore later.
We now have introduced the three basic components of a sentence: Subject, Object, Verb.
In English, a sentence is usually formulated with the subject in the front, the verb in the middle and finally, the object at the end. This type of structuring is called Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) structuring. In other words, a sentence appearing in languages that use this structure appears as:
[subject + verb + object]
For example, let’s take a simple English structure:
John eats apples. [subject + verb + object]
Above, John is the subject, eats is the verb while apples is the object. Taking another example sentence:
I write books. [subject + verb + object]
There are many languages that follow this format, such as German:
John isst Äpfel. (John eats apples) [subject + verb + object]
Nepali does this a bit differently. Instead of using the SVO order, it switches the object and the verb to get the SOV order instead.
In Nepali, a sentence is formulated by keeping the verb in the very end after the object. Such a structure is known as Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) structuring. In other words, a sentence appearing in langauges that use this structure appears as:
[subject + object + verb]
For example, let’s take a simple English structure in SOV formatting:
John apple(s) eats. [subject + object + verb]
In Nepali, such a sentence would be:
जन स्याउ खान्छ | John eats apple(s) jan syāu khāncha [John + apple(s) + eats]
Notice that the verb खान्छ (khāncha) succeeds the object स्याउ (syāu). The Nepali sentence follows SOV formatting. Take another sentence:
म किताब लेख्छु | I write book(s) ma kitāb lekhchu [I + book(s) + write]
The SOV structure of Nepali is thus demonstrated.
Note | In Nepali, plurals are not obligatorily marked. Thus, words are translated as book(s) or apple(s). You can read more in Grammatical Number.
Now that we have gone through action sentences, let’s wind back and look at sentences that define or describe something, rather than showing an action. Take an example:
जन स्याउ हो
jan syāu ho
[John + apple + is]
= John is (an) apple.
In the above sentence, you are defining that John is an apple(!) as in, he’s actually a plump juicy fruit of Malus domestica. We may also conceptually call defining as renaming something, as we are simply saying that the two objects are essentially the same. Keep in mind that हो (ho) is a conjugate of the verb ‘to be’, but we shall not be looking at it in detail until later. हो (ho) is being used here to define the state of something. The important thing to realise there is that the structure is still the same, in the order of:
[subject + defined state + verb (to be)]
However, John may have other qualities that may require describing them instead. Take this sentence:
जन अग्लो छ
jan aglo cha
[John + tall + is]
= John is tall.
Notice that we use a different word i.e. छ (cha) which is still a conjugate of ‘to be’. छ (cha) and its forms are used in Nepali as the describer.
In linguistics, we have a special word to describe verbs that do the above functions i.e. defining and describing. This word is called a copula. A copula is a word that links the subject with the predicate (part that states something about the subject) or more specifically, the subject complement. The subject complement (not compliment) is a word that either renames the subject or describes it. For example, in the first example we renamed John (as an apple) but in the second example, we described John (as being tall). In the following sentence, the copula is in bold while the subject complement is in italics:
John is tall.
The copula is very important in Nepali, because it helps us link together many sentences. We will of course be looking at this in detail much later, but the important thing here is to look at the structure instead. If we have to simplify the structure, we get the following:
[subject + subject Complement + copula]
An example of the above structure is given below:
मेरो नाम जन हो mero nām jan ho [(my + name) + John + is] = My name is John.
Notice how my name is treated as a single subject, then followed by the complement John, then finally the copula is.
Now, let’s see how adjectives and adverbs modify the subject/object and verbs respectively.
Adjectives are words that describe the attribute of an entity that is a noun or a pronoun. Examples include colours (red, blue…), sizes (small, tall…), quality (good, dirty…) etc. For example:
Red house [adjective + entity]
In English, the adjective precedes the word it is modifying. Some languages like Spanish do the opposite i.e. the adjective succeeds the word. For example:
[house + red]
Fortunately, Nepali is not that different from English in terms of placing adjectives. In Nepali, adjectives precede the word they are modifying. For example:
[red + house]
Thus, you can construct a sentence such as:
जन रातो स्याउ खान्छ
jan rāto syāu khāncha
[John + red + apple(s) + eats]
= John eats red apple(s).
Note that John can also be modified, since adjectives can modify any noun/pronoun. If John was tall, you’d say:
अग्लो जन रातो स्याउ खान्छ
aglo jan rāto syāu khāncha
[tall + John + red + apple(s) + eats]
= Tall John eats red apple(s).
Use of adjectives are simple in Nepali. Adverbs, however, are slightly bit more complicated. You can find more adjectives here.
Adverbs are words (or phrases) that modify the meaning of a verb, an adjective or even other adverbs. While they do not directly modify nouns and pronouns, they influence how they behave in a sentence by setting up a deeper context. For example:
John eats apples slowly. [subject + verb + object + adverb]
When an adverb is modifying an adjective, the process is relatively easy. Like in English, you place the adverb before the adjective it is modifying. For example:
Very red apple [adverb + adjective + object]
In Nepali, the same sentence would be:
धेरै रातो स्याउ dherai rāto syāu [very + red + apple]
Now comes the slightly complicated part. In English, adverbs can appear elsewhere as well. It appeared in the end for the first sentence, but for the following, it appears in the middle of the sentence:
John always eats apples. [subject + adverb + verb + object]
In both cases, the adverb is modifying the verb ‘eats’ (slowly vs. always). However, we can notice something different in the second sentence. The adverb ‘always’ is describing the frequency of the action! In English, adverbs usually appear in the end, except when they describe frequency, where they usually appear before the verb they modify. Nepali does something similar, which I’ll list below. Fortunately, the rules are simpler, though exceptions may arise due to other complexities.
The first rule is that adverbs that denote time are usually placed at the beginning of the sentence. For example:
आज जन स्याउ खान्छ āja jan syāu khāncha [today + John + apple(s) + eats] = John eats apple(s) today.
The second rule is that otherwise, adverbs precede the verb or verbal phrase they modify.
Verbal phrases are basically verbs that have a noun attached to them, such that they are treated as one entity rather than two. If you consider ‘to eat pudding’ as a single phrase, much like the verb ‘to run’, then you have successfully understood verbal phrases.
Here is an example usage of adverbs following the second rule:
जन स्याउ बिस्तारै खान्छ
jan syāu bistārai khāncha
[John + apple + slowly + eats]
= John eats apples slowly.
If you consider ‘to eat apples’ as a single verbal phrase, you can rewrite the sentence as:
जन बिस्तारै स्याउ खान्छ
jan bistārai syāu khāncha
[John + slowly + apple+ eats]
= John eats apples slowly.
What is the perceived difference? Not much, as the action ends up being the same. Note that in the latter sentence, the verbal phrase ‘ स्याउ खान्छ’ (syāu khāncha) acts as one unit. However, be careful doing this rearrangement with some adverbs, because some adverbs like छिटो (chiṭo) are also adjectives. When this occurs, the adjectival meaning takes priority. For example, the following sentences have different meanings:
गाडी छिटो आयो gāḍī chiṭo āyo [car + fast + came] = (The) car came fast. [the car arrived quickly]
छिटो गाडी आयो chiṭo gāḍī āyo [fast + car + came] = (The) fast car came. (the car that is fast arrived)
For a list of adverbs, click here.
Nepali does not use articles. Words like a, an and the do not exist in Nepali. That’s why articles are placed in parenthesis in translations to show that they do not exist in Nepali, but must be used in English (translations) to make sense of the sentence.
A declension is a word that has been modified (or inflected) such that you can identify the grammatical identity of the word. This identity can be case, gender or a number. Modifications are also known as inflections.
Simply put, a declension is much like a picture of you after a haircut. You have been changed, such that when someone sees that picture of you, they are able to identify what you had gone through i.e. a haircut. However, you are still you. When you change a word so that it becomes a declension, you say you have declined the word. English has lost quite a bit of declensions, but it still retains it to indicate number for example. Here is an example of a word being declined:
girl > girls = Declined for number
How do we know that the word has been successfully declined? We can tell because the suffix -s lets us know that the word has been declined for number. This is somewhat related to cases, because in Nepali, we decline each case with a case marker.
What is a case? Cases are simply forms that a word takes to show what part it plays in a sentence. Cases show the relationship a word has with other words in a sentence. For example:
जन स्याउ खान्छ
jan syāu khāncha
[John + apple(s) + eats]
Above, John and apple(s) are in (certain types of) cases. These cases tell us what the words do in a sentence. For example, John is the action-doer. The apple is the action-receiver. When a word is functioning as the doer of an action, we say that John is in the nominative case. However, is this really the truth? What is the apple was the actual action-doer?
स्याउ जन खान्छ
syāu jan khāncha
[Apple(s) + John + eats]
= Apple(s) eat(s) John?
It is not immediately clear what the sentence is saying if we disregard pragmatics or context. In order to clarify what is doing what in a sentence, or in order to mark the case and tell that this particular word is in this case, we use case markers.
CASE MARKERS AND POSTPOSITIONS
In Nepali, cases are indentified by using case markers. In simple words, case markers are identifiers that tell us what type of case the given word is. Nepali does not require the use of case markers for every possible case. However, when you have more complex sentences, you need to show the relation between each word using these markers. This is why case markers are important, as they show the subject, object, location of action among other things. Now, where do these case markers go?
Take the following sentence in English:
John eats apple(s) at home. [subject + verb + object + case marker + location]
When you ask the question, “Where does John eat apple(s)?” you get the answer above. Each word here, ‘John’, ‘apple(s)’, ‘home’ are in their respective type of cases. The preposition ‘at’ is marking the (locative) case ‘home’, thus we say that at is a (locative) case marker (it’s a preposition technically, but that is because English doesn’t do case markers). Case markers in English usually precede the word it modifies, much like how adjectives precede the noun/pronoun they modify.
In Nepali, however, case markers succeed the word they modify.
जन घरमा स्याउ खान्छ
jan ghar-mā syāu khāncha
[John + home (+) at + apple(s) + eats]
= John eats apple(s) at home.
Note that case markers are attached with the case itself and are not written separately. In a sentence, case markers succeed the cases they modify. There are quite a few number of case markers, and you can read more here.
Postpositions behave in the exact same way, in that they appear after the word they modify (‘-post’). In Nepali, postpositions are markers that describe the location of an entity. Postpositions are like prepositions, but come after the word instead.
Nepali technically has three grammatical genders, but in reality there are only two in essence, and one in practice. The traditional categories of gender are: masculine, neuter, feminine. However, masculine and neuter genders share the same declensions and endings, they are usually combined and referred to as zero gender. Zero gender is the default ending in Nepali, when the gender of the subject is not known.
Though gender does exist in theory, it is perfectly okay to disregard gender in Nepali. Zero declensions are often used extensively even for feminine subjects. This is because gendered speech and markings are not very productive in Nepali, though some speakers may continue to use them in certain contexts. This is especially true in formal writing.
RESTRUCTURING A SENTENCE
Take the following sentence:
John eats apple(s).
What if we said the opposite?
Apple(s) eat(s) John.
Gives a completely absurd meaning, right? However in Nepali, you can play around the structure quite a bit because of case markers. Because words are marked with case markers, their meanings do not change if you move it around. Apart from the verb remaining in the end, restructuring can be done as long as the case markers are recognisable. What if English had case markers like Nepali?
S-John O-apple(s) eats. O-Apple(s) S-John eats.
The above sentences still give the same meaning, because we have already identified what the relationship of the words are in the sentence, using case markers O (object) and S (subject). Nepali behaves in a similar way, thus we can restructure sentences.
As long as the case markers are unambiguously attached to a word, you can rearrange words rather freely and still get the same meaning.
- A simple sentence consists of a Subject, an Object and a Verb. However, it is not necessary for a sentence to have an object, as some verbs (intransitive) do not take objects.
- Nepali is a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) language.
- Sentences that use a copula behave in a similar way as a standard SOV structure. The subject comes first, followed by the subject complement and finally, the copula.
- Adjectives precede the word they modify.
- Adverbs that modify adjectives precede the adjective.
- Adverbs that denote time are placed in the beginning of the sentence.
- Adverbs usually precede the verb or verbal phrase they modify.
- Nepali does not use articles.
- Words are marked to show the case by case markers.
- Case markers and postpositions succeed the word they modify.
- Sentences can be usually restructured because case markers help identify each case no matter where they would be.
A. IDENTIFY THE SUBJECT, VERB AND OBJECT IN THE FOLLOWING SENTENCES WHERE APPLICABLE
1. John went home.
2. A fish was caught by me.
3. He slept.
4. She worked on a project.
5. Mt. Everest is very high. (Identify the copula and the subject complement instead of verb and object respectively)
B. REWRITE THE FOLLOWING ENGLISH SENTENCES IN SOV ORDER
1. John went home.
2. A fish was caught by me.
3. He slept.
4. She wrote a project.
5. The factory processes apples.
C. ARE THE FOLLOWING STRUCTURES CORRECT (IN NEPALI)?
1. In room green door
2. I slept yesterday.
3. Sarah blue car parking lot-in parked.
4. John sushi ate.
5. John sushi ate at home.
D. CORRECT THE INCORRECT STRUCTURES OF ‘C’, IF ANY.
E. ARE THE FOLLOWING SENTENCES DESCRIBING/RENAMING THE SUBJECT OR DESCRIBING THE SUBJECT?
1. Mary is thin.
2. The building is tall.
3. Susan is a project manager.
4. Zeus is the lord of Olympus.
5. Zeus is mighty.
6. Germany is a beautiful country.
7. Antarctica is very cold.
F. ARE THE FOLLOWING STRUCTURES CORRECTLY CATEGORISED ACCORDING TO THEIR COPULA? THE SENTENCES ARE STRUCTURED IN NEPALI FORM.
1. Susan sushi is. (Defining)
2. Mary project manager is. (Describing)
3. This pizza tasty is. (Describing)
4. Coffee very tasty drink is. (Describing)
5. Jokes funny is. (Defining)
G. RESTRUCTURE THE FOLLOWING SENTENCES CORRECTLY.
1. khāncha jan syāu | John eat(s) apple(s)
2. ho ghar rāto | (It) is (a) red house
3. khāncha kitāb jan chiṭo | John eat(s) books quickly
4. gāḍī cha rāto | (The) car is red
5. gāḍī cha rāto | (There) is (a) red car
A.1. [subject + verb + object]
A.2. [subject + verb + object]
A.3. [subject + verb]
A.4. [subject + verb + object]
A.5. [subject + copula + subject complement]
B.1. John home went.
B.2. A fish by me (caught was/was caught).
B.3. He slept.
B.4. She a project wrote.
B.5. The factory apples processes.
D.(C.1.). Room-in green door
D.(C.2.). Yesterday I slept.
D.(C.5.). John sushi home-at ate. (or John home-at sushi ate.)
E.6. Defining (note that ‘beautiful country’ is renaming the country)
G.1. jan syāu khāncha
G.2. rāto ghar ho
G.3. jan kitāb chiṭo khāncha
G.4. gāḍī rāto cha
G.5. rāto gāḍī cha