Bengali nouns are typically inflected for case (more on these later) and for number (singular/plural). Unlike a few other language of the sub-continent, Bengali doesn't inflect for gender (i.e., its nouns have no gender). Let's start our study of nouns by looking at these inflections; later lessons will explain how they are actually used.
Inflecting for number edit
Bengali nouns can be singular and plural. The singular noun is the default form, and is the one typically found in dictionaries. This noun is made plural by adding one of the following two suffixes (endings):
1. Plural suffix গুলি/গুলো/গুলা (guli/gulo/gula) edit
Observe the following examples.
As you can see, the plural ending -গুলি can be applied to inanimate objects (pen, book), animals (cow) or even human beings (boy). When applied to nouns representing animate objects, it conveys a sense of inanimateness, passiveness, disconnect, or even disrespect for them.
The other thing to keep in mind is that গুলি can be replaced by গুলো or গুলা in colloquial or informal usage. None of them is the 'right' or 'universal' way of representing plurality.
2. Plural suffix রা (ra) edit
More often than not this suffix is used for animate objects, as shown in the examples below.
As already mentioned, using the inanimate suffix for animate objects is common (especially in newspapers, where the journalists cover subjects impassively).
Before we jump on to how we can inflect nouns for case, we need to learn about the articles used in Bengali.
1. Indefinite article একটি/একটা (ekti/ekta) edit
Corresponding to the English article a/an, Bengali has the article একটি, which is often replaced by একটা in colloquial usage. Let's see some examples:
|Indefinite article + noun
Note that as with English, the indefinite article can be used with both animate and inanimate objects.
2. (Singular) Definite article টি/টা (ti/ta) edit
The definite article টি (also represented by টা) corresponds to the English article the, but only when referring to singular objects. Observe the examples below:
|Definite article + noun
3. (Plural) Definite article গুলি/গুলো/গুলা (guli/gulo/gula) or রা (ra) edit
Yup, you aren't mistaken - the plural form of a noun stays the same when used with the definite article. Hence you would attach গুলি/গুলো/গুলা or রা, depending upon whether the noun is animate or inanimate, for the construction the + (plural noun).
Indeed, in colloquial usage, sometimes the nouns aren't inflected for number unless the definite article is to be used. That is, মেয়ে can represent both girl and girls, but if you want to point out the girls, you would use মেয়েরা (or even মেয়েগুলি).
3. Definite articles with adjectives edit
Bengali offers an interesting way to refer to objects/beings using a particular adjectival quality, using the definite article suffixes.
Imagine you are at a shop, and you want to buy a shirt for yourself. The shopkeeper offers you their selection, and if you know your pronouns (refer to the chapter on Bengali pronouns), you could just point to the one you like and say "this (one)" or "that (one)". But let's say you are feeling particularly rich that day, so you wish to buy the more expensive one. To refer to your choice then, you could use the Bengali word for 'expensive' (দামি) and combine it with the definite article suffix টা to form দামিটা, which would literally mean "the expensive one". Let's look at some examples to fully understand this concept:
|the expensive (দামি) one
|the cheap (সস্তা) ones
|The plural definite suffix is used here to refer to multiple objects.
|the poor (গরিব) one
|No suffix is used for a singular animate object.
|the rich (ধনী) ones
|The plural definite suffix for animate objects is used here.
Inflecting for case edit
As mentioned before, Bengali nouns need to be inflected for case, of which Bengali has primarily four:
- Nominative: Used to denote the subject(s) of a finite verb.
- Objective: Although typically used to indicate only the direct object of a transitive verb, in Bengal it is used to indicate the indirect object as well.
- Locative: Used to indicate the physical or temporal location of the subject(s) or object(s).
- Genitive: Used to indicate the possession of a noun.
These cases are all denoted with markers (with the exception of the nominative case, which requires no change to the noun); these markers are preceded by the definite articles (for singular or plural nouns) when necessary. The table below lists all the markers, for both animate and inanimate objects:
(to) the boy
(to) the boys
|র (singular animate)
দের (plural animate)
র (singular inanimate)
র (plural inanimate)
|তে/য় (singular inanimate)
তে (plural inanimate)
(in/on) the pen
(in/on) the pens
Lots of things to unpack here; let's take a closer look.
- The objective case cannot be inflected on inanimate objects. This simply means that when an inanimate object is the direct object of a verb, there is no need to inflect it for case. For example, in আমি আমার ছেলেকে খুঁজছি (I am looking for my son), notice that the word ছেলেকে is inflected since it's the direct object. But the same sentence, with a কলম (pen) instead of "the son", yields আমি আমার কলম খুঁজছি. Note how the word for 'pen' (কলম) isn't inflected.
- Similarly, the locative case doesn't apply to animate objects - again, this implies that animate objects need not be inflected, but this is even simpler in practice since you wouldn't ever be "located" in/at/on an animate object anyway.
- Speaking of the locative case, note that it can actually have three different endings, depending on the last sound of a noun: If the noun ends in a consonant, the marker is simply – ে ("-e"); if the noun ends in a vowel other than – া ("-a"), the marker is -তে; and finally, if the noun ends with – া ("-a"), the marker is -য়. This is evident in the examples কলমটি and কলমগুলো - because they end in vowels other than "a", the -তে marker is used. Meanwhile, for কলমটা we use the -য় marker (because it ends in "a").
- A similar thing happens in the genitive case, where for nouns ending with a consonant we use the ending – ে + র ("-er") after removing the inherent vowel from the final consonant. This can never happen in our example because it has the definite article attached to it (which always ends in a vowel), but consider if that wasn't the case. For the word কলম, the genitive inflection would be কলমের (and not কলমর).
In the upcoming chapters, as we learn building sentences using verbs in different sentences, you will observe how crucial inflections are in determining the meaning of a sentence.