Panini’s Law

30 01 2007

The first thing that one needs to understand about Panini’s Law is that it is not a law. Frequently contravened in prose, and sometimes only rarely observed in poetry, this is the principle that lists will apparantly “always” feature shorter items before longer items. The classic examples in English are always given: “hook, line and sinker”, “lock, stock and barrel”, “bits and pieces”, “fine and dandy”. So prevalent is this theme that it is often referred to as a law, despite the fact that contraventions of this principle are so incredibly frequent. I wrote a poem once for a visiting academic (Gary Rendsburg of Rutgers University) who spoke of this “Law” at great length in one of our Classical Hebrew tutorials. His reply to my email flattered me (“a new Dr Seuss in the making!”) and, as I am now also flattered by its recent publication in the cleverly named Australian Mensa journal, TableAus, I reproduce it for you here.

It is rather well known, as you kindly have shown,
That our language has ‘reason and rhyme’.
I’m not being facetious, I’m glad that you teach us,
But what about nickels and dimes?
Perhaps you could say that that’s simply the way
That we put the important one first;
This could truly be said: it’s not ‘water and bread’
But it’s nonetheless hunger and thirst.
But I still must insist that there is quite a list
Of exceptions – I can’t name them all
But you’d surely agree (if a few you would see)
That this theory must topple and fall
For there’s bangers and mash and there’s Tango and Cash
(And although that last one’s not a text
Even shows on TV will most often agree
For we don’t watch ‘The City and Sex’)
We drink lemon and lime, we eat bacon and eggs
(The plot is beginning to thicken!)
If I ask what comes first to one who is well-versed
Well, they won’t ask, “the egg or the chicken?”
And on I can go for there’s triumph and woe,
Oh there are certainly many indeed!
It’s not ‘proper and prim’ but it’s vigour and vim
And, of course, there is colour and creed

Now, despite my display I will nonetheless say
I agree, after all I’m no fool
For it’s all in inflection and all these exceptions
Do naught but to highlight the rule
For to try and imply that your theory’s awry
Why, that would be a terrible sin
So I take off my hat and I leave it at that
Now it’s back to my tonic and gin…

After having read this poem some months ago now, a kindred spirit (which is a nicer way of referring to a fellow postgrad language-and-literature-geek; albeit one whose observations tend to be far more eclectic and perspicacious than my own) was kind enough to offer his opinion. Commenting upon a previous blog that happened to feature examples of my poetry, Conrad H. Roth noted that “in all of your examples, the first item is trochaic; English will plump quite happily for a capped dactyl, long-short-short-long. Lists of three are much more regularly end-heavy”.

My knowledge of what might be deemed ‘metapoetic’ terminology is certainly lacking, but I believe that Conrad is here referring to a trisyllabic word that features a primary stress, followed by a stressed monosyllabic word. An example of this would be in the made-up name “Barnacle Bob”. Should we substitute the third syllable of the first word for the separate, unstressed, word “and” then we have the same rhythm as is found in “bangers and mash”. The first example would be a “capped dactyl”, while the first word in the second example is “trochaic”. I don’t know if there are many examples of bisyllabic nouns in English that are not trochaic (ie: featuring the stress on the first syllable), but the point is certainly taken. Furthermore, Conrad’s observations regarding the predilection for capped dactyl’s in our language may also do much to explain the eschewing of Panini’s Law so often in rhythmical verse.

So far as lists of three being regularly end-heavy is concerned, Panini’s Law did gain credibility for a reason. Another example of such a clause occurred to me while walking through Kings Cross the other day, and it is one that will certainly be familiar to any religious Jews in my small circle of readership. Were we to refer to the three greatest Halakhic codifiers of the Mediaeval period in chronological order, they would be “the Rif, the Rambam and the Rosh”. So far as I am aware, nobody has ever referred to them as anything other than “the Rosh, the Rif and the Rambam”.




17 responses

31 01 2007
Conrad H. Roth

Congratulations on publication…. I was wondering where that thing had gone!

1 02 2007
Agostino Menachem

” ..I don’t know if there are many examples of bisyllabic nouns in English that are not trochaic..”

police, appeal, demand, recruit, cascade, cartoon, saloon, assault..

In English, and in all the Germanic languages, the accent tends to fall on the first syllable of multi-syllabic words.
Nontheless there are some words of Latin/French origin which don’t abide by this “rule”. Non-trochaic disyllabic verbs are much more..

p.s: nice cool piece.. maybe not Dante Alighieri but surely Edmund Clerihew Bentley..

1 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Thankyou, Agostino, I stand corrected. In truth, all but two of those examples are technically participles anyway, but the point is taken. Besides, I was wrong to suggest “nouns” in the first place, seeing as many of the so-called ‘nominal’ forms within the poem were also participial. Tell me: I know that one cannot apply a hard-and-fast rule to these sorts of things, but do you feel that most of the ‘exceptions’ are specifically of Romance origin? Interesting.

2 02 2007

“technically participles”…

“historically participles” would be more accurate.

2 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Conrad – not sure if I understand you. Etymologically, all participles are verbs (is this what you mean by “historically”?) Functionally, they are all effectively the same as nouns: they decline like nouns and they take the role of nouns in a sentence. Still, any given participle – while functioning as a noun – is still technically a verb. Even if you disagreed with that, how could you disagree with the fact that they are all participles? What else would you call them?

2 02 2007
Conrad H. Roth

The words are no longer treated as parts of the verb, even if they once were. Take “ceiling”–this is participial in form and history (‘that which ceils a room’)–but it has become a plain noun, retaining only the superficies of its old nature. It, like ‘recruit’ etc., has become degrammaticalised. A word like ’tiling’, on the other hand, is still in transition, and I think retains the force of the verb ‘to tile’, which has not been lost.

I’m basically agreeing with you, the only difference being that I don’t think “technically” has any semantic force beyond “historically” (or as you put it “etymologically”). Grammar is function: a word’s status is how it’s used. If ‘demand’ is used as a noun, which it is, then it is technically a noun.

3 02 2007

Surely recruit, assault & cascade in their present shape betray their origin as past participles, but I can’t see why the other words I mentioned should be related to a participial form. Anyway I’d be very curious to know what makes these words sound like participles to the ears of English mother-tongue speakers. Maybe the fact that they can be used as verbs too? Well, I should check, but I think all or almost all of these words were (in English) originally attested as nouns (cascade and police surely are).

“do you feel that most of the ‘exceptions’ are specifically of Romance origin?”

Actually police is from Greek polis (city) via Latin. In germanic languages the accent rarely shifts from the root of the word and usually the root of the word is in the first place, unless it is preceded by some preposition attached to the root (ex: forbear, beget, forlorn,…)

4 02 2007

The subject matter of your post interests me, and your commenters make excellent points. I first ran across the term Panini’s law in M. O’Connor’s massive tome entitled Hebrew Verse Structure. No references, if memory serves, to how Panini himself, arguably the greatest linguist of all time, framed the matter. Bibliography on how this so-called law works itself out in Sanskrit would be a nice place to start.

But I’m really interested in ancient Hebrew poetry, and more precisely, in how longer and/or heightened ‘b’ elements tend to follow ‘a’ elements in parallel structures. It is not an iron-clad rule, but a look at Isa 1:2-20, for example, turns up numerous examples. I discuss them briefly in my piece on the poetry of this passage at

Congratulations on a really fine site.

4 02 2007
Simon Holloway

John – thankyou. I have actually been an avid reader of your blog for some time now.

I also encountered the name of this “law” in O’Connor’s text, but know nothing about the individual after whom it was named. Was Panini a specialist in Indo-Iranian?

I hadn’t considered any connection between Panini’s Law and the parallel structure of Semitic poetry, but that sounds like it’s worth pursuing.

4 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Conrad – I stand corrected. I must learn to stop making sweeping statements about Indo-European grammar (who do I think I am, anyway?). In Hebrew, all participles are etymologically verbs and, while I believe that this is the basic reality of participles in every language, Hebrew seems to have maintained the original verbal meanings as well, even after the words were nominalised. I’m sure that somebody now is going to step in and suggest an exception to this, but nothing springs to mind immediately.

4 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Agostino – as you suspected, I merely referred to the fact that three of the other words (police, appeal and demand) also had verbal meanings which I took to have been primary. That’s fascinating what you tell me about the etymology of “police” and “cascade”: that they were both nouns that were later converted into verbs. I have a habit of assuming that the transformation always occurs the other way around…

5 02 2007

Simon – it seems from your remarks that Mr. Panini is new territory for you. You might begin with his entry in Wikipedia. Eventually you will want to read Itkonen’s Universal History of Linguistics, ch. 6. I think she says something to the effect that linguistics saw no real progress between Panini and Chomsky. That’s an overstatement, at least for those of us who believe that diachrony and the whole problem of linguistic change are central to the linguistic enterprise, but catches something of P’s greatness.

From what I’ve read, P is the greatest linguist of all time, so it’s fun to know at least a little bit about him.

5 02 2007

Simon, I was just being pedantic, apologies if I sounded over-confrontational.

As for Panini, he is notable for being the author of the first (extant) grammar anywhere in the world. He allegedly worked out a description of Sanskrit grammar better than any of the classical or even modern grammars of Latin and Greek. I once flicked his “Eight Books” through in a library, in translation–even so they meant nothing to me as I don’t know any Skt. What’s interesting though is that in Panini we already find concepts that took until c. 1800 to be developed by Western comparative philologists: concepts like the ablaut (guna), vowel-length (vrddha), and the root/stem distinction. Also, Panini was different to the classical tradition in that he treated words by form (morphology) first, before function (semantics).

Breal claims that Panini had a strong (but unacknowledged) direct influence on the new science of philology in the 19c., but I don’t know if this is true, or if Bopp etc. came to the same ideas separately.

It would be accurate to say that ‘descriptive linguistics’ has seen no radical upheavals since Panini, but Chomsky comes from the speculative tradition that flourished in the Middle Ages, and this is something wholly absent (as far as I am aware) in Panini. I could be wrong on that though.

5 02 2007

s/b “flicked through his”…

5 02 2007

Just checked the wiki article, which says that Panini’s grammar does in fact have speculative / generative elements, so I guess I was wrong on that. I’m a little bit suspicious of all the computing/Turing references in the article though.

5 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Conrad, I jest. Only I really do know absolutely nothing about Indo-European grammar, English included, and am hoping that a Syntax class that I will be sitting in on this year might rectify that somewhat. Oh, and I’m to be learning Greek, Latin and Coptic now! Excellent. But, no, nothing confrontational in what you said.

Thanks for the info on Panini – both you and John. I will be sure to check it out ASAP.

12 03 2013

How about ‘midday’? I pronounce it invariably iambically when stressed.

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