Notes on Sanskrit pronunciation

These notes also apply to Hindi and Marathi.

Sanskrit, Hindi and Marathi are written in a script called Deva-nagarl lit.'from the town of the Gods', sometimes called Nagarl. A peculiarity of all Indian scripts is that each consonant is considered to be followed by a short a, unless indicated otherwise.

Unlike English, letters in Deva-nagarl have fixed sounds and one can be fairly sure of the pronunciation from the spelling.

1 Vowels.. Devanagari has only 14 vowels as opposed to 23 in English, and three of those are virtually unused. It is important for correct pronunciation to know whether a, i or u is short or long.

The symbols a, I and u have been used for long vowels as in cart, keen and pool. a, i or u written without a line on top are short. Long a and short a are different sounds whereas long i and u are the short sounds lengthened.

The short a sound is like the u in but or the a in local and never hard as in bat. It is like trying to say the consonants without any vowel sound. Gan)apati, for example, would be pronounced 'g-n-p-ti' roughly like 'gunner-putty'.

The short i is as in bit and the long I as in beet.

The short u is as in put and not as in fun (which is a short a, unless you come from Yorkshire) and the long u as in boot.

o and e are always long, but single vowel sounds while au and ai should be pronounced as double sounds a-u and a-i.

Thus med- would be pronounced as English 'maid' and maid- 'my-eed'. Mod- is long as in 'modem' and not as in 'modern'. Short o and e as in 'log' and 'leg' are not in Sanskrit, but are used in Hindi and Marathi.

The symbols o and e are used where a final o or e elides into a short a at the beginning of the next word as in sthito-si which is sthito+asi, or namaste-stu which is namaste+astu, so the vowel is longer than an ordinary long o or e. Where a word ends in e, it is always pronounced long e or eh.

Deva-nagarl alphabet is systematically arranged (unlike the English jumble) with the vowels first, followed by five sets each of five consonants in the order of the parts of the mouth in which they are produced:-

gutturals (k+g), palatals (ch+j), cerebrals .(t,+d)), dentals (t+d) and labials (p+b), with an aspirated form of every letter (kh, gh etc.) and a nasal for each set (guttural n, palatal n etc.-in English the adjustment is made automatically, eg. the n in 'hung' being pronounced palatally, but in 'hunt' dentally). The cerebral t,, t,h, d), d)h, n), and s)h are pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled back against the roof of the mouth.

Both v and w are used in transliterating Sanskrit but are in fact the same letter. The sound is halfway between v and w like 'vw' i.e.tvwam. One suggestion is to pronounce 'w' with the upper teeth touching the lower lip. Normally w is used when the consonant is compounded, eg. twam, swami r and v when on its own, eg. Shiva, Vis)hn)u;

In Marathi a final -ava is pronounced -ao, so Rava='Rao'; Namdeva= 'Namdeo'

There are three sibilants in Sanskrit, a normal dental s, an unaspirated r palatal sh as in Shiva, Gan)esha etc. with a soft h as in 'sure'. The third is an aspirated cerebral s)h, as in 'shoot', which almost never starts a word (except when meaning 'six') and is usually found compounded as in Vis)hn)u.

s is always unvoiced, ie. like hiss and not his.

5 A common case ending is an aspiration called visarga which is sometimes written as a final h or h), e.g. namah), but more accurately written namaha indicating an echo of the final vowel sound with the aspiration. This is often the nominative singular of nouns and adjectives, and commonly modifies in composition to -o, -as, -ash, and -ihi to -ir (see Sandhi below).

6 r) is a vowel, normally written r)i, as in r)itam, Kr)is)hn)a or Sanskr)it and sometimes r)u, as in amr)ut, something like the sound in 'rich'. Be aware that there is no full vowel sound after the r). Both the vowel r) and the consonant r are retroflex (with the tongue curled back) and should be rolled in the Scottish manner and not with the English tendency to elongate the vowel and drop the r (ie. 'dark' being pronounced 'daak')

The composite letter jn is pronounced palatally and is written gny (as in gnyana 'knowledge') to facilitate pronunciation. The symbol n is used for both the guttural and palatal nasal sounds at the back of the mouth, which are more nasalisations than full n sounds.

g is always pronounced as in begin and not as in vegetable (which is j ).

There is no th sound as in 'the', so the aspirated t has been sometimes written 'h, which is pronounced as in boa'hook eg. A'harva. Also ph is an aspirated p (as in 'map-holder') and not f.

Note: Differentiating between aspirated and un-aspirated consonants is tricky for westerners, because most initial consonants are pronounced half aspirated anyway. 'Down the garden' for example, has an aspirated d in 'down' and g in 'garden', but an un-aspirated cerebral d) in 'garden'. Aspirated consonants have to be pronounced like the Irish -'dhown the gharden'. Un-aspirated consonants are more often found in French, for example qui, which is unaspirated while the English key is aspirated.

In Hindi and Marathi short a at the end of words and before long syllables is dropped so Rama becomes Ram, Sulabha becomes Sulbha etc. This is not done in Sanskrit.

Hyphens are used in the text to facilitate pronunciation and ease of reading. Where a hyphen is used, it may indicate that the letter at the beginning of the following word also belongs to the end of the previous word or that the words are inextricably compounded. In either case, they should be run together as one word.

For non-Indians a word like Jagad-amba 'world-mother' would tend to be pronounced 'Jaga-damba'; or in the case of vyakt-avyakt-atmika, the a's at the end of vyakta and avyakta coalesce with the following vowels, but vyaktavyaktatmika would be hard to decypher quickly or correctly; in our own language we can recognise 'globetrotter' as 'globe-trotter' and not 'globet-rotter'.

Sandhi (euphonic combinations)

Sanskrit is written as it is spoken, with the endings of words modified to suit the beginnings of the following words. There are long complicated rules as to how this achieved. In effect we do the same in English without writing it, so that 'Do you want to get a cup of coffee?' if actually written as it is pronounced would be 'Jawannageddacuppacoffee?'; Thus Sat chit ananda becomes Sach-chid-ananda and Jagat (world) softens to Jagan-mata and Jagad-amba (both meaning 'Mother of the world') A short or long a at the end of a word will coalesce with a vowel at the beginning of the following word, so ava uttarat becomes avottarat, and ava adharat becomes avadharat.

Visarga (final aspiration) modifies in composition, so namaha namaha becomes namo namaha, Indraha twam becomes Indras-twam, and binduhu uttara becomes bindur-uttara etc.

Pronunciation. The Indian way of saying mantras or indeed talking in general, is rather like playing the bagpipes, in that the vocal chords make a constant drone which is modulated into words in the mouth, rather than the western style where each word is individually enunced; and thus a whole sentence becomes one continuous piece.

One writer comments 'The key to reciting Sanskrit is to dwell exaggeratedly on every heavy syllable (and in particular to draw out long vowels to a great length) while passing lightly and rapidly over all light syllables.' A heavy syllable is one with a long vowel, or a short vowel followed by two or more consonants, Aspirated sh, dh etc. are single consonants.

Stress. There is a stress in the form of a lengthening and slight upward inflection musically which generally falls on the penultimate syllable of a word or phrase, if that syllable is heavy, or the syllable before that if that is heavy or even the one before that, if heavy. So the stress on namo namaha is on the o, and the namaha is rather thrown away.

Notation. The notation adopted here is one which is designed to sound right to the uninitiated, while giving full information to scholars. It is, in the main, the modern or 'scientific' system of writing Sanskrit with the following exceptions:-

-sh ('scientifically' s as in Siva, GanSSesa), -s,h ('scientifically' s, as in Vis,n)u)

-ch ('scientifically' c as in candra - the normal sounds of c being covered by s and k)

Dative Endings.

When saying a mantra in the form 'Om Shri Ganeshaya namaha' it is correct to have the dative ending -aya on the name Ganesha, as this is required by the adverb namaha. The mantra 'Om twameva saks)hat Shri Ganesha saks)hat...'

is the nominative/ vocative. The following is a table of dative endings for anyone wishing to inter-convert.

Dative endings- singular only.

Words ending in:-








-yai or —iye if monosyllabic



-vai or —uve if monosyllabic

-tr)i (eg. kartr)i)

-tre (kartre)


Consonants (eg. atman)

-e (atmane)


nWass^iia&iaj^^ ^^ ^FP "ISiaaKMas^^ lÉÉfBi

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  • lena fleming
    How to pronounce sanskrit yai?
    3 years ago

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