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Slightly Geeky Guide to

Pronouncing Sanskrit
& Other South Asian Languages

Without Knowing Any South Asian Languages

(Generally More Than You Actually Need To Know)


The Absolute Minimum to Remember:
H after a letter represents a puff of air and should be pronounced that way.

Most of the languages of South Asia make certain sound distinctions that English speakers are unaccustomed to hearing or producing. This is the reason for spellings with "unpronounceable" Hs in them (like Bharati) and for diacritical marks that are sometimes used (as in rāja "king," sūtra "scripture," or śramaṇa "an aescetic.").

This page provides a brief introduction to some of the common challenges for English speakers, using classical Sanskrit for examples.

Stop Consonants

Linguists divide consonants into two broad categories. "Continuants" are produced by vibrating some part of the speech apparatus or the air stream passing through or past it. Examples are sounds like M, Z, F, or H. "Stops" are made by stopping the flow of air and then releasing it. Examples are G, B, and T.

Stops are classified in three ways:

  1. They are classified by the part of the mouth where the release occurs. For example a P or B is a "bilabial stop." In most languages there are potentially four positions where the release occurs:
  2. They are classified by whether or not the vocal chords are vibrating when the release occurs. For example, a B is "voiced" because the vocal chords are sounding, while a P is "unvoiced" because they are not.
  3. They are classified by whether the release is accompanied by a puff of air or not. For example the P in "pat" has such a puff of air and is said to be "aspirated." The D in "dim" does not and is said to be "unaspirated."

In American English, stops which are voiced are unaspirated, and stops which are unvoiced are aspirated. Thus aspiration and voicing are redundant with each other. (There is one major exception: An S before a stop negates its aspiration. If you are a native speaker, try holding your hand in front of your mouth and pronouncing "pay" and "spay" and you will feel the puff of air with the first and not the second.)

However other languages work differently. In most European languages, for example, both voiced and unvoiced stops are unaspirated. In most dialects of Chinese, both aspirated and unaspirated stops are unvoiced. In many South Asian languages, however, all permutations occur (except in the glottal region).

In most transcriptions, aspiration is shown by the letter H. Since we English speakers are used to aspiration and voicing being predictable from each other, we have great difficulty hearing the differences between words that are quite different for South Asian speakers. Here is a summary table:

Mouth Position Voiced & Unspirated Voiced & Aspirated Unvoiced & Unspirated Unvoiced & Aspirated
Bilabial B BH P PH
Labio-dental D DH T TH
Alveolar G GH K KH

A reasonable approximation to these sounds can be made if one is very self-conscious about producing the aspiration where there is an H and suppressing it where there is no H. But it will still probably be hard to hear reliably.

Long and Short Vowels

Most South Asian language distinguish long and short vowels, and the Roman letter spellings usually mark the long vowels with a macron (ā, ē, &c.), but leave the short vowels unmarked. In English works, many authors and editors omit the macrons, so even if you want to observe the difference, you lack the information.

Other diacritics

In the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit and many other South Asian languages, there are separate letters for sounds that are importantly different but that strike an English speaker's ear as effectively identical. In transcribing Sanskrit with a Latin alphabet, there are not enough letters to go around. Accordingly, certain letters have small marks placed over or under them in transcriptions. These effectively create the additional letters needed to accommodate the richer inventory of sounds that distinguish South Asian words. Just as N and Ñ are different letters in Spanish or L and Ł are different letters in Polish, so the "accent marked" letters in transliterated Sanskrit function as separate letters.

For example the word for "an ascetic," given earlier, was śramaṇa. The letter Ś represents a sound midway between our S and our SH. The letters Ḍ, Ṭ, Ṣ, and Ṇ carry dots below to show that they are slightly palatalized. (To an Anglophone ear, the letter Ṇ, slightly palatalized, a little like the Ñ in Spanish, except that Sanskrit also has Ñ, and it is different from Ṇ.)

Although scholars retain such marks, and they are of course used in dictionaries and textbooks of the language, writers and editors of works for the general public usually replace them with unmodified letters. Generally, marks beneath letters are simply omitted. The mark over Ś may be omitted, producing a simple S, or Ś may be converted to SH. This is why the clan name of the historical Buddha is sometimes spelled Śākyamuni, sometimes Sakyamuni, and sometimes Shakyamuni.

It is unlikely that you will encounter most of the subscripts, or even the letter Ś, and your easiest course is to pronounce words the way they appear, but to be alert that you may encounter slightly different spellings of the same term, and that S and SH are one of the places where this will happen most often.

Now you know.

A very helpful page for people with a special interest in Buddhism who want to know a little bit about Sanskrit is ntireader.org/sanskrit_in_buddhism.html.

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