Pronunciation of Sanskrit words

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Sanskrit is made up of 49 phonemes. There are thirteen vowels, thirty-three consonants and two extra sounds. Since the Sanskrit alphabet consists of a number of letters and sounds that do not exist in the Latin alphabet, certain additional signs, so-called diacritics are required in the Latin script for the representation and transliteration of these sounds. In Sanskrit each letter represents one and only one sound. In English the letter a for example may indicate many sounds (e.g. fat, fate, fare, far) but not so in Sanskrit.

There are five different kinds of diacritical signs:

  • a dot underneath for reflection. In the case of the letters , , , , , the difference is too subtle, so we can neglect this and pronounce the letter as if there was no dot.

A change in pronunciation occurs with the following letters:

  • a horizontal line on top of a vowel (e.g. "ā") indicates a long vowel. Long vowls are held for about twice the length than their corresponding short vowels. E.g. "a" is pronounced like the "u" in "but", and "ā" is pronounced like the "o" in "mom" or as in "harm".
  • "e", "o", "ai", and "au" can be counted as long vowels and thus the vocal length is prolonged. This becomes apparent, e.g. with the word Vairocana. Thus "ai" and "o" are held longer than the two following short "a"'s.
  • a dot on top for the guttural nasal sound . E.g. like in wrong.
  • The equals a sh-sound, like in shade. The sound of is a combination of r followed by a short ee-sound, e.g. as in rich, unlike reef. The is an unvoiced breath following a vowel.
  • an accent for the palatal sibilant ś. The sound is basically the same as for , i.e. a sh-sound, like in fresh.
  • a tilde for the palatal nasal sound ñ. This sounds equals ny, like in canyon.
  • consonants followed by an h are slightly more aspirated, but the difference is subtle.

A few common appearances: kṣa like in kshatriya (the Buddha's caste), kṛṣṇa like in krishna, and jñā like in jñāna (primordial wisdom).


a but not bat
ā harm not ham
i pink
ī peep
u put
ū boot
e mess
ai aisle or pie
o beau
au down or hound


  • Source: This presentation is partially based on Charles Wikner's A practical Sanskrit Introductory and Sanskrit für Anfänger by Thomas Lehman.)

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