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:

  1. a horizontal line on top of a vowel. E.g. ā
  2. a dot on top for the guttural nasal sound
  3. a dot underneath a letter. Eg.
  4. a tilde for the palatal nasal sound ñ
  5. an accent for the palatal sibilant ś

Pronunciation:

  • a horizontal line on top of a vowel (e.g. ā) indicates a long vowel. Long vowels 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 as well. 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.
  • 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.
  • There is one exception however: is counted as a vowel in Sanskrit. 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.
  • The equals a sh-sound, like in shade.
  • 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).

Overview

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

References

  • 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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