Pronunciation of Sanskrit words
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 horizontal line on top of a vowel. E.g. ā
- a dot on top for the guttural nasal sound ṅ
- a dot underneath a letter. Eg. ṭ
- a tilde for the palatal nasal sound ñ
- an accent for the palatal sibilant ś
- 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 ṅ. E.g. like in wrong.
- a dot underneath for reflection. In the case of the letters ḷ, ṭ, ḍ, ṇ, ṃ, 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: ṛ is counted as a vowel in Sanskrit. The sound of ṛ is a combination of "r" followed by a short "ee"-sound, e.g. as in "rich", unlike "reef". The ḥ is an unvoiced breath following a vowel.
- The ṣ equals a sh-sound, like in shade.
- an accent for the palatal sibilant ś. The sound is basically the same as for ṣ, 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|
|ai||aisle or pie|
|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.)