May the beauty of Nature attract us to the beauty of sacred language.
Spelling & Pronouncing the
Sanskrit and Pali.
A dot below a letter, or a bar above a letter, called diacritic, is important, for these indicate proper pronunciation of the sacred language.
A bar over a vowel is a long sound : ā ī ū
For a dot under a consonant, point the tongue to the mid palette : ṭ ḍ Ị ṇ ṣ ṛ
Pronounce a as in sofa, u as in put.
Pronounce ñ as in canyon, ṅ as in sing, ś as in shoe.
Pronounce each letter as separate sound, including h and double consonants.
Otherwise, use the pronunciation of simple English words that are first learned in primary school.
International Agreement on Sanskrit Transliteration IAST.
When I quote scripture, either Pali or Sanskrit, I always use IAST. But Kirtan lyrics are rarely published in IAST. IAST always uses all diacritics that I describe on this webpage.
I normally use the following online dictionary –
https://sanskritdictionary.com This dictionary only accepts proper IAST spelling. It is actually SIX different dictionaries combined together online. It is a wonderful resource for the Dharma.
Pronouncing Sanskrit and Pali - Getting it Right.
In India, Sanskrit is written in their Devanagari script, which is quite unlike our Western European alphabet and few Anglos can read it. I certainly can’t.
In Kirtan, it is normally transliterated into our Western European alphabet. A phonetic spelling is used. The letters are pronounced like English words with simple spelling. The first ones learned in primary school. With some differences, like a e u
This phonetic spelling uses one spelling for each sound, and one sound for each spelling. It’s like German spelling, and systematic.
This phonetic spelling and pronunciation is also used, in the same form, for the Pali scriptures of Theravadan Buddhist scripture. Pali is a less melodious accent or dialect of Sanskrit.
I would like to quote from Ananda Wood, who writes –
“The Sanskrit alphabet is famous for being highly phonetic. In effect, this means that words are written pretty well exactly as they are pronounced. To pronounce Sanskrit correctly, it is largely a matter of knowing the rules, which are very clear and very systematic.
It is not difficult to get the pronunciation approximately correct; and for anyone who is going to use Sanskrit words and names, it is worth trying, because the ‘shape’ of the sounds is rather important.
During the many thousands of years over which the Sanskrit language has evolved, a great deal of attention and care has gone into developing sounds that evoke appropriate qualities of feeling and attitude. It is a pity to throw this away for not paying a few minutes of attention to what the sounds should be.”
Pronounce Each Letter Separately.
In this phonetic spelling of Sanskrit and Pali, each letter is pronounced, unlike the combination of several letters for one vowel sound like in English. Thus tare is pronounced ta re as two sounds, and not as in the English tare weight.
Similarly, h is always pronounced as in the English : hut, hit. The spelling and pronunciation bh is actually more common than b (without h). This is called an aspirate. Place your hand over your mouth, and you can feel this quiet exhalation. No h, no quiet exhalation, as in deva.
Thus bandhanam is pronounced “band hananam”. Likewise paśhyann sansthām abhyāsa are pronounced pash hyan sanst haam ab hyaasa.
Vowels, Short and Long.
A bar over a vowel letter has the same sound except longer.
a as in : sofa, cut ā as in : father, can’t Never as in cat or sat.
e as in : hey or say
i as in : kit, ī as in : heat Never as in bite
o as in : bold. Also pronounced as in : poke
u as in : put, cook ū as in : pool Never as in cut.
For double consonants, pronounce both letters as a double sound. tattvāya samma sacca are pronounced tat tvāya, sam ma, sach cha. The previous syllable ends in the sound, and the next syllable also begins with the same sound. In effect, we pause on the double letter.
Diacritics for Consonants, for Pali and Sanskrit.
ṃ = ṅ in Sanskrit, as in English sing, bing. (dot below)
ṁ = ṅ in Pali, as in English sing, bing. (dot above)
n as in English sin, bin. Tongue is pointed to teeth. (no dot)
ṅ as in English sing, bing. Tongue is humped to the forward palette,
and held there. ṅ is sometimes (mis-) spelled ng (dot above)
ṇ Not in English. Tongue is pointed to mid palette. (dot below)
ñ as in the English senior, canyon. Tongue is humped to forward
palette, then dropped. ñ is often spelled ny. (swung dash above)
t d l n s r as in English. Tongue is pointed to teeth. (no dot)
ṭ ḍ Ị ṇ ṣ ṛ Not in English. Called retroflex;
tongue is pointed to mid palette not teeth. (dot below)
s = s as in English sue, tongue points to gap between teeth (no dot)
ś = sh as in English shoe, tongue points to forward palette (dash above)
ṣ = sh as in English shoe, except tongue points to mid palette (dot below)
For example : diṭṭhi = view or understanding. For the d, the tongue points to the teeth. For the ṭ it flexes backwards and points to the mid palette. The tongue moves in position while we pronounce the vowel in between, the i. This adds the sound “r” between the i and the ṭ Similarly for satipaṭṭhāna = establish mindfulness, pāỊi, nirvāṇa = extinguish suffering. Thus nirvāṇa sometimes has a more accurate spelling : “nirvaarna”.
Unusual English Spelling and Pronunciation.
In Sanskrit and Pali, letters like g s are pronounced as in simple English words –
g as in get, go, and never as in gentle.
s as in sat, sit and never as in pleasure or please.
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 try to pronounce ‘w’ with the upper teeth touching the lower lip. Normally w is used when the consonant is compounded, eg. twam, swami; and v when on its own, eg. Śhiva, Viṣhṇu;
ḥ at the end of a Sanskrit word is sometimes pronounced as a quiet - ha. eg namaḥ. Listen to the opening to Shambho Shangkara namah Shivāya sung by Krishna Das on –
Pronunciation when Singing.
This has primarily been a guide for reading scripture or scriptural words like nirvāṇa, or kāma and karma.
But in Kirtan the emphasis is different, we are lifting our voice in song. We are putting the ancient Sanskrit mantras to good music that will appeal to Westerners. In sung Sanskrit, some long sounds are inevitably shortened, and some short ones inevitably lengthened. In addition, subtle differences between ṇ and ṅ, between ṭ and t, are lost. And we need a brighter sound like Krishna rather than the dull kŗṣṇa. Moreover, I find that trying to project the aspirate h in Brahma, bhagava only strains my vocal chords when I sing Kirtan. Indeed, Deva Premal pronounces Brahma as Bramma in the Moola Mantra.
So the h is not necessarily pronounced as a aspirate in sung Kirtan. The consonants b and d are “explosive” sounds : We build up pressure from the breathing muscles, and suddenly let it loose by opening the lips (for the labial b) or dropping the tongue from the teeth (as in the dental d). To articulate bhagava, bhakta, Shambho, or Radha as an aspirate, we need to push harder with the breathing muscles over the vocal chords to make the sound h. I cannot handle this extra strain when singing, for we have to project the voice more.
Instead, the bh or dh can just be pronounced as a softer b or d. To save our voice when singing, we don’t need to make this strong exhalation or aspirate of the h. Deva Premal pronounces bhur almost like mur in the Gayatri Mantra, in her “Love is Space” album, 2000.
We could say that in sung Kirtan, the diacritics help guide the rhythm of the song. We try to pause on the long vowels and the consonants, instead of the short vowels. And we try to pause on the double consonants like purushotthama. But this is a guide only. Sometimes the musicology overrides scholastics.
As a result, the so called “officially correct” pronunciation of the mantra in sung Kirtan is somewhat irrelevant. The important thing is to recite the mantra, and know what it means. This is my approach. Indeed, kīrtana means “recite” as a dictionary word.
Superscripts and subscripts, also called diacritics, are not on the keyboard. I have to find them in the collection of symbols available in MS word, and insert them into my typing. Some I copied from websites : ū ṣ ñ
Some web browsers, usually the older mobile phones, will not support diacritics.
Consequently, these diacritics are usually omitted in normal publishing, and the same letter is published without diacritic. This omits pronunciation instructions, leading to changes in spelling and pronunciation. These can be tabled thus –
IAST usual spelling more accurate spelling
nirvāṇa nirvana nirvarna (or nirvaara)
saṃsāra samsara sangsara (or sangsaara)
śaṅkara shankara shangkara
Kirtan lyrics are published with little or no diacritics. IAST is not used for Kirtan lyrics, nor in discussions about Kirtan words, especially discussions about Names for Deity. Consequently, most of my Kirtan songs do not have all the diacritics marked. ā is the most common diacritic in my discussions and song words. Indeed, to get the lyrics for most of the Kirtan songs on this website, I first typed the lyrics as I play the CD, using stop-start play. Then I have to search the internet to (try to) find a more correct spelling for the mantra.
In Kirtan, the spelling sh and ch is always pronounced as we would expect, as in English she shall, and church. Examples in Sanskrit ; Shiva, Krishna, sat-chit-ananda, chid-ananda.
Therefore, I only use IAST when I am quoting scripture. This is because diacritics appear in full when Sanskrit or Pali scripture is published. The International Agreement for Sanskrit Transliteration = IAST is normally used. The Pali on this website uses these diacritics in the same way.
In these scriptures, c is pronounced as in English church.
In these scriptures, ch is pronounced as in English catch him. Both the ch and the h are pronounced, and pronounced separately.
However, Mukundananda adds an h after ṣ and ś, to tell us to pronounce these as in “she” and not as in “see”. We need to remove this h when we copy from Mukundananada and paste into https://sanskritdictionary.com I use Mukundananda’s Sanskrit for the Bhagavad Gita on https://www.holy-bhagavad-gita.org/ , for I prefer his translation. Prabhupada’s Sanskrit for the Bhagavad Gita, on https://vedabase.io/en/library/bg/ , has spelling closer to the dictionary, but I do not favour his translation.
Declension or Inflection.
In Sanskrit and Pali, the end of the word, called declension, declination or inflection, changes according to the grammatical case.
Shivāya is the dative form of Shiva, and means “towards Shiva”
eshware is the locative form of eshwara, and means “located in eshwara”
(see amma amma taye mantra)
mṛtyoḥ = mrityo is the ablative form of mṛtyu which means “away from mṛtyu” = death (see triambakam mantra)
mukshīya could be the dative form of moksha, and could mean “towards
moksha” = freedom (see triambakam mantra)
The end of the word also changes due to Sandi.
Sanskrit is written as it is spoken, with several words run together as a continuous string of letters or sounds. These long strings of words are called euphonic combinations, called Sandi in Sanskrit. In effect, we do the same in English without writing it. The sentence ‘Do you want to get a cup of tea?’ can be pronounced : ‘Jawannageddacuppatee?’
In these long strings of many words, the ending of each individual word is modified to blend into the next word.
There are long complicated rules as to how this achieved. For example Sat chit ānanda becomes Sach-chid-ānanda. Jagat (world) softens to Jagan-mātā and Jagad-ambā (both meaning ‘World-Mother’)
Some spelling and pronunciation guides use a system like the one below. It is adapted from IAST and the Pali website www.tipitaka.org On webpages -
https://www.tipitaka.org/stp-pali-eng-parallel#22 (stp = satipatthana sutta)
Guttural: k kh g gh ṅ Tongue is humped to the rear palette.
Palatal: ch j jh ñ Tongue is humped to mid palette.
Retroflex: ṭ ṭh ḍ ḍh ṇ Tongue is pointed to mid palette.
Dental: t th d dh n Tongue is pointed to teeth.
Labial: p ph b bh m Sound is made with lips.
Nasal: m n ng ṅ ṇ ñ Sound rings in the nose. Throat is closed.
Sibilant: s ś ṣ A hissing sound.
Aspirate; bh ch dh gh kh ph śh ṣh th
The aspirate is a quiet exhalation after the consonant. As in English
: abhor, catch him, god-head, dog-house, bunk-house, uphill, wish her, pot-hole. Place your hand over your mouth, and you can feel this quiet exhalation.
Guttural consonants (sometimes called glottal or velar) are made by suddenly opening (or closing) the glottis, which is the opening at the upper end of the windpipe.
Hard (unvoiced): k, ch, t, p, s ś ṣ
Soft (voiced) : g, j, d, b (no voiced sibilants in Sanskrit)
By unvoiced, I mean we do not use our voice to pronounce the consonant.
ṅ and ng.
I have used the spelling ng for Shambho Shangkara namah Shivāya. The ng is pronounced as in English sing, ring. But I use ṅ for Bhagavad Gita.
ṅ is pronounced as in English sing, ring.
ṅg is pronounced as in English finger. eg na iṅgate = not flicker. As in Bhagavad Gita 6.19 –
yathā dīpo nivāta-stho na iṅgate
as lamp windless not flicker
Be like a lamp that does not flicker in a windless place.
©Copyright by Mike Browning, 2021. You are permitted and encouraged to copy text from this webpage and use as you see fit, provided it is not harmful to mantra-translate.