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Sanskrit Phonetics

(The sounds of the language)


Narsing Rao
nbrao@dataone.in
February, 2011
Table of Contents
Abstract.................................................................................................................................................3
Introduction..........................................................................................................................................3
Basic Sounds........................................................................................................................................4
Based on the Atdhyy of P ini and Prtikhyas ......................................................................4
Var asammnya ........................................................................................................................4
Ak ara .........................................................................................................................................4
Ayogavha...................................................................................................................................5
Vowel Variations.........................................................................................................................7
Based on the ik of P ini ...........................................................................................................8
Encoding Considerations......................................................................................................................9
Summary.............................................................................................................................................10
Appendix: The First Skta of the gveda ..........................................................................................11
Abstract
This paper describes the basic sounds of the Sanskrit language, based on their descriprion in
traditional works.
Introduction
Sanskrit is the only language which pays paramount important to correct pronunciation. When one
learns Sanskrit (or any Indian language for that matter), the first step is to learn the basic sounds of
the language as normally contained in the varasammnya or varaml. This is in sharp
constrast with English where the approach is to learn the alphabet (a, b, c, ...) which really gives one
no idea as to what the sounds of the language are. In fact the basic sounds of English are not
documented at all and have to be learnt only by convention.
The science of the correct pronunciation of Sanskrit is called ik ("). ik is the first of a set
of works called the Vedgs, which, as their name suggests, are indispensable for the
understanding of the veda. The earliest enumertaion of the Vedgs can be found in the
Muakopaniad of the Atharvaveda:
H H
H " - H HU
H- -
This passage enumerates the following six vedangas: ik (phonetics), Kalpa (ritual), Vykaraa
(grammar and linguistics), Niruktam (etymology), Chhandas (prosody), and Jyotia (astronomy).
The veda is the earliest recorded literature known to mankind and has been preserved for thousands
of years practically intact. The preservation of the veda is a remakable human achievement and
owes itself, among other things, to the emphasis on correct pronunciation. The chanting of the veda
therefore provides a model for the correct pronunciation of Sanskrit. However, each veda had
special rules of pronunciation applicable to that veda alone. Furthermore, there were several
branches of each veda, called hakhs, characterized by variations in textual reading. But even so,
all hakhs of a particular veda followed the same pronunciation rules as described in works called
prtikhyas. The word prtikhya means 'pertaining to all hakhs' (of a particular veda).
Therefore there are works such as the gveda Prtikhya, Vjasaneyi Prtikhya (pertaining to
the ukla Yajuyveda), Atharvaveda Prtikhya, and so on.
Similarly there were several ik works some pertaining to a particular veda, and others not
specific to any veda. The total number of iks available is about 30.
For the purpose of this paper, the following works have been used:
1. The ik of Pini
2. The Atdhyy of Pini, along with relevant commentaries
3. Prtikhyas of the gveda and the Yajurveda, along with relevant commentaries
These works provide sufficient information for the pronunciation of Sanksrit in practice.
Basic Sounds
Based on the Atdhyy of Pini and Prtikhyas
The basic sound of the Sanskrit language is called vara. The set of varas is normally referred to
the varasammnya or varaml. The varamls of most Indian languages are similar to that of
Sanskrit.
Varasammnya
The traditional enumeration of the varas is found in the mhevara stras of Pini and these
form the basis for his grammar. The fourteeen mhevara sutras are:
H-H U "
"
The last consonant in each sutra ( , , , and so on) is just a tag, used to form sets such as =
{ }. There are two broad categories of varas:
(vowels, called )
{ }
(consonants, called -)
{ H - H U " }
The order may seem strange to those unfamiliar with this scheme suffice it to say that the purpose
is to form various sets such as " = { U }, = { " } and so
on. Also, note that the in , , etc. is used only for pronunciation in other words,
represents .
Uvvaa, in his commentary on the gveda Prtikhya, gives the definition of svara:
"
Svaras are those that make a sound (and can be pronounced independently). He gives the following
definition of vyajana:
- - --
Vyajanas are those that express meaning (in a word). For example, the words , U, and
have the same svaras ( and ); however the presence of different vyajanas changes the meaning
of the word.
The Taittirya Prtikhya defines vyajana as a sound which is pronounced with the help of the
following svara:
-H
Akara
The term akara can be loosely translated by the word "syllable", although the rules for determining
what an akara is can be quite complicated. Here are some rules pertaining to akara from the
Vjasaneyi prtikhya:
H .
A svara is an akara. Uvvaa, in his commentary on this sutra says:
- - " H
A svara, used alone or in conjunction with a vyajana or anusvra, is considered to be an akara.
Other sutras pertaining to akara are:
- .
Vyajanas preceding the svara are considered to be part of the akara. For example, in the word
, the akaras are and .
.
Vyajanas following the svara are also considered to be part of the akara, provided they are
followed by a pause. Using this rule, the entire word will be an akara.
.
If a svara is preceded by sayoga, i.e. a conjunct consonant, the first consonant of the conjunct is
considered to be part of the previous akara. For example, in the word ~ which has two ", the
first " is considered to be part of the first akara. The akaras in this word " are and ~.
There are many other sutras dealing with the finer aspects of determining what an akara is; the
interested reader is encouraged to explore the Vjasaneyi prtikhya.
Ayogavha
In addition to the basic sounds ( and ), there are other sounds known as
(ayogavha). These are sounds that cannot be made independently, but only with the help of other
sounds, in particular vowels.
Patajali, in his commentary on the sutra , says:
- -HH--- H -
-
From the above, we see that there are six types of ayogavhas:
1. - (visarjanya)
2. H (jihvmlya)
3. H- (upadhmnya)
4. - (anusvra)
5. - (nsikya)
6. H (yama)
Why are these called ayogavhas? Because they are not part of the H, that is, the original
set of sounds enumerated in the mahevara stras but are heard (in the spoken language).
Visarjanya
Pini uses the term visarjanya for what we nowadays refer to as visarga. It comes from vi + sj
which literally means "to release (air)". In Pini's grammar, visarjanya is a substitute for the
ending of a pada (roughly analogous but much wider in scope than the English term "word"), as
indicated by the following rule
1
:
-- ()
The ending of a pada is substitued by visarjanya when followed by {
" } or when there is a pause (in speech). The itself is often a subsitute for .
Thus we have, for example, H => H => H
In the modern Devangari script, visarjanya is indicated by a colon like symbol (:).
Now, visarjanya itself can be substituted by a variety of sounds, depending on the circumstance. In
particular, two of the possible subsitutions are H (jihvmlya) and H-
(upadhmnya):
()
When is visarjanya is followed by any of { } , it is substituted by jihvmlya
(written as or ) and when followed by { H } it is substituted by upadhmnya
(written as or ). Jihvmlya means "produced from the root of the tongue" and
Upadhmnya means "blowing".
For practical purposes, this rule works only in the case of , , , and , since in other cases other
rules supersede this rule.
Anusvra
Anusvra literally means "after (-) sound ()" is a purely nasal sound, formed by closing the
mouth and letting the air out through the nose, like ".mmm.".
Anusvra is a subsitute for H and - under circumstances described by the following rules:
H- ()
- ()
The first of the above rules states that the ending H of a pada must be substituted by anusvra if
followed by any consonant.
The second rule states that H and - that do not occur at the end of a pada are also substituted by
anusvra if followed by (any consonant except - H ).
The gveda prtikhya says that anusvra can be considered to be either a vowel or a consonant:
- - (.)
1 We use the standard numbering convention for the adhyy adhyya | pda | stra

Anusvra is indicated by a dot above the letter. Here are some examples:
Substitution : H + = "- + = " H + =
No substitution: H + = H (not followed by consonant), , H (not followed by )
Anusvra in turn can be subsituted by other sounds we will not cover all the details here.
In the Yajurveda, anusvra is pronounced with a sound. The relevant rule is found in the
" (specific to Yajurveda phonetics):
- H
- ""
Nsikya
Nsikya means "pronounced through the nose". All vowels have two forms: -- (anunsika -
nasal) and --- (aannunsika - non-nasal, or normal). The anunsika form is written with a
candrabindu sign . Here are some examples from the gveda:
(..)
H H

-UH- (..)
U - (..)
- : (..)
Furthermore the consonants { } also have anunsika variants. These are also referred to as
(antahstha literally, "standing between") , or semi-vowels. Here are examples:
":
Yama
Yama, literally meaning "twin" is a very subtle sound its name indicates that it is similar to
another sound. Yama is discussed extensively in the iks and the prtikhyas. It represents a
transition sound between a non-nasal and a nasal. For example, if you carefully observe the
pronunciation of agni, you will notice that it is pronounced as:
agg*ni
where the g* represents the yama.
Vowel Variations
Vowels have further variations based on:
Duration {, , }
Pitch {, -, }
Nasalization {--, --- }
Bhattoji Dikita, in his Siddhnta Kaumud, summarizes the variations as follows:
H - - H" " H "

these have 18 variations (3 durations X 3 pitches X 2 nasalizations = 18) each
- has 12 variations, since it has no form, only and (2 X 3 X 2)
these have 12 variations each since they don't have any form, only and
Based on the ik of Pini
As mentioned earlier, there are over 30 extant ik works. Some ik works address the phonetics
of a particular vedic kh whereas others are more generic. Of these, the ik of Pini is generic
in that it applies to all vedic khs. It is also perhaps the most well known.
The Piniya ik is a metrical composition. The lokas referring to the number of varas of are
as follows:
"H
2
H
H
" "- "
H H H
-

According to these lokas, Svayambh ( Brahm) himself created the sounds of the Prkta and
Saskta languages, and these number either 63 or 64. They are:
Svara
, , , (each having , , ) 4 X 3 = 12
, , , (each having , ) 4 X 2 = 8
1
Total 21
Sparsha
, , , , ..., , , , , H 25
" 8
Yamas (one for each varga) 5
-, , , 4
Grand Total 63
2 Alternate reading:
Some add to this the form of , making a total of 64. Note that pitch and nasalization
variations in svaras are ignored.
Encoding Considerations
Unicode is now widely used as a character encoding scheme and supports practically all the
character sets used in the world. However, the current Unicode encoding scheme is script based,
which is why it is unsuitable for Sanskrit. The reason is that Sanskrit gives paramount importance
to sound, and not to writing.
Script has been more or less irrelevant to the preservation of the language. The Devanagari script
has been in use only for the last 1000 years. Prior to that, Brahmi was widely used. Sanskrit
manuscripts are found in a variety of scripts including Devangar, Shrad, Brhm, and Grantha.
The earliest specimens of writing available in India are the Brhm and Kharoi inscriptions of
Aoka. Writing was certainly known by Pini (as evidenced by the word lipi), but we do not know
what script was used in those times it is difficult to imagine that such a huge volume of literature
could have be preserved without a script.
There have been attempts to propose phonetic encodings for Sanksrit; however no system is widely
accepted. Phonetic encoding is of paramount importance for accurate preservation. Furthermore, it
will make searching easy and useful. Having powerful search capabilities is indispensible for
research purposes.
For preservation of vedic texts, many more sounds will need to be encoded.
Here is an example of how a Vedic passage should be encoded:

H H UH (..)

H H H H UHH
The sounds (in the sahit paha) are:
(, -, ---)
- ( , , ---)
H ( , , ---)
( , , ---)
(, -, ---)
( , , ---)
(, , ---)
( , , ---)
-
(, -, ---)
(, , ---)
(, , ---)
( , -, ---)
(, , ---)
H ( , -, ---)
(, , ---)
(, , ---)
-
( , , ---)
( , , ---)
( , , ---)
-
(, , ---)
- (, -, ---)
U ( , , ---)
(, , ---)
H (, , ---)
-
Summary
This paper has attempted to clarify some fudamentals of Sanskrit phonetics and has raised some
issues pertaining to the encoding of Sanskrit.
Appendix: The First Skta of the gveda
H - ~H HU
H HH UHH
--
- HH " HH
H ~
H H
" H H
U H -H H
H H UH- H
- - - -