Exceptionally clear and unambiguous guidelines have been provided by our ancient Rishis regarding the pronunciation of Sanskrit letters, words and combinations of words. If these guidelines are followed, one can pronounce Sanskrit words, and chant Gita tooJ, fairly identically, independent of the influence of one’s mother tongue. The following guidelines summarize the pronunciation rules of Sanskrit letters and words in sentences or, verses. Please note that these points are not just limited to any chapter of Gita, or even Gita in general.
The following tables list the place within the mouth from where the sound is articulated, the duration of a vowel, and the effort taken to sound a consonant.
Definition of terms
Aspirate – Pronounced with a puff or breath.
alpaprāṇaḥ / alpapraaNa– A non-aspirated sound. For example, ka, ca, ṭa, ta, pa, ya are non-aspirated sounds.
mahāprāṇaḥ / mahaapraNa – An aspirated sound. For example, kha, cha, ṭha, tha, pha, ha, ṣ are aspirated sounds.
Guttural – Pertaining to or characterized by a sound articulated in the back of the mouth, as the velar fricative kha.
Palatal – Sound made by placing the blade of the tongue against or near the hard palate (e.g. y in yes).
Cerebral – Articulated with the tip of the tongue curled upward and back against or near the juncture of the hard and soft palates. Also known as a retroflex sound.
Dental – Articulated with the tip of the tongue touching the back of the upper front teeth, or, immediately above.
Labial – Uttered with the participation of one or both lips.
Nasal – Nasalized sound, or articulated through the nasal cavity.
Visargaḥ – Visargaḥ represents a distinct hard aspiration and is marked by two perpendicular dots – ‘:’ in Devanagari script, and the letter h combined with a dot below – ḥ in English transliteration. It is very unique to the Sanskrit language. It always follows a vowel and is never used independently. It is sometimes referred to as a support vowel.
Visargaḥ, at the end of a word or sentence is pronounced with the sound of ‘h’ followed by the sound of the previous vowel. It shall have a reverberating sound, similar to the echo of the preceding vowel. Here are some examples:
- rāmaḥ shall be pronounced as raamaha in English
- agniḥ shall be pronounced as agnihi in English
- vāyuḥ shall be prounounced as vaayuhu in English
- guroḥ shall be pronounced as guroho in English
- rāmaiḥ shall be pronounced as raamaihi in English. Note that only the sound of i is echoed.
- lakṣmīḥ shall be pronounced as lakshmeehi in English.
If visarga is followed by another letter, then sandhi or conjunction rules apply. There are detailed rules about visarga sandhi, its optional pronunciations and variations. The rules that commonly impact pronunciation or chanting are listed below:
- If visargaḥ at the end of a word is followed by ś, ṣ, or s, then visarga may be replaced with ś, ṣ, or s, respectively.
- If visargaḥ at the end of a word is followed by k, or, kh, then visargaḥ may be replaced with a jihvāmūlīyaḥ, X.
- If visargaḥ at the end of a word is followed by p, or, ph, then visargaḥ may be replaced with an upadhmānīyaḥ, X.
Note: Chanting shall flow easier with these replacements, instead of trying to pronounce the visargaḥ completely in the middle of a verse, and hence is the preferred way to chant.
- If visargaḥ at the end of a word is followed by kṣ, then visargaḥ must be completely pronounced.
jihvāmūlīyaḥ is heard as a scratching guttural sound, as in the Sanskrit word duḥkham, like the German ‘ach’ (alas), or the Tamil aayutha ezhuttu. Please read the following note to understand the effort required to pronounce these two sounds, jihvāmūlīyaḥ and upadhmānīyaḥ, which are sometimes referred to as ardha-visargaḥ or half-visargaḥ.
Excerpt from the book “A Practical Grammar of the Sanskrit Language” by Sir Monier Williams
An Ardha-visarga, half-visarga, or modification of the symbol Visarga, in the form of two semicircles X is sometimes employed before k, kh, and p, ph. Before the two former letters this symbol is properly called jihva̅mu̅ lı̅yaḥ, and the organ of its enunciation said to be the root of the tongue.
Before p and ph its proper name is upadhma̅nı̅yaḥ, ‘to be breathed upon,’ and its organ of utterance is then the lips. The jihva̅ mu̅ lı̅yaḥ and upadhma̅ nı̅yaḥ are therefore to be regarded as the sibilants of the guttural and labial classes respectively.
The sign X, denoting Ardha-visarga, is now rarely seen in printed Sanskrit texts.
anusvāraḥ is described as a pure nasal sound. It always follows a vowel and is never used independently. It is sometimes referred to as a support vowel. It is represented by a dot above the vowel in Devanagari script: -̇- and the letter m combined with a dot above: ṁ, in English transliteration.
anusvāraḥ when preceded with the vowel ‘a’ shall sound like ‘um’ in the English word ‘sum’.
When anusvāraḥ occurs at the end of a word, and is chanted without a pause before the succeeding word, it may be optionally replaced with the nasal version of the consonant that follows it. Depending on the following consonant, its articulation changes, as explained below:
- anusvāraḥ followed by ka, kha, ga, gha, may be pronounced as ṅ, that sounds like ng
- anusvāraḥ followed by ca, cha, ja, jha may be pronounced as ñ, that sounds like nj
- anusvāraḥ followed by ṭa, ̣ṭha, ḍa, ḍha may be pronounced as ṇ
- anusvāraḥ followed by ta, tha, da, dha may be pronounced as n
- anusvāraḥ followed by pa, pha, ba, bha, ma, may be pronounced as m.
- In the case of ya, la, va, a nasalized y̐, l̐, v̐ may be pronounced.
Sibilants: śa, ṣa, and sa
Helpful tip from www.learnsanskrit.org
To better approximate śa, try saying “pet-shop”. Make sure you leave your tongue in the “t” position as you say “sh” that follows.
To better approximate ṣa, try saying “Hershey”. Make sure you leave your tongue in the “r” position as you “sh” that follows.
The tongue should curl and touch the central bony ridge of the upper palate for the cerebral ṇa. The dental na should be articulated with the tip of the tongue touching near the teeth-ridge, also known as the alveolar region.
Combination of consonants
jña – This is a combination of the consonants j and ñ, as in the word, jñanam
kṣa – This is a combination of the consonants k and ṣ, as in the word, kṣetram
tsn – This is a combination of three consonants, t, s, and n. as in the word, kṛtsnam
hma – Ths is a combination of two consonants h, m as in the word, brahmā
Avagraha is denoted by the symbol ऽ in Devanagari script, and an apostrophe, ‘, in English transliteration. Avagraha has no impact on pronunciation, if the word in which it occurs is not split. Avagraha is intended to help in breaking the word correctly.