Tag Archives: Vowel

The Sounds of Sanskrit

Sanskrit Vowels

Knowledge of the structure of vowels is not only essential for pronunciation, it is the basis upon which many other grammar rules, such as sandhi, are built.

Basic Vowels (Svara)

There are four basic vowel sounds:

कि कु कृ
a i u

  [There is a fifth, (ḷ), but it is very rarely used.]

Which are pronounced:

(a) under

(i) if

(u) to

(ṛ) vowel “i” with tongue curved to touch the top of mouth

Elongated Basic Vowels

Each basic vowel has an elongated version, too:

आ ई ऊ ॠ

का की कू कॄ

ā ī ū ṝ

Which are pronounced:


ई (ī) letter “E”

ऊ (ū) stew

ॠ () [rarely used]

The basic vowel and its elongated version are two versions of the same sound. For example “a” and “ā” are not two different sounds, they are two variants of the same sound. So they are called savarna (“same-sound”) or ekātmikā (“of one nature”).

Extensions of the Basic Vowels(Guṇa)

“A” combines with “i”, “u”, and “ṛ” to create a third set of vowels. These are:

ए ओ अर्

के को कर्

e o ar

Which are pronounced:

(e)letter “A”[a+i]

(o) letter “O” [a+u]

अर् (ar) urgent [a+ṛ]

Matured Extensions (Vṛddhi)

Each extended vowel also has an elongated version:

ऐ औ आर्

कै कौ कार्

ai au ār

Which are pronounced:

ऐ (ai) “eye”

औ (au) ouch

आर् (ār) car

Semi Vowels

A “semi-vowel” is a consonant equivalent of a vowel, and often takes the place of a vowel when sounds blend together (by sandhi). Sanskrit recognizes four semivowels, having no consonant equivalent for the ultimate root, (a).

Semivowels are “equivalent” to a vowel because they are produced from the same area of the vocal apparatus. They are the sound that occurs when the area of the vocal apparatus engaged by the vowel becomes more clearly utilized and distinctly articulated.

The vowel “i” becomes the semi-vowel य् “y” (both are “palatal” sounds).

The vowel “u” becomes the semi-vowel व् “v” (both are “labial” sounds).

The vowel “ṛ” becomes the semi-vowel र् “r” (both are “cerebral”).

The vowel “ḷ” becomes the semi-vowel “l” (both are “dental”).


Sanskrit categorizes its phonetic components according to which part of the vocal apparatus we use to create the particualar sound. It recognizes five discrete sections of the vocal aparatus:

  1. The throat
  2. The palate (junction between the top of the throat and top or the mouth, essentially, the back of the mouth)
  3. The roof of the mouth
  4. The teeth
  5. The lips

The basic sounds made at these different points, in combination with the root vowel, (a) are

– ka (throat)

– ca (palate)

– ṭa (roof)

– ta (teeth)

– pa (lips)

If some “voice” (depth, a deeper tone) is added to the sounds we get a second group of consonants:

– ka – ga (throat)

– ca – ja (palate)

– ṭa – ḍa (roof)

– ta – da (teeth)

– pa – ba (lips)

Next, air can be added to either set, to give us two additional sets

– ka – kha – ga – gha (throat)

– ca – cha – ja – jha (palate)

– ṭa – ṭha – ḍa – ḍha (roof)

– ta – tha – da – dha (teeth)

– pa – pha – ba – bha (lips)

An additional set of consonants can be made by producing involving the nasal cavity in the production of the sound.

– ṅa (throat)

– ña (palate)

– ṇa (roof)

– na (teeth)

– ma (lips)

Another set of consonants is made by pushing a lot of air through the vocal apparatus.

– ha (throat)

– śa (palate)

– ṣa (roof)

– sa (teeth)

? – (f)?(lips)[not used]


Nouns As Objects

We looked at how nouns are inflected when used as the subject of a sentence. Now we’ll learn how they are inflected when used as the object of a sentence.

Let’s remind ourselves of the inflections for “case 1” nouns (subjects) and also show the new inflections for “case 2” nouns (objects). Both are limited to masculine words ending in a – for example गज (gaja) {“elephant”}

गज Singular Dual Plural
Case 1 (subject) गजः



Case 2 (object) गजम्



  • You’ll notice that gaja is inflected the same way for use as a subject or object, if there are two elephants (dual).
  • The telltale sign of plurality is the stronger vowel at the end, “ā”. If it’s “-ā” then its a plural subject. If it’s “-ān” it’s a plural object.
  • The telltale sign of the subject case is “ḥ”. If it’s “-āḥ” it’s plural subject. If it’s “aḥ” it’s singular subject.
  • The telltale sign of the object case is the nasal sound “m/n.” You can keep the same rule as above: If there’s a long vowel (“-ām”) before the nasal, it’s a plural object. If there’s a short vowel (“-an”) it’s singular object.

Here are two examples (w/out sandhi)

बालः नरान् तुदति

bālaḥ narān tudati

We know that bāla means child, and it’s masculine, so it means boy. And we know that nara means adult, human, and since it’s masculine, man. And we also know that tuda means “hit/attack.”

So, what does the sentence mean? Boy man attack? Boy attacks man? Man attacks boy? Boys attack men? Etc.

Well, we see tuda is expressed as tudanti, and we know that the -ti ending is 3rd person, singular. Tuda (“hit/attack”) is the action in the sentence, the verb. So whoever is doing the attacking is one person, singular.

Bālaḥ has the “ḥ” at the end, a telltale sign of being a subject. Narān has the nasal sound (“n” in this case) at the end, the telltale sign of being the object. Now we’ve sorted it out! Bālaḥ is the subject, doing tudati to the object: narān. Tudati is singular, so if it applies to bālaḥ, bālaḥ has to be singular too. Sure enough it is. The tell tale sign is the at the “a” before the “ḥ” is not “ā” – that’s how we know it’s singular. Similarly we know narān is plural because the “a” at the end is “ā”.

So: “The boy attacks the men.”

कृष्णः वीरम् पृच्छति

kṛṣṇaḥ vīram pṛcchati

Kṛṣṇa is the person named “Krishna.” We know that he’s the subject of the sentence because of the “ḥ” at the end of kṛṣṇaḥ. And we know there’s just one kṛṣṇa involved (singular) because the vowel before the “ḥ” is short (“a”), not long (“ā”). Vīram means “hero.” It ends in a nasal sound so we know it’s the object of the sentence. The vowel before the final nasal is short, so it’s singular. The verb is pṛcchati (inquire), which (being “-ti”) is third person singular.

So: “Krishna asks the hero.”

What’s an “object” anyway? It’s an entity to which / on which action is performed. “Krishna asks the hero.” The hero is the “object” because he’s the entity to which the action of asking is directed. “The boy attacks the men.” The men are the “object” because they are the entity to which the action of attacking is directed. So consider this example:

अर्जुनः अश्वम् गच्छति

arjunaḥ aśvam gacchati

The “-ḥ” gives away the subject, Arjuna. The nasal (‘-m’) gives away the object, a horse (aśvam, singular because the final vowel is short). The verb is also singular and third person, gacchati – “he goes.” So the object, being the entity to which action is directed, indicates the destination of movement, in this sentence:

“Arjuna goes to the horse.”


Putting Words Together! – “Sandhi” (pt 2/5)

Let’s continue the topic of how words blend together (“Sandhi”), which we started in the previous post. To make easy sense of this you should read the examples and specifics out loud, and so you should refer back to “How to Pronounce Vowels” if you need to.

When Vowels Collide

When a word ends in a vowel and the next word starts in a vowel, you blend the two vowels together in a way that could be basically described as combining the two into a single stronger vowel.

A + A = Ā

The simplest example is where the first word ends with a short “a” and the next word starts with a short “a”. When you put them together you get a long a, “ā.”

na (not) + avagacchati (he understands) =  nāvagacchati (he doesn’t understand).

In fact, if you blend any “a”s together, long or short, the result is a long “ā”. Here’s an example from an important textbook on Bhakti-yoga:

niyama (rules) + āgraha(clinging to) = niyamāgraha (clinging to rules)

Since an “a” at the beginning of a word acts like a negator (similar to “anti-” or “un-” in English) this allows you to easily create double meanings. In the example above, when you hear the word niyamāgraha you can’t be sure if it is made from niyama agraha or niyama + āgraha. So you can’t be sure if it means “clinging to rules” or “avoiding rules.”  Unless the author is inept, these ambiguities are always intentional. In this specific case it communicates that in Bhakti-yoga one should not be too obsessed with external rules, nor too negligent of them.

A + I = E

If the first word ends with any sort of “a” (long or short), and the next begins with any sort of “i” (long or short) the combination produces “e”.

Tatra (there)+ iva (as if) = tatreva (“as if there” – as in the sentence, He told the story as if he was there.)

A + U = O

Any “a” meeting any “u” produces an “o”.

na (not) + upaviśati (he sits) = nopaviśati (he doesn’t sit).

So we get the feeling that “e” is a stronger form of “i,” and “o” is a stronger form of “u”. Now what if we blend an “a” with an “e” or “o”? They get even stronger…

A + E = AI

īśvara (the master) + eva (certainly) īśvaraiva (certainly the master).

A + O = AU

na (not) + oja (odd number) = nauja (even)

Even Stronger?

So, “ai” is a stronger form of “e” which is itself a stronger form of “i.” And “au” is a stronger form of “o” which is itself a stronger form of “u”. Now, what if we blend an “a” with “ai” or “au”? It can’t get any stronger, so it just stays the same.

Its possible for words to start with “ṛ.” When they do, there is usually little change. The “ṛ” at the beginning of the second word tends to stay intact and the vowel at the end of the word right before it sometimes changes a little bit.

In the case of A + Ṛ the “ṛ” actually loses its dot (which is unusual) and the a stays the same. So “a + ṛ = ar”

na (not) + ṛddha (abundance) = narddha (poverty)


So, now that you have the basic idea I can lay all the rest of the rules out on a table. Across the top of the table find the last letter of word 1, and down the left of the table find the first letter of word 2. The cell where that column and row intersect is the combined vowel sound.

a i e ai u o au
a ā ya e ā a va o āva ra
ā ā a ā ā ā a ā āvā
i e ī a ī ā ī a ī āvī
e ai ye a e ā e ve a e āve re
ai ai yai a ai ā ai vai a ai āvai rai
u o a ū ā ū ū a ū āvū
o au yo a o ā o vo a o āvo ro
au au yau a au ā au vau a au āvau rau
ar yṛ a ṛ ā ṛ vṛ a ṛ āvṛ

You might quickly notice that after you get past the “a” column, things start to follow a definitie pattern. The vowel at the end of word 1 tends to change, and the vowel at the beginning of word 2 tends to remain whatever it originally was. To be more verbose about it:

  • “I” changes itself into “y” and leaves the second vowel as it was
  • “E” changes into “a” and then leaves the vowel at the beginning of the next word intact
  • “Ai” changes into “ā” and leaves the next vowel intact
  • “U” changes into “v” and leaves the next vowel as it originally was
  • “O” behaves just like “e” – it changes itself to “a” and leaves the following vowel intact.
  • “Au” behaves just like “u” but with a strong “ā” in the front. In other words it changes itself into “āv” and then leaves the following vowel in its original state
  • “Ṛ” changes to “r” and leaves the second vowel as it was

Sanskrit Proto-Words… A Lot Like Verbal Lego Blocks.

We need to build up some vocabulary so we can start working with example sentences. All Sanskrit words come from a library of about 2,000 proto-words. What’s a “proto-word”? It’s the raw material from which words are made. Sanskrit provides the rules for how to shape and craft these verbal raw materials into nearly infinite words.

A proto-word becomes a word by certain rules. There’s ten types of rules. Lets talk about a few here, so we can build up some initial vocabulary and get on to using real Sanskrit examples.

Before going into the specific types, let me tell you about a general bit of info that pertains to all the types. A key part of transforming a proto-word into a real word is “strengthening” it’s vowel. There are three grades of strength and five groups of vowels

Normal a,ā i,ī u,ū ṛ,ṝ ḷ,ḹ
Strong a e o ar al
Strongest ā ai au ār āl

It’s not too hard to make sense of this table.

  • Proto-words built on a long or short a vowel get strengthened to a, and super-strengthened to ā.
  • Those built on a long or short i vowels strengthen to “e” and superstrengthen to “ai”
  • “u” based proto-words strengthen to “o” and then to “au”
  • Etc.

Take a little time to pronounce these out loud, and you’ll intuit the sense and reason in it. Make sure you’re pronouncing correctly, of course.

There’s an important exception: If the proto-word has a long-vowel (you know, ā, ī, ū, ai, ao, or ṝ) followed by a consonnant, you don’t touch it at all. I’ll show you an example of this in a minute.

Type 1 Proto-Words

These proto-words become real words in 3 steps

  1. Strengthen the vowel.
  2. Add an “a” at the end.
  3. Then add “ti” at the end.

Śuc is a proto word that means grief.

  1. The “u” strengthens to “o” – so its now śoc.
  2. Add an “a”, its now śoca.
  3. Add “ti”, it comes out to be śocati.

Śocati is a real, working Sanskrit word. It means “he cries” or “he mourns” or “he grieves” – something like that.

Congratulations! You created a word from a proto-word!

Vad is another proto-word. It means speech.

  1. The “a” strengthens, but that means its still an “a” (see the above table)
  2. Adding an “a” gives vada
  3. Adding “ti” gives vadati

Vadati is a legit Sanskrit word. It means “he speaks.”

Some proto-words don’t end with a consonant, though. And when vowels touch each other, they always blend and create new sounds.

Ji is an example.It means victory. Step one will strengthen it to je. Step two is to add an “a”, so we get jea. Those two vowels will blend though. The rule is to blend e+a=aya. (There are two more rules, o+a=ava, and ai+a=āya) So step two-and-a-half produces jaya. Then we add the “ti.” The result is jayati – a word that means “he wins”, “he is victorious.”

Here’s a proto-word that has a long vowel followed by a consonant, jīv. So this one will not strengthen at all, you skip step 1, and just add an “a” and “ti” to the end to get jīvati, which means “he lives.”

Here are some Type 1 words:

Proto-word 1. Strengthened 2. Vowel Change 3. With “-ti” Meaning
śuc śoc śoca śocati He grieves
vad vad vada vadati He says
ji je jaya jayati He is victorious
gai – sing gai (it can’t get any stronger, see table) gāya gāyati He sings
– lead, bring ne naya nayati He leads
vas – dwell vas vasa vasati He dwells
smṛ smar smara smarati He remembers
bhram bhram bhrama bhramati He wanders

Of course there are always irregularities, but you can learn them case by case. Here is one I’d like to show you right now. The proto-word is gam, and for some reason in step two we change the “m” to “cch” so the actual word produced is gacchati, “he goes.”

Type 4 Proto-Words

I’m skipping to the next type that’s kind of simple and similar to Type 1. This set of words, really, is even simpler than Type 1. There is no step 1, no strengthening. Step 2 is to add “ya” and Step 3 is to add “ti”.

Nṛt, for example, first becomes nṛtya, and then nṛtyati – a real word that means “he dances.” Sometimes, though, you’ll see the vowel strengthened even in Type 4 roots. Mad is a good example. It becomes mād, then mādya, and finally mādyati – meaning “he celebrates.”

How Much Do We Really Use Proto-Words

It’s not really that important. The only reason I introduced the concept now is because (a) I think its so cool, (b) I wanted to get started learning essential vocabulary, and this is a good time to talk about where vocabulary words actually come from, their proto-word roots.

Proto-words are important when you are researching the true, deep meaning of a word. If you can reverse engineer the proto-word from a word you want to understand, you can look up the proto-word and really get your finger on the pulse of the deep meaning of the word, not just its conventional use or common translations.

Vocabulary List

I want to end this post by recapping the vocabulary words we learned so far, and tacking a few more on the list.

śocati He grieves
vadati He says
jayati He is victorious
gāyati He sings
nayati He leads
vasati He dwells
smarati He remembers
bhramati He wanders
gacchati He goes
nṛtyati He dances
mādyati He celebrates
icchanti He desires
viśati He goes in
likhati He writes
pṛcchati He asks

Pronunciation of Vowels

Sanskrit pronunciation is important not just for the aesthetic effect, but also because it will help you spell correctly, which is really import when trying to find words in dictionaries.

First of all, like just about every language, Sanskrit has the basic five vowels, “a, e, i, o, u.”

vowel pronunciation
a like the vowel in car, far, star, jar.
e like the vowel in say, pay, day, may.
i like pick, quick, thick, trick.
o like go, no, oh, thow
u like book, took, look, hook

Then Sanskrit has five more vowels, that are the strengthened and elongated forms of the original five.

a ā like the vowel in cat, fat, sat.
e ai like high, bye, why, try.
i ī like we, me, three, tree.
o au like ow!, how, now, cow
u ū like “ooh” in “oohs and aahs”, knew, threw, true

Sanskrit Rap – Meter

Sanksrit is usually spoken with meter a.k.a cadance a.k.a. rhythm. Syllables are either “1-beat” or “2-beats” long. Keep this in mind and you will really enjoy reciting Sanskrit, because it will become song-like. And you will get into the right accent.

All the vowels in the second group (“strengthened”) are long. And from the first group, e and o are also long (aka, they last for 2-beats, twice as long as short vowels). That means that only a, i, and u are short. But you get “a” a lot, so it balances out.

Sometimes you stretch the duration of a, i, and u, too; if they are followed by more than one consonant.

Sanskrit is full of beautiful meter-templates, maybe in a future post I will get into showing you some of them!

The Elusive ṛ

Sanskrit has a strange vowel that we don’t have in English: “ṛ”. Being absent from most modern languages, this sound has become confusing even to Indians, and there are now many different interpretations of how to pronounce it. The purely Sanskrit way is:

  1. Curl up your tongue so that the tip touches the middle of the roof of your mouth.
  2. With your tongue in that position, try to say the vowel “i” (the vowel in pick, thick, etc).

That’s the sound.

Technically speaking, there is also a strengthened form of this vowel, “ṝ”.  But you’ll almost never see it used if you read classical or post-classical Sanskrit. In the same boat is another vowel, “ḷ” and its strengthened form, “ḹ”. You’ll almost never encounter these in normal Sanskrit, so concentrate on the 10 main vowels and the one strange one that does come up often: ṛ.

What Are Vowels?

Vowels are the basis and foundation of sound. Every syllable is a vowel. Vowels are the way your mouth and throat make sound when you push air through them while holding them in different shapes.

Consonants are sounds (“sonance”) that work with (“con-“) vowels. They shape the beginning and end of the vowel sound. Next post we’ll talk about the beautifully rational structure of pronouncing Sanskrit consonants.

Thank you,

Vic DiCara