Pronunciation Guide for Sanskrit Words

There are a few guidelines that will help you to almost always pronounce Hindu words correctly.

*Emphasize the third to last syllable of a word. In many words that’s going to be the first syllable, so default to the first if you’re put on the spot to pronounce something. If you have a chance to look at the word, count the syllables back from the end to emphasize the third to last. Here are some examples:

 SADhana, not SadHANA. raMAyana, not RamaYAna. ARjuna, not ArJUNa.

*When you see an “a” it is pronounced “Ah.” There are short “ah”s and long “ah”s but there is no sound in Sanskrit for the “eh” sort of sound such as in “family.”

Ironically, most native English speakers pronounce the word “Sanskrit” with exactly that sound which doesn’t exist in the language. It’s “S-ah-nskrit.” Fair warning, if you say it correctly you may sound pretentious!

* “th” in Sanskrit and Hindi is not pronounced like it is in English. It’s not “th” as in “this” or “the.” It is an aspirated T.

In Sanskrit there are aspirated and unaspirated sounds (meaning with air or without air). In English we don’t have that distinction and it can be a tough one for native English speakers to hear. Most of English words are pronounced with aspiration.  Think of “th” in a word as actually being “t-ha.” T but with a “ha” attached. But as one syllable. It’s a “breath of air.” This is why in Indian accents you might hear English words like “Tank you” instead of “Thank you” or “tink” instead of “think.” When you hear that, the person is actually pronouncing a “th” (an aspirated T) but native English-speakers ears are not attuned to pick it up!

*Even if Shiva’s name is spelled Siva, it’s still pronounced “Shiva.” (Or, more accurately Sheeva/Sheewa). Though the boy’s name “Shiv” is usually with a short “e” as in pronounced exactly as it looks in English.

*Some people pronounce the “V” sound as a “W” or a cross between a “V” and “W.”

Here is a very detailed guide on Sanskrit pronounciation: http://www.learnsanskrit.org/sounds/consonants/voice

What about super long names?

One thing that many people find intimidating is long Indian names.

To me the trick is to break it down into familiar parts. Look for parts of the name that are words you’ve seen or heard before or even familiar syllables and groupings of letters.

For example, on my other blog, we are reading along with How To Become a Hindu by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. How would you pronounce Subramuniyaswami? Look at it like this: Subra-muniya-swami.

Ramakrishna is Rama and Krishna

Balasubramanyam = Bala-subra-manyam

Vishveshwaraiah = Vish-vesh-warai-ah

Doesn’t always work, but it has helped me out in a lot of situations!

 

Some of these tips were given to me by my mother, who has been a Sanskrit scholar for nearly forty years. (Mom, if you’re reading, feel free to chime in with more!)

(Click for instructions for meditating on the “chakra petals”)

Today on the Premium blog, discussion of verses 8-11 of the Gita.

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Bhaswati Bhattacharya

    Beautiful diagram at the end. And well-done. But, I think the dot above the letter makes the vowel end in a -ng sound, as in singer. The idea is to get the vibration to propagate the sound. Perhaps an ‘m’ at the end is misleading?

    • Ambaa

      The diagram is not actually mine. If you click it, it will take you to the page of the person who created it. I just thought it was really pretty even though it wasn’t directly related to what I was talking about :)

  • Ambaa

    English can be pronounced a wide variety of ways and it’s all fine and wonderful. Sanskrit, on the other hand, needs a precision to it because its power is in its sound. I am not brilliant at Sanskrit pronunciation but I hope that these basic tips will help someone who is reading along and stumbles onto a Sanskrit word and might otherwise panic and skip over it!

  • Duke

    HI Ambaa. Interesting site. I came here looking for an answer to a question, but don’t see it straight off so maybe you or someone can answer it. I am not religious, but out of curiosity I picked up a translation of the Bhagavad Gita by “Paramahams Swami Adgadanand”. Notice “Paramahams” not the more common “Paramahamsa”. He makes a big deal out of dropping the trailing “a” off of words like “Krishna” and “Mahabharata”. He offers an explanation which does not make a lot of sense to me. I have heard Sanskrit scholars pronounce “Krishna” as “Krishna” (not “Krishn”). I wonder if anyone here can explain what’s going on and give it some context – like, how common is the practice, how did it start, etc. (Frankly I think that no matter how technically correct it may be, it is a little off-putting to someone accustomed to the trailing a!) Thanks.

    • Ambaa

      That is an excellent point to bring up. I should add that to the page.

      In Sanskrit, there is always an automatic “A” at the end, just as with any other syllable of the word. In Hindi there is not.

      Why that is, I am not sure, but I’ll try to do some research about it. After having studied Sanskrit, I was nervous about learning Hindi because I thought it would be super confusing to remember to leave the final “A” off every word. It turned out that it became second-nature to me very quickly!

      Perhaps it is because Hindi is a language that is living and changing while Sanskrit is fixed, its grammar by necessity never changing.

      Why a guru would leave the final “A” off I can’t imagine. A very strange thing to do, since it is original to the Sanskrit!

  • Duke

    Thanks Ambaa. If you find out anything else I will be interested to see it. Bear in mind that he explicitly states that words like Krishna, Arjuna, yoga, dharma, and karma are pronounced as Krishn, Arjun, yog, dharm, and karm. Which is pretty much opposite to what you (and everyone else) are saying, as far as I can tell.

    I wonder if he is like my departed grandfather. In his part of Maine there was a “Coos Canyon” that everyone pronounced “Koose” Canyon. But he insisted that the local Native Americans had pronounced it “Ko’-os” Canyon and hence he pronounced it that way. People that didn’t know him didn’t know what he was talking about. To those that did know him, he just looked like an old crank.

    • Ambaa

      Yeah, it does seem like his idea of the pronunciation goes against every other teacher, guru, scholar, and person who has engaged with Sanskrit. Very strange.


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