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.

"Your article post is really good. Keep posting.http://www.queenofgoodtimes..."

Toys vs Sacred Objects
"Bravo, one of my favorite TV shows too. Such a shame it only ran a ..."

Faith Based Media
"Ever hear of a place called Bali? Or Thailand? Or Laos? The problem with your ..."

Why Am I Called The “White” ..."
"In today’s age, children are under tremendous pressure to perform, whether it be academics or ..."

Should Children Meditate?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

    The reason for the difference between Sanskrit and Hindi is because of the Schwa Syncope Rule (wikipedia that, and then drop down to the reference for Hindi specifically, as it’s applied a bit differently in other South Asian languages). This rule states that you drop the inherent vowel (which is a; “uh”) at the end of words, sometimes in medial syllables, and when the schwa-succeeded consonant is followed by a vowel-succeeded (or modified) consonant. This isn’t always accurate, and reading the same word, but pronouncing it differently can have different meanings, which is a problem for text-to-speech software for Hindi because this rule is found to be applied only 89% of the time.

    Keep in mind that any religion-related words like those in Duke’s first post are seen as Sanskrit words (because Sanskrit continues to be used primarily as the liturgical language for Hindus, though this seems to be changing on the village level, where Sanskrit is being used more and more in everyday speech). I find myself switching pronunciation rules of the two languages within a sentence when I attempt to read it aloud. I find myself doing the same thing when I have words from español mixed in with my speech. I flatten my vowels and unaspirate ALL consonants that would normally be aspirated in English. I also try to preserve autonyms of names in my head for speech. I don’t say Spain, but España (I believe that the ñ in español sound is pronounced like the palatal ñ in the cavarga group of consonants). Ditto for Mexico, but México (the difference is the “x” is pronounced like “h” in English). I say Hindi with a dental “n” and “d,” instead of the way English speakers pronounce it.

    The interesting thing about Sanskrit is that it means “perfect speech.” Reading it is what you get, exactly (I think). This is why you see the halant symbol for vowel suppression, so that you would not have to remember something like the Schwa Syncope Rule, which is a form of a shibboleth that helps the native Hindi speaker realize when there is a foreigner (potentially a spy or a religious enemy) in their midst. Native Hindi speakers will not make the mistakes that you and I would make, which gives us away as foreign speakers of the language. It’s been said that the more complicated a language is, the more enemies one has, or the more determined the enemy is after continued (military or cultural) offenses committed against him over the centuries.

    This makes me wonder about the state of warfare in much older civilizations like Harappan civilizations versus the more recent civilizations. The lack of warfare or weapons in the archaeological record makes me think that clarity of speech and writing was crucial in keeping communications open between different cultures so as to reduce misunderstandings, and then when things began to fall apart, speakers in different cultures would come up with ways to trip up spies amongst themselves.

  • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

    I came back here to check up on something. I do not know how to read European diacritics (not to be confused with IAST, or International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration), so the chakra petal charts are useless to me without IAST.

    • dukevanwillem

      Hi Stephanie. I just read this post and your other post for the first time. I appreciate your taking the time, for the benefit of not just me but no doubt many others.

  • ruchi singh

    Hi Duke! its because he is from northern part of india.(satna/varanasi),from a hindi speaking state. Sanskrit words themselves don’t have the “a”. But in southern states when the shlokas are sung the “a” is added because of the native language effect, and because it ads rhythm.In hindi speaking states though, “a” is dropped because when the same shlokas are sung effect of hindi words prevail.The way the shlokas are sung is also very different. For example southern states pronounce Krishna as “krishna”in their native language(tamil etc)but the northern(mostly hindi speaking) states say “krishn”in hindi. Hope I did not confuse you further:)

    • dukevanwillem

      Thanks ruchi. Makes sense.