In Sanskrit Lesson 1 we learnt that Sanskrit is unlike any other languages where in objects do not have names, but only properties have names, and all objects are referred to using their properties. So in Sanskrit we can always create names for any new object that is invented or any new knowledge that is discovered.

In Sanskrit Lesson 2 we learnt that the root of Sanskrit Grammar are 2012 words called Dhatu (Verb Roots), and not the Parts of Speech. All these Dhatus have different meanings assigned to them, and all words in Sanskrit are derived using these root words or Dhatus. We also saw in Lesson 2, how Sanskrit can be used in computer programming and how it is already being used. In future lessons we will see more on this subject.

In this third lesson we will learn about the science behind the alphabet structure of the Sanskrit language. The alphabet systems of almost all Indian languages are based on this science. It is a classification based on the way the sounds of various alphabets are produced in the human mouth.

Also, though we are introducing a Sanskrit script in this lesson, I will also try to make sure that you continue to learn Sanskrit even if you are unable to learn the script immediately. I will do this by continuing to present the language in English as well.

My suggestion to those (especially Indians) who think they are already familiar with the Sanskrit alphabet system (because of their existing knowledge of some other Indian language like Hindi, Bengali or Kannada) is that, I strongly recommend that you still go through this lesson. That is because in the middle of this lesson and at the end, we are presenting some very interesting facts about the alphabet system which is generally not taught in the regular schooling system.

Also, while this lesson might sound technical with many new words creeping in, make sure that you read and understand only that portion that is explained in simple English. There is no need to remember or memorize any new word, features, names that are mentioned in this lesson. This lesson is being provided with the sole intention of serving as a reference point to look back as we proceed further with other Sanskrit lessons in the future. So just read and understand whatever you can, ignore whatever you cannot. Of course, you can ask any specific questions in the comments section.

A brief History of Sanskrit Writing System and Scripts

We know that English does not have a script of its own and instead we use the Latin script to write English. The English alphabet has its roots in Latin script and has 26 letters from A to Z of which A,E,I,O,U are vowels and remaining consonants.

Sanskrit does not have a script of its own either. In the ancient times, all the Sanskrit texts were passed down orally through human memory from generations to generations. To make memorizing the texts easy, entire texts used to be composed in poetic form. Which is why you find most ancient Sanskrit texts written in the form of poetry. Also, as we saw in the earlier lessons, the ability to compose new words from dhatus, adds to the creative ability in Sanskrit to compose great quality rhyming poems.

The reason for passing down the texts orally without writing them down was to make sure that the texts are preserved at any cost, and also to ensure that the Sanskrit pronunciations are not forgotten or mispronounced over time. Books written down get lost, human memory does not, especially when it is passed down through generations of thousands of students learning these texts.

This is the very reason why while most of the books written just a few centuries back have been lost, the Sanskrit texts like vedas and upanishads have been preserved in their exact original format even after so many thousand years!

Devanagari Script and its features

Writing down of Sanskrit started somewhere around the time of the Mauryan Empire where the Brahmi script was used to write down Sanskrit text for administrative purposes and for new literature created in Sanskrit. Even today Sanskrit is written down using a variety of regional scripts like Devanagari, Kannada, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Thai, Gurmukhi, Telugu, Tibetan and so on. However, Devanagari script is the most widely used script in writing down Sanskrit texts, even though texts also continue to be written in various other scripts listed above.

So for the sake of convenience, we will restrict ourselves to using the Devanagari script in this series of Sanskrit lessons. Devanagari is a combination of the words Deva meaning divine and Naagari meaning urban or sophisticated. So Devanagari means a divine sophisticated script.

Some of the notable features of the Devanagari script are:

Absence of case

There are no distinct uppercase or lower case letters in Devanagari. In fact, none of the Indian languages have distinct upper case or lower case letters. Letters are caseless.

Presence of horizontal top line

A distinct feature of the Devanagari script is the horizontal top line that runs on letters of the same word. Here is an example of writing the very word Devanagari in this script. See the horizontal line running on its top. देवनागरी

Absence of Spelling

There is no concept of spelling in Devanagari, nor in any Indian languages. You write what you speak. There is a separate letter for each syllable. So when you say Devanagari you write देवनागरी where

  • दे is a letter which sounds De
  •  sounds va
  • ना sounds naa
  • ग sounds ga and
  • री sounds rii.

There is no business of remembering spellings in Indian languages, no unnecessary complications. Also, all Indian scripts including Devanagari are written from left to right.

Science behind the Sanskrit Alphabet

The arrangement of letters in Sanskrit alphabet is called Varnamaala written as वर्णमाला which means Garland of Letters.

In English alphabet there is no logical reasoning in the arrangement of the letters. There is no reason why D comes after C or why the vowels lie scattered around in the alphabet. In Sanskrit on the other hand, and so in all other Indian languages as well, the vowels and consonants are categorized separately. Again, these categories are arranged in rows of sub-categories.

First come the vowels in the Sanskrit alphabet.

Sanskrit Vowels – Swara

अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ऋ ॠ ऌ ए ऐ ओ औ

are the Sanskrit vowels. In Sanskrit, Swara is the term used for vowels. See details below about how to pronounce each of them.

The grouping logic of the Sanskrit alphabet is based on where and how the sound is produced inside the mouth. Of these अ इ उ ऋ ऌ are short vowels, while the others are long vowels which take twice the time of short vowels to pronounce them.

Kantya (Guttural)

Guttural Sound Creation

The sound of the vowels अ and आ are produced at the throat, or near the back of the oral cavity. Hence they are called Kantya (कंट्य) vowels meaning, from the throat (Guttural).

अ is pronounced like u in cut, it is the short a – the mid central vowel. आ is pronounced like the second a in karma, it is the long a – open back unrounded vowel.

Taalavya (Palatal)

Palatal Sound Creation

The sound of the vowels इ and ई are produced by the tongue touching the roof of the mouth (Palate). Hence they are called Taalavya (तालव्य) vowels meaning, from the palate (Palatal).

इ is pronounced like i in big. ई is pronounced like ee in feel.

Oshtya (Labial)

Labial Sound Creation

The sound of the vowels उ and ऊ are produced using the lips. Hence they are called Oshtya (ओष्ठ्य) vowels meaning, from the lips (Labial).

उ is pronounced like u in put. ऊ is pronounced like oo in cool.

Murdhanya (Retroflex or Cerebral)

Cerebral Sound Creation

The sound of the vowels ऋ and ॠ is produced by the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouth. Hence it is called Murdhanya (मूर्धन्य) vowel meaning, from the roof of the palate (Retroflex).

There is no equivalent pronunciation in English for ऋ and ॠ, though it makes it easy to understand that it sounds like r in run, rust etc, except that this is a vowel. ॠ is very rarely used.

Dantya (Dental)

Dental Sound Creation

The sound of the vowel ऌ are produced by the tongue touching the upper teeth. Hence they are called Dantya (दंत्य) vowels meaning, from the teeth (Dental). This is rarely used, so you can ignore it for now.

Kantataalavya (Palato – Guttural)

The sound of the vowels ए and ऐ are produced near the throat by the tongue touching the roof of the mouth. Hence they are called KantaTaalavya (कंटतालव्य) vowels.

ए is pronounced like a in may. ऐ is pronounced like ai in fair.

Kantoshtya (Labio-Guttural)

The sound of the vowels ओ and औ are produced near the throat by the rounding of the lips. Hence they are called Kantoshtya (कंटोष्ठ्य) vowels.

ओ is pronounced like o in bow. औ is pronounced like o in more.

Ornaments to the Vowels – Anuswara and Visarga

Apart from the vowels listed above there are two other letters अं and अः that are used to decorate the vowels.

अं is called Anusvara and अः is called the Visarga. These are neither consonants nor vowels, and are listed at the end of the vowels, usually as a part of the vowel group itself, but at the end.

The Anusvara is a nasal whose pronunciation depends on the preceding consonant which we will be discussing in detail in the future lessons. The name Anuswaara means after vowels and it appears in front of vowels. It is pronounced like ome in come.

The Visarga which means sending forth adds a softening short burst effect at the end. It is pronounced like aha in sahara.

Sanskrit Consonants

Next come the Sanskrit consonants. The first five rows of five each letters are very important in their arrangement and are also used in many formulations of interesting Sanskrit sentences that we will be discussing in our future lessons.

क ख ग घ ङ
च छ ज झ ञ
ट ठ ड ढ ण
त थ द ध न
प फ ब भ म

Here again

  1. The first row क ख ग घ ङ are guttural consonants
    1. क is pronounced like k in kettle. It is like the English K.
    2. ख is pronounced like kh
    3. ग is pronounced like g in go. It is like the English G.
    4. घ is pronounced like gh in ghat
    5. ङ is rarely used, so we can ignore it for now
  2. The second row च छ ज झ ञ are palatal consonants
    1. च is pronounced like ch in chair
    2. छ is pronounced like chh
    3. ज is pronounced like j in jug. It is like the English J.
    4. झ is pronounced like jh
    5. ञis rarely used, so we can ignore it for now
  3. The third row ट ठ ड ढ ण are retroflex consonants
    1. ट is pronounced like t in tin. It is like the English T.
    2. ठ is ट stressed
    3. ड is pronounced like d in dinner. It is like the English D.
    4. ढ is ड stressed
    5. ण is न see below) stressed
  4. The fourth row त थ द ध न are dental consonants
    1. त is pronounced like th in thin
    2. थ is त stressed
    3. द is pronounced like th in this
    4. ध is द stressed
    5. न is pronounced like n in nut. It is like the English N.
  5. The fifth row प फ ब भ म are labial consonants
    1. प is pronounced like p in put. It is like the English P.
    2. फ is pronounced like f in fun. It is like the English F.
    3. ब is pronounced like b in bun. It is like the English B.
    4. भ is ब stressed with h
    5. म is pronounced like m in mud. It is like the English M.

In each row, the second and fourth consonants are called mahaprana consonants meaning they are aspirated consonants where in a strong burst of air accompanies their pronunciation. Without this strong burst of air, they become the same as the first and third consonants respectively in these rows. The first and third consonants are called alpaprana consonants.

Similarly in each row the third and fourth consonants are similar to the first and second consonants respectively except that in the former the sound comes more deeper from the throat with the resonance of the vocal chords.

The fifth consonant in each line is a nasal. Which means to pronounce this consonant you just need to follow the same position of that row (like guttural or palatal) and make a nasal sound.

Semi Vowels

Semi Vowels are those alphabets which are the resultant of a transition from one short vowel to the vowel अ.

य र ल व

are the semi vowels in Sanskrit alphabet system. Let us look at the origins of these semi vowels.

  • य is the transition from इ to अ and is a palatal semi vowel. It is pronounced like y in yes. It is like the English Y.
  • र is the transition from ऋ to अ and is a refroflex semi vowel. It is pronounced like r in ram. It is like the English R.
  • ल is the transition from ऌ to अ and is a dental semi vowel. It is pronounced like l in love. It is like the English L.
  • व is the transition from उ to अ and is a labial semi vowel. It is pronounced like v in van. It is like the English V.

Hissing Sounds

There are three hissing sounds in Sanskrit alphabet. They are

श ष स

  • श is a palatal hissing sound. It is pronounced like sh in she.
  • ष is a retroflex hissing sound. It is stressed श.
  • स is a dental hissing sound. It is pronounced like s in sun. It is like the English S.

Aspirate

ह is an aspirant that is pronounced by expelling air from the throat (like a guttural) along with the vowel. It is pronounced like h in home. It is like the English H.

Pronunciation of Sanskrit Alphabet – Swara (Vowels) and Vyanjana (Consonants)

The complete set of Sanskrit Vowels, Consonants, Semi Vowels, Hissing Sounds and Aspirate is as follows.

अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ऋ ॠ ऌ ए ऐ ओ औ अं अः

क ख ग घ ङ
च छ ज झ ञ
ट ठ ड ढ ण
त थ द ध न
प फ ब भ म
य र ल व
श ष स

Summary of Lesson 3

In this lesson we learnt that

  • Sanskrit has no script of its own and is written today in many Indian scripts like Devanagari, Kannada, Telugu, etc.
  • Devanagari is the most widely used script to write Sanskrit.
  • Indian language alphabets have no case.
  • Unlike English, there is no concept of spelling in Indian languages.
  • Sanskrit alphabet is arranged first into vowels, and then into Consonants.
  • Anuswara and Visarga come at the end of the vowels.
  • The arrangement of vowels and consonants is classified based on how and where the letters are pronounced in the mouth.
  • All Indian languages inherit these major features of Sanskrit alphabet system of classification of vowels and consonants.
  • From the next lesson, we will start leaning simple Sanskrit sentences and start conversing in Sanskrit.

If you have not read it yet, please do read about the history of evolution of Prakrits and the design of Sanskrit in ancient India.

Continue to Sanskrit Lesson 4.

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