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Stops and Nasals | Learn Sanskrit Online

Stops and Nasals

Consonants that are produced by stopping the air flow are fittingly called stops or stop consonants. When pronouncing a stop consonant, the air flow stops within the mouth, and no air exits through the nose. Once the air is stopped, it is quickly released. This release produces a sound. An example of a stop is the letter "k." Here, the air stops at the back of the mouth before continuing.

The stop is related to the nasal, which is produced by stopping the air flow and redirecting it through the nose. An example of a nasal is the letter "m." Here, the air stops at the lips and goes through the nose instead.

Points of Pronunciation

The five points of pronunciation. This is an "inside" view of the mouth. The person in this image is looking left.

For both stops and nasals, we must know where to stop the air flow. For instance, "k" requires that we stop the air at the back of the mouth, and "m" requires that we stop the air at the lips. The spot where the air flow is stopped has many names, but I will just call it the point of pronunciation. There are five points of pronunciation in Sanskrit:

You can see that the list above starts at the back of the mouth and moves to the front. This is how the stops and nasals are ordered, too.

Now let's learn some of the stops and nasals. Remember that we're proceeding from the back of the mouth to the front.

The vowels, too, are arranged according to their point of pronunciation. a is said to be pronounced at the soft palate, i at the hard palate, and u at the lips. is not where we would expect; perhaps this is because has a slightly odd pronunciation.

The same organization scheme that is used for Sanskrit eventually found its way to Japan, where it influenced the arrangement of the letters in the Japanese writing system. For more information, you can read "The Influence of Sanskrit on the Japanese Sound System".

Soft palate consonants

To produce these sounds, we stop the air at the soft palate. To stop the air, we use the base of the tongue.

LetterApproximationExample
ka"k" in "skill"

ṅa"ng" in "lung"

Hard palate consonants

To produce these consonants, we stop the air at the hard palate. To stop the air, we use the middle of the tongue. None of these sounds appear in English.

LetterApproximationExample
ca---

ña---

Retroflex Consonants

Terms like "soft palate consonants" and "hard palate consonants" are short and easy to understand, but "behind-the-bony-bump-on-the-roof-of-the-mouth consonants" is long and hard to read! These consonants are called by many names, but it's easiest to call them retroflex consonants. This term shows that the tongue bends ("-flex") backward ("retro-").

To produce the retroflex consonants, we stop the air behind the bony bump on the roof of the mouth. To stop the air, we use the tip of the tongue. Again, none of these sounds appear in English.

LetterApproximationExample
ṭa---

ṇa---

Gray boxes, like this one, contain information about Indo-European linguistics and languages related to Sanskrit. Although I think this is a fascinating topic, I know that many do not feel the same way. Fortunately, these linguistic digressions are optional and clearly marked. Feel free to skip them!

Retroflex consonants in Indo-European languages

The retroflex consonants do not exist in Greek, Latin, Avestan, Old Persian, Hittite, or the other old Indo-European languages. Their absence in these languages is significant. Because of their absence, most linguists say that Sanskrit could not have been the ancestor of all other Indo-European languages, as a few linguists have proposed. Retroflex consonants, however, exist in languages like Tamil and Kannada, the so-called Dravidian languages. Linguists tend to believe that Sanskrit borrowed the retroflex consonants from those languages.

Tooth Consonants

To produce these consonants, we stop the air at the base of the top row of teeth. To stop the air, we use the tip of the tongue.

LetterApproximationExample
ta"th" in "thumb"

na"n" in "now"

These English sounds are not the same as their Sanskrit counterparts, although the difference is quite subtle. The consonants above use a point of pronunciation that sits at the base of the teeth, and it is not found in English. The closest English match places the point of pronunciation more forward, near the edge of the teeth.

Lip Consonants

To produce these consonants, we stop the air with the lips. We don't use the tongue at all!

LetterApproximationExample
pa"p" in "spill"

ma"m" in "mail"

The Alphabet

Let's wait one more lesson before adding consonants to our alphabet.

Review

In this lesson, we've learned the following terms:

Term
Definition
stop
A consonant that is produced by stopping and quickly releasing air in the mouth.
nasal
A consonant that is produced by stopping air in the mouth and redirecting air through the nose.
point of pronunciation
The location of the tongue when we pronounce a letter.
soft palate
The soft and fleshy part at the back of the mouth
hard palate
The hard and bony part in front of the soft palate.
retroflex
a name given to sounds that require you to bend your tongue ("-flex") backward ("retro-").
teeth
I hope you know what these are!
lips
I hope you know what these are!

In addition, we studied the following consonants, which you can see arranged below. As you can see, we still have a few more stop consonants to cover:

StopStopStopStopNasal
ka?????????ṅa
ca?????????ña
ṭa?????????ṇa
ta?????????na
pa?????????ma

To learn what these consonants are, proceed to the next lesson.