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Compound Vowels | Learn Sanskrit Online

Compound Vowels

We have just studied the eight simple vowels. We have four more vowels to study. These four vowels are all combinations of two simple vowels. For that reason, we can call these combinations compound vowels. Compound vowels are pronounced for exactly twice as long as the short vowels. So, the compound vowels and the long vowels are pronounced for the same amount of time. This fact might seem unusual at first, but you will soon get used to it.

The main difference between simple vowels and compound vowels is that compound vowels have more strength. To make a vowel stronger, we add an "a" sound to the front of the vowel. (This will be clarified later on.) Vowels appear at one of three strengths:

At first, Sanskrit vowel strengthening was probably like what you see in the table below. In this table, the star (*) indicates a hypothetical combination.

WeakMediumStrong
i, ī*ai*āi
u, ū*au*āu
ṛ, ṝ*ar*ār

Over time, *ar and *ār remained the same, giving us the ar and ār that we use today. (Here, the letter r is a consonant, and it's pronounced just like the vowel .) But even though ar and ār remained the same, the other medium and strong vowels did change. In fact, they simplified, making them easier to pronounce.

Now, let's study how the compound vowels are pronounced today.

You might be wondering: why do we need to know that the compound vowels had older forms, and how do we know that they ever existed? These two questions have very good answers, but we'll only be able to study those answers in the next chapter. For now, it's OK to ignore these older forms.

Medium Vowels

LetterApproximationExample
e"a" in "mane" (constant sound)

o"o" in "go" (constant sound)

e and o are simplified versions of the old *ai and *au.

These two vowels are called "constant sounds" above. This phrase is used to distinguish these sounds from the way that "e" and "o" are pronounced in English. In Sanskrit, the sounds are flatter; you can hear this in the audio examples above. In English, however, these two sounds are each pronounced as two separate vowels: English "e" sounds like Sanskrit ei, and English "o" sounds like Sanskrit ou.

Strong Vowels

LetterApproximationExample
aiCombination of a and i

auCombination of a and u

These two vowels look like the old medium vowels (*ai, *au), but they are definitely strong vowels. Note that the a sound at the beginning of ai and au is pronounced exactly like the vowel a. This a sound is kept as short as possible.

a and ā

a and ā have a long and complicated history in Sanskrit, and they don't fit into one neat category of strength. For that reason, let's ignore their behavior for now.

The Alphabet

The compound vowels are added in the order given above. So, this is our current alphabet:

Review

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

Term
Definition
compound vowel
A vowel sound that is produced by two different types of vowels (like an a-sound and an u-sound).
medium
The second of the three vowel strengths.
strength
A quality that describes the presence of the a-sound that the vowel contains. Due to changes in the earliest parts of Sanskrit, e and o hide this fact. Look at the chart at the top of the page to see how this system probably used to be.
strong
The third of the three vowel strengths.
weak
The first of the three vowel strengths.

And, here is a chart that summarizes the material we've covered so far. If you like, you can compare the sounds here to their earlier forms by looking at the table at the top of the page.

WeakMediumStrong
a, ā  
i, īeai
u, ūoau
ṛ, ṝarār

For now, that's all we need to know about Sanskrit vowels. In the next lesson, we will start our study of the Sanskrit consonants. The consonants are much simpler than the vowels, so you should have no trouble with them!