Consonants

In the previous lessons, we learned about the Sanskrit vowels and how they combine with each other. In this lesson, we will learn about a new type of sound: the consonant. For example, the semivowels we saw in the previous lesson (ya, ra, la, va) are all consonants.

We create consonants by disturbing the clean flow of air through the mouth. If we use the different points of pronunciation and touch them in different ways, we can create many new consonant sounds.

The first 25 consonants

When we make sounds like “k” and “p,” the flow of air through our mouths stops completely. We pronounce the first 25 Sanskrit consonants by stopping the flow of air through the mouth.

For example, we can create the sound k by touching the base of the tongue to the soft palate. We call this sound ka, because ka is easier to pronounce than just k:


  • ka

ka is pronounced when the flow of air continues in a gentle way. If it continues in a forceful way with extra air, we create a new sound kha:


  • kha

kha is called an aspirated sound, and ka is called an unaspirated sound. (The word “aspirated” just means “with extra breath,” and it is related to words like “respire” and “inspire.”). When we change how we use our breath, we change the basic sound ka to create something new.

But we can make other changes besides just changing our breathing. If you touch your fingers to your throat and pronounce the sounds “sss” and “zzz,” you can feel your throat and vocal cords vibrate. This vibration is called voicing.

Sounds like “s,” ka, and kha are called unvoiced sounds, and sounds like “z” are called voiced sounds. All of the vowels we have seen are also voiced sounds. And just as we have the unvoiced consonants ka and kha, we have the voiced consonants ga and gha:


  • ga

  • gha

Instead of just stopping the flow of air through our mouth, we can instead redirect that flow of air through our nose to create the sound ṅa. ṅa is called a nasal consonant because it is pronounced with the help of the nose:


  • ṅa

So from just the soft palate, we get five new consonant sounds:


  • ka

  • kha

  • ga

  • gha

  • ṅa

Now, what happens if we use the hard palate instead of the soft palate? We get five more consonants:


  • ca

  • cha

  • ja

  • jha

  • ña

Likewise when the tip of the tongue touches the edge of the roof of the mouth:


  • ṭa

  • ṭha

  • ḍa

  • ḍha

  • ṇa

Or when the tip of the tongue touches the base of the teeth:


  • ta

  • tha

  • da

  • dha

  • na

Or when the lips touch:


  • pa

  • pha

  • ba

  • bha

  • ma

By using the five points of pronunciation, we have created 25 different consonant sounds. Let's look at all 25 of these sounds together:


  • ka

  • kha

  • ga

  • gha

  • ṅa

  • ca

  • cha

  • ja

  • jha

  • ña

  • ṭa

  • ṭha

  • ḍa

  • ḍha

  • ṇa

  • ta

  • tha

  • da

  • dha

  • na

  • pa

  • pha

  • ba

  • bha

  • ma

The sounds in each row use the same point of pronunciation. And the sounds in each column have similar properties:

  • All the sounds in the first two columns (the ka and kha columns) are unvoiced, and the others are voiced.

  • All of the sounds in the second and fourth columns (the kha and gha columns) are aspirated, and the others are unaspirated.

  • All of the sounds in the fifth column (ṅa ña ṇa na ma) are pronounced with the help of the nose.

This simple scheme, which is almost 3000 years old, lets us quickly understand how the different consonant sounds relate to each other.

The other consonants

We have just a few more consonants to examine.

Instead of stopping the flow of air, we can just constrict it. If we do so, we get the semivowels, which we saw in a previous lesson:


  • ya

  • ra

  • la

  • va

ra has a rougher sound similar to what you might hear in Hindi or Spanish. And va is pronounced like a mix of the English “v” and “w” sounds.

We can also disturb the flow of air to make a hissing sound. If we do so, we can make three new sounds: śa at the hard palate, ṣa at the roof, and sa at the teeth. All three of these sounds are unvoiced:


  • śa

  • ṣa

  • sa

And finally, we can make a voiced hissing sound by using the soft palate:


  • ha

We have now seen all of the standard Sanskrit consonants. Here they are in their traditional order:


  • ka

  • kha

  • ga

  • gha

  • ṅa

  • ca

  • cha

  • ja

  • jha

  • ña

  • ṭa

  • ṭha

  • ḍa

  • ḍha

  • ṇa

  • ta

  • tha

  • da

  • dha

  • na

  • pa

  • pha

  • ba

  • bha

  • ma

  • ya

  • ra

  • la

  • va

  • śa

  • ṣa

  • sa

  • ha

Review

We have seen almost all of the sounds used in normal Sanskrit. In the next lesson, we'll study two more sounds and complete our study of the Sanskrit alphabet.

  1. What point of pronunciation does ja use? What about da?

  2. Which consonants are nasal sounds?

  3. Is ya a vowel or a consonant?

  4. Is śa voiced or unvoiced? What about ha?