Vowel sandhi

Vowel sandhi, which is called svara-sandhi or ac-saṃdhiḥ in Sanskrit, is the name for sandhi changes between two adjacent vowels. Here is a simple example of vowel sandhi:

  • सीता उदकम् इच्छति → सीतोदकम् इच्छति
    sītā udakam icchati → sītodakam icchati
    Sita drinks water.

Vowel sandhi is easier to understand if we know Sanskrit's vowels well. As a reminder, there are two main groups of Sanskrit vowels:

  • simple vowels (samānākṣarāṇi, “uniform vowels”), which are the following: a, ā, i, ī, u, ū, , , and .

  • compound vowels (saṃdhyakṣarāṇi, “joined vowels”), which are the following: e, ai, o, and au.

Similar vowels

Two simple vowels that use the same point of pronunciation are called similar. If the two vowels are similar, they combine and become long:

  • सीता अश्वम् इच्छति → सीताश्वम् इच्छति
    sītā aśvam icchati → sītāśvam icchati
    Sita wants a horse.

  • शबरी इषुम् इच्छति → शबरीषुम् इच्छति
    śabarī iṣum icchati → śabarīṣum icchati
    Shabari wants an arrow.

Dissimilar vowels

If the two vowels are not similar, one of three things happens.

First: if the first vowel is simple and not a or ā, it becomes a semivowel:

  • शबरी अश्वम् इच्छति → शबर्य् अश्वम् इच्छति
    śabarī aśvam icchati → śabary aśvam icchati
    Shabari wants a horse.

  • शबरी उदकम् इच्छति → शबर्य् उदकम् इच्छति
    śabarī udakam icchati → śabary udakam icchati
    Shabari wants water.

Second: if the first vowel is a or ā, the two vowels combine and become a compound vowel:

  • सीता उदकम् इच्छति → सीतोदकम् इच्छति
    sītā udakam icchati → sītodakam icchati
    Sita wants water.

But if the second vowel can't make a compound vowel — that is, if the second vowel is , , or — then the second vowel becomes a semivowel:

  • सीता ऋषिम् पश्यति → सीतर्षिं पश्यति
    sītā ṛṣim paśyati → sītarṣiṃ paśyati
    Sita sees a rishi.

Third: if the first vowel is a compound vowel (e, ai, o, au), it becomes ay, āy, av, or āv, respectively:

  • ने + अ + न्ति → नयन्ति
    ne + a + nti → nayanti
    They lead.

  • भो + अ + न्ति → भवन्ति
    bho + a + nti → bhavanti
    They become.

Most of vowel sandhi is addressed by these rules. With a few more specific rules, we will have a nearly complete picture of vowel sandhi in Sanskrit.

e at the end of a word

At the end of a word, -e makes some extra changes. If the second vowel is a, then -e doesn't change. Instead, the a disappears:

  • ते अश्वम् इच्छन्ति। → ते ऽश्वम् इच्छन्ति।
    te aśvam icchanti. → te 'śvam icchanti.
    They want a horse.

This change is similar to what happens in the combination aḥ + a. a disappears often in Sanskrit:

  • रामः अश्वम् इच्छति। → रामो ऽश्वम् इच्छति।
    rāmaḥ aśvam icchati. → rāmo 'śvam icchati.
    Rama wants a horse.

In front of other vowels, -e becomes -a. The idea is that -e first becomes -ay, as we saw above. Then the y sound is dropped:

  • ते आम्रम् इच्छन्ति। → त आम्रम् इच्छन्ति।
    te āmram icchanti. → ta āmram icchanti.
    They want a mango.

  • ते उदकम् इच्छन्ति। → त उदकम् इच्छन्ति।
    te udakam icchanti. → ta udakam icchanti.
    They want water.

In the example of ta āmram icchanti, notice that ta ends with a vowel and āmram begins with a vowel. Does vowel sandhi happen again? No. ta and āmram do not combine further. And likewise, ta and udakam do not combine further.

Sandhi exemption

The vowels , and -e, when they refer to exactly two items, are never changed by sandhi:

  • अग्नी अपश्यम्
    agnī apaśyam
    I saw the two fires.

  • रामो बाहू उद्यच्छति
    rāmo bāhū udyacchati
    Rama raises his two arms.

  • तौ लभेते अश्वान्
    tau labhete aśvān
    The two of them obtain horses.

Verb prefixes

If a verb prefix ends with a or ā and the root starts with , the two combine to form ār:

  • उप + ऋच्छति → उपार्च्छति
    upa + ṛcchati → upārcchati
    (Someone) approaches.

Review

There are many small details to vowel sandhi. But this lesson is a complete summary of its most common patterns. We do not recommend memorizing the rules above. But it is important to recognize them so that you can determine where one word ends and another begins.

As you read more Sanskrit, you will eventually understand vowel sandhi instinctively. But if you would like to practice, you can try applying the correct sandhi changes to the examples below:

  • सीता एव पृच्छति।
    sītā eva pṛcchati.
    Sita herself asks.

  • अश्वाः फलानि इच्छन्ति।
    aśvāḥ phalāni icchanti.
    The horses wants the fruits.

  • नरौ नगराणि आगच्छतः।
    narau nagarāṇi āgacchataḥ.
    Two men come to the city.