Consonants

Consonants (vyañjanāni) are pronounced by modifying the basic flow of air through the mouth.

Modifying the flow of air

There are three basic kinds of modifications:

  • spṛṣṭam: full contact at the points of pronunciation. Air no longer flows through the mouth at all. This applies for the sounds ka through ma.

  • īṣatspṛṣṭam: slight contact at the points of pronunciation. Air flows through the mouth in a highly constricted way. This applies for the semivowels (ya through va).

  • īṣadvivṛtam: loose contact at the points of pronunciation. Air flows through the mouth in a less constricted way. This applies for the sounds śa through ha.

And as we saw in the previous lesson, vowels are generally vivṛta. That is, we pronounce them with little to no contact at the points of articulation.

ka through ma

The first twenty-five consonants are often arranged in a square with 5 rows and 5 columns:


  • 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

All of these consonants are called sparśāḥ (“contacts”) in Sanskrit, because the points of pronunciation make full contact with each other. In English grammar, the nasal sounds are called nasals, and the rest are called stops.

As a reminder, here is how these sounds are usually described:

  • The sounds in the first and second columns are called unvoiced (aghoṣāḥ), and the others are called voiced (ghoṣavantaḥ).

  • The sounds in the second and fourth columns are called aspirated (mahāprāṇāḥ), and the others are called unaspirated (alpaprāṇāḥ).

  • The sounds in the fifth column are called nasal (anunāsikāḥ).

ya through va

In Sanskrit, the four semivowels are called antaḥstha (“in-between”), perhaps because these consonants are similar to vowels:


  • ya

  • ra

  • la

  • va

Semivowels can also be nasalized. For example, the anusvāra is pronounced like a nasal y when y follows it.

śa through ha

The last four sounds are called sibilants in English grammar and ūṣmāṇaḥ in Sanskrit:


  • śa

  • ṣa

  • sa

  • ha

As a reminder, ha is voiced. The other sounds here are not.

ḻa

In certain styles of Vedic recitation, a ḍa sound between vowels becomes ḻa. And likewise, a ḍha sound between vowels becomes ḷha:


  • ḻa
  • ळ्ह
    ḻha

These consonants appear only in Vedic compositions.

-kāra and -varga

As with the vowels, we can add -kāra to the end of any consonant to give it a more usable name. But ra is called repha (“snarl,” ”burr”) instead:

  • क → ककारः
    ka → kakāraḥ
    ka → The letter ka

  • र → रेफः
    ra → rephaḥ
    ra → The letter ra

We can also use the word -varga (“group, division”) to refer to sets of consonants with similar properties. We have:

  • kavarga for the first five consonants (ka kha ga gha ṅa)

  • cavarga for the next five consonants (ca cha ja jha ña)

  • ṭavarga for the next five consonants (ṭa ṭha ḍa ḍha ṇa)

  • tavarga for the next five consonants (ta tha da dha na)

  • pavarga for the next five consonants (pa pha ba bha ma)

  • yavarga for the semivowels (ya ra la va)

  • śavarga for the sibilants (śa ṣa sa ha)

Review

  1. Which sounds are in śavarga?

  2. What is another name for the consonant ra?