The sound system

The study of Sanskrit speech sounds (akṣarāṇi, “sounds, syllables”) is called śikṣā (“learning, training”). Traditionally, speech sounds are the first subject that Sanskrit students study.

Our core lessons already discussed the various Sanskrit sounds in detail. Here, we will complete the basic picture those lessons painted. We will provide much more detail about how these sounds are pronounced and described. Where appropriate, we will also provide the standard English and Sanskrit terms.

Traditionally, Sanskrit has these main points of pronunciation:

  • the soft palate (kaṇṭhaḥ, “throat”)

  • the hard palate (tālu)

  • the top of the roof of the mouth (mūrdhā, “head”)

  • the teeth (dantāḥ)

  • the lips (oṣṭhau)

  • the nose (nāsikā)

  • the base of the tongue (jihvāmūlam)

Some lists also include the chest (uraḥ) as the source of the flow of air.

In order, sounds pronounced with these points of pronunciation are called:

  • velar sounds (kaṇṭhya), or guttural in some old books

  • palatal sounds (tālavya)

  • retroflex sounds (mūrdhanya), or cerebral or lingual in some old books

  • dental sounds (dantya)

  • labial sounds (oṣṭhya)

  • nasal sounds (anunāsika)

  • uvular sounds (jihvāmūlīya)

Since va is pronounced with both the teeth and the lips, it is called labio-dental (dantoṣṭhya). And since o and au are pronounced with both the soft palate and the lips, they are called labio-velar (kanṭhoṣṭhya).

None of these new terms need to be remembered. They are simply listed here for your reference.