Vowels (svarāḥ) are simple, open sounds:
By changing the basic sound a, we create the full set of Sanskrit vowels.
Point of pronunciation
First, we can change the vowel's point of pronunciation. Sanskrit vowels use five basic points of pronunciation. Vowel that use just one point of pronunciation are called simple vowels (samānākṣarāṇi, “uniform sounds”):
a with the soft palate
i with the hard palate
ṛ with the top of the roof of the mouth
ḷ with the base of the teeth
u with the lips
If we use multiple points of pronunciation, we can create these compound vowels (sandhyakṣarāṇi, “joined sounds”):
e and ai with the soft palate and the hard palate
o and au with the soft palate and the lips
Second, we can change the vowel's length. Normally, Sanskrit vowels have two lengths: short (hrasva) and long (dīrgha). Short vowels are pronounced for one unit of time (eka-mātra, “with one measure”), and long vowels are pronounced for twice as long as short vowels (dvi-mātra, “with two measures”).
All of the simple vowels, except for ḷ, can become long:
All of the compound vowels are already long, and they have no short form.
There is also a third length, protracted (pluta) that is mainly used in Vedic Sanskrit. All of the simple and compound vowels can be pluta. pluta vowels are written like so: ā3 ī3 ū3 ṝ3 ḷ3 e3 ai3 o3 au3:
Third, we can make the vowel nasal (anunāsika) or non-nasal (an-anunāsika). Nasal vowels are rarely used in normal Sanskrit.
Fourth, we can change the vowel's accent (svara). In Vedic compositions, accent is used extensively, but it does not appear anymore in standard Sanskrit. There are three basic accents:
anudātta (“not raised”) or grave, which is a low tone
udātta (“raised”) or acute, which is a high tone
svarita (“voiced”) or circumflex, which is mix of the high and low tones. But in many styles of Vedic chanting, the svarita is instead an extra high tone.
Here are the three actions as they are written in Devanagari. From left to right, we have anudātta, udātta, and svarita:
The different Vedic accents and their pronunciation are out of scope for our grammar guide.
-kāra and -varṇa
In English, we often say “the letter a” rather than just “a.” Likewise, in Sanskrit, we can add -kāra to the end of any vowel to give it a more usable name. Thus Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:
अक्षराणाम् अकारो ऽस्मि
akṣarāṇām akāro 'smi
Of sounds, I am the letter a.
We can also give names to certain vowel families. For example, a has three possible lengths (short, long, and protacted), three possible accents (udātta, anudātta, and svarita), and two kinds of nasality (nasal and non-nasal). So in total, this gives us 3 × 3 × 2 = 18 different variations on the vowel a:
We can refer to all 18 of these variations by the name avarṇa (“the a class”). And sounds of the same varṇa are called similar (savarṇa, “of the same varṇa”).
Just as we have avarṇa, we also have:
ivarṇa for the 18 variations of i
uvarṇa for the 18 variations of u
ṛvarṇa for the 18 variations of ṛ
ḷvarṇa for the 12 variations of ḷ
Note that ḷvarṇa has only 12 variations because ḷ has no long version.
vivṛta and saṃvṛta
Let's dwell on a a little longer. Have you noticed that a is slightly different from the other vowels?
i and ī have similar pronunciations, except that i is short and ī is long. This is similarly true for the sounds of uvarṇa, ṛvarṇa, and ḷvarṇa. But although a and ā are part of the same varṇa, a is actually slightly different from ā and the other vowels.
Except for a, all the vowels are called vivṛta (“uncovered”, ”open”) because they are pronounced with the vowel cords uncontracted. a, however, is called saṃvṛta (“covered,” “contracted”) because it is pronounced with the vocal cords in a more contracted position.
To compare these sounds to English, we can say that all the sounds in ivarṇa sound like the “ee” in “teeth,” just with different modifications. But although ā sounds like the “a” in “father,” a does not have that sound. Instead, a sounds like the “u” in “mud.”
Each of the vowels a, i, u, and ṛ has 18 different forms (3 lengths, 3 accents, and optional nasality). Each of the vowels ḷ, e, ai, o, and au has just 12 different forms, since ḷ has no long form and the others have no short form.
What are the three vowel lengths?
What are the three vowel accents?
Which vowels are in uvarṇa?
Which vowels are saṃvṛta?