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Now we are ready to start our study of Sanskrit. But instead of jumping straight to words and sentences, we should spend some time on an extremely important part of Sanskrit: its sounds.
You might think that the idea of speaking and writing sounds is already straightforward enough. However, a precise understanding of how different sounds relate to each other is much more important in Sanskrit than in other languages. A simple Sanskrit word can grow into more complicated ones, and it often does so with specific and precise changes in sound. If you have a good knowledge of how Sanskrit sounds are organized, it will be very easy to predict and understand these changes. If you do not, it will be very difficult for you to go forward. Even if you know what Sanskrit sounds like already, and even if you know other related Indian languages already, it is worth your time to read these pages anyway; please, don't skip ahead!
The study of sounds
Sanskrit was the native language of a people who had no writing system. But over time, Sanskrit changed from a native language that people spoke from birth to a sacred language that people had to learn and study. During that time, speakers of Sanskrit came to see an almost divine power in the language's sounds. So, these speakers wanted to preserve the sounds of Sanskrit for future speakers. By doing so, they hoped to fight back every language's tendency to change over time.
With this in mind, early Sanskrit speakers rigorously studied the way that Sanskrit was spoken and described their observations as accurately as possible. That is, they studied Sanskrit pronunciation and described how the language was pronounced. Due to their work, we know almost exactly how Sanskrit once sounded. But how could these people use language to describe language? Essentially, they did so by giving names to different parts of the mouth. By using these names, they could describe how the tongue moves between these different parts to create distinct sounds. To help you produce authentic Sanskrit sounds, this unit does something similar done something similar. (This unit also includes audio examples.)
A writing system is a way to record different sounds. More generally, we can say that a writing system changes a sound from something for the ears to something for the eyes, or perhaps even for the fingers. Writing systems can have many complicated rules, as you've likely seen in your experience with English. But writing down Sanskrit is actually quite easy because — for the most part, at least — words are written exactly as they are pronounced. If you know how to pronounce a word, you will be able to write it; and if you can read a word, you will know how to pronounce it.
There is, however, one difficulty. That difficulty is caused by the shapes of the letters we use. A set of shapes is called a script, and although many scripts have been used to write Sanskrit, only two are common today:
Devanagari. Devanagari is the script used for Hindi, Marathi, and some other North Indian languages. Devanagari can take a significant amount of time to learn, especially if you can't read any other Indian languages.
IAST. IAST stands for the "Internation Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration." IAST is a modified version of the same alphabet that English uses, and it takes only a few minutes to learn. Western scholars of Sanskrit tend to prefer it to Devanagari, which is OK; after all, Sanskrit has never really had a script of its own, and the tradition of using Devanagari instead of other scripts is actually quite recent.
You can see the two scripts below:
धर्मक्षेत्रे कुरुक्षेत्रे समवेता युयुत्सवः
dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ
"On the sacred field of Kurus, all assembled wanting war, …" Bhagavad Gita 1.1
For "Sounds," we will use IAST. For "Starting Out," we will use both IAST and Devanagari. Generally, all material after Starting Out will use Devanagari. For that reason, I strongly encourage you to learn Devanagari. The next unit includes Devanagari lessons, which you can use to learn and practice with the script.
But, some of you may find Devanagari too difficult to learn. If that is the case, then you can change the script used for Sanskrit text on the Preferences page.
In this lesson, we've learned the following terms:
- the act of pronouncing something. Also, the ability to pronounce something.
- create a sound with the mouth
- writing system
- A way to record language and make it visible.
- The set of shapes that a writing system uses to represent language.
- A script mostly used in North India. Today, Sanskrit usually appears in either Devanagari or IAST; but Sanskrit has appeared in dozens of different scripts over the years, and Devanagari was not the first.
- A script mostly used in European-language publications. It is based on the same alphabet that English uses.
By the end of this unit, you will be able pronounce real Sanskrit correctly and authentically. Now, let's get started with Sanskrit pronunciation!