In this lesson, we will study eight of the Sanskrit vowels.
Sanskrit has five "fundamental" vowels that form the basis for the other vowel sounds. One of these five is extremely rare and is not worth studying for some time. The other four are below:
|"u" in "but"
|"i" in "bit"
|"u" in "put"
Let's call these four vowels the short vowels. When you pronounce these vowels, keep them as short as possible.
ṛ has changed in pronunciation over time. Some claim that it was once like the regular English "r," as in "rough." Although I have not found a conclusive answer either way, my research indicates the version recorded above is most accurate. Note that it sounds almost like a consonant.
Studying any language can be dull, including such a beautiful language as Sanskrit. Blue boxes, like this one, can help to break up the monotony of studying grammar! They contain background information that relates to the information in the lesson while touching on some aspects of Sanskrit literature and Indian culture.
The importance of the vowel a
The vowel a is especially significant in the Sanskrit tradition, as this verse from the Bhagavad Gita shows:
Of letters I am a. Of compounds I am the dual.
I alone am unending time, the Founder facing every side. Bhagavad Gita 10.33
Why is a so special? The traditional answer is that a is the origin of all vowels and the basis of all speech. If you read this answer carelessly, it might not make much sense; after all, what does a have to do with letters like "k" and "b," and how does it relate to other vowels?
But this answer should not be taken so strictly. Recall that a is the sound of exhalation. a requires no extra effort and no movement of the tongue or lips to come forth. This is what the answer means when it says that a is the origin of all vowels; since a is the unadorned sound of air leaving through the mouth, all other vowels are modifications of it. Since a is the sound of breathing, and since breath is the basis of speech, we can say that a represents the fundamental basis of speech.
We can take each of the four short vowels above and make them a bit longer. By doing so, we get four long vowels:
|"a" in "star"
|"ee" in "teeth"
|"oo" in "mood"
The long vowels are pronounced for exactly twice as long as the short vowels. Notice that the pronunciation of ā is slightly different from the pronunciation of a. ṝ is a rare sound, and its pronunciation varies from person to person.
Together, the eight vowels above are called the simple vowels. With the eight vowels above, we can create the rest, which are featured on the next page. But before we do that, we should consider an important aspects of these vowels: similarity. Fortunately, similarity is extremely easy to understand:
Two vowels are similar if their long forms are identical.
That's all! So, a and ā are similar, i and ī are similar, and so on.
Now, "similarity" is only a useful term if there are also vowels that are not similar to each other. We can say that such vowels are dissimilar. For example, ā and ī are dissimilar even though they are pronounced for the same length of time.
The Sanskrit Alphabet
The letters of the English alphabet have an arbitrary order that students new to English must memorize with quite a bit of effort. Sanskrit does not present this problem at all! The order of the letters is quite simple, and it's easy to learn.
The alphabet consists of vowels followed by consonants. The short vowels are presented in the order given above, and the long vowels immediately follow their short forms. So, the first eight letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are:
- a ā, i ī, u ū, ṛ ṝ
As we continue to learn more Sanskrit sounds, we will expand on this small alphabet.
In this lesson, we've learned the following terms:
- Two vowels are dissimilar when they're not similar! See above for examples.
- long vowel
- A vowel that is produced for exactly twice the length of a short vowel.
- short vowel
- A vowel that is pronounced as short as possible. No compound vowels are short vowels.
- Two vowels are similar when their vowels are of the same "type." See above for examples.
- The state of being similar (see "similar").
- simple vowel
- A sound that is produced by a single type of vowel (like an a-vowel, an i-vowel, or so on).
In the next lesson, we will study the other four Sanskrit vowels.