Lesson 1A


Sanskrit is written in devanāgarī script. The word devanāgarī means the “city (nāgarī) of immortals (deva)”. There are no capital letters. In Sanskrit, each letter represents one, and only one, sound. In English, the letter “a” for example, may indicate many sounds (e.g. fat, fate, fare, far), but not so in Sanskrit.

The alphabet is systematically arranged according to the structure of the mouth. It is essential to use the correct mouth position and not to merely imitate an approximation of the sound. Without this, the development of the alphabet and the euphonic combinations that occur in continuous speech, will not be understood.

There are two fundamental divisions to the alphabet: the vowel (svara) and the consonant (vyañjana). The word svara literally means sound, tone, accent; and vyañjana an adornment or decoration (to the sound), manifesting (as a stop in the sound).


1.A.1 Vowel Measures

Vowels can be short (hrasva) or long (dīrgha) or prolonged (pluta). The short vowels are held for one measure (mātrā), the long vowels for two measures, and the prolonged for three or more measures.

This system of enumeration (one, two, many, where many means more than two) manifests throughout the grammar, and indeed throughout the systems of thought expressed in Sanskrit, for it reflects the natural evolution of creation.

The prolonged measure occurs in Vedic Sanskrit but is rare in Classical Sanskrit; the prolonged measure (as a full breath) is useful in practicing the vowels. The prolonged measure in both transliterated Roman script and devanāgarī is indecated by the short vowel followed by the numeral 3. (You may also see it as the long vowel followed by 3.)


1.A.2 Sanskrit Pronunciation

The pronunciation of Sanskrit is very simple: you open the mouth wide and move the tongue and lips as necessary: the tongue and lips are almost pure muscle and have little inertia or resistance to movement. By contrast, the pronunciation of English requires much effort, for we barely open the mouth (which means that all sounds are indistinct or blurred), and then instead of simply moving the tongue we move the whole jaw — and what a great weight that is to move about. Having become well practiced in speaking with a moving jaw, it does require some attention to break that habit and speak with a moving tongue.

The biggest single factor in practicing the refined sounds of Sanskrit, is to open the mouth! For English, the mouth opens to a mere slit of about 6mm (a pencil thickness); for Sanskrit this needs to increase fourfold — literally! Try this out for yourself: with the mouth opened to a slit, sound a prolonged a3 and slowly open the mouth wide and listen to the change in the quality, to the richness and fullness that emerges. The mouth needs to open a lot more than you think — so don’t think! — use a measure, like two fingers.


1.A.3 The Three Primary Vowel: a i u

The sounding of a3 is simplicity itself: with body and mind relaxed but alert, open the throat and mouth wide, and with tongue relaxed, breathe out and simply desire that the vocal cords vibrate. What could be more natural than that?

This sound is central to all the vowel sounds; indeed, the whole alphabet is simply an embellishment of this sound.

As a very rough guide, the short a sounds similar to the vowel in “but” and definitely NOT “bat”; likewise the long ā is similar to the vowel in “harm” and NOT “ham”. In producing the short a there is a slight tensioning in the throat; that tension should not be there for the long ā or the prolonged a3. In spite of this difference between a and ā, they are treated as though the same in the rules of sandhi (euphonic combination) of the grammar.

To sound i3, open the mouth as for a3 and raise the back of the tongue (the tip should be relaxed behind the bottom front teeth). in producing this sound it will be noticed that there is a slight constriction or tensioning in the throat as compared with the relaxed throat when sounding a3.

To sound u3, allow the lips to form a small circular opening of the mouth (so that the moistened back of a pencil just slips in and out, filling the opening); there should be no tension in the lips or face muscles, so pout rather than purse the lips. There will be a similar tension in the throat as for i3.

The short i sounds similar to the vowel in “pink” and NOT “pin”, and the long ī like “peep” or “seat”; the short u is similar to the vowel in “put” or “soot”, and the long ū like “boot” or “suit”.


1.A.4 The Other Simple Vowels: ṛ ḷ

To get to the correct pronunciation of 3, begin by sounding a prolonged i3 and slowly raise the tip of the tongue so that it is pointing to the top of the head, approaching but not touching the roof of the mouth. Do not try to hold the back of the tongue in the i3 position, nor try to move it out of that position: simply have no concern with what is happening at the back of the tongue, just attend to the tip of the tongue and listen. Repeat the exercise a few times until comfortable with the sound of 3 then practice directly sounding 3 for a full breath.

Similarly for 3 start sounding with a prolonged i3 and slowly raise the tip of the tongue to behind the upper front teeth without touching them. Continue the exercise as for 3.

These vowels appear to have vanished from popular speech, and the memory of how to pronounce them has faded. The paṇḍita of today tends to pronounce as if it were ri, and even more improbably as ; similarly and tend to be pronounced as lri and lrī. This accounts for the transliteration scheme found in the dictionary. In fact the vocalic is still present in Eastern European languages and you may come across surnames like Przybylski; it is also present in English in some pronunciations of the word “interesting” as “int’r’sting” or “intṛsting”, or indeed in the American “pṛdy” for “pretty”.

The long is not used in the standard grammar, and occurs only in one verb (kḷp, to manage, to be well ordered or regulated).

In practice when either of these vowels is followed by a consonant whose mouth position requires that the tip of the tongue be at a lower position, a vestigial i will emerge due to the bunching of the muscle at the back of the tongue when moving the tip downwards. For example ṛk tends to produce rik, but a word like Kṛṣṇa should produce no i sound at all.


1.A.5 The Compound Vowels: e ai o au

Let’s examine what we have so far. We began with a and from this developed u and i to give the three primary vowels, and then the i gave rise to and . These five basic vowels, each having its own unique mouth position, define the five mouth positions used for the whole alphabet.

Further vowels are derived by combining the a sound with i and u to form the four compound vowels (sandhyakṣara).

The e sound arises when a is sounded through the i mouth position. Remember that a has a relaxed throat and tongue, while i has the back of the tongue raised and the throat tense: so relaxing the throat while retaining the back of the tongue raised will produce e.

The vowel e sounds similar to that in “fair” or “eight”.

The ai sound arises when e is further combined with a as it were. Now the only difference between e and a is the raised back of the tongue, so to move from e towards the a sound, we need to drop the back of the tongue to a position half way between that used for i and e and the relaxed position used for a.

The ai sounds similar to the vowel in “aisle” or “pie”; there should be no glide or slide in the sound from a to i.

In a manner to the arising of e, when a is sounded through the u mouth position, i.e. with the lips in the position for u but the throat relaxed for sounding a, the sound o naturally arises.

The vowel o should sound between “awe” and “owe” (or between the vowel sounds in “corn” and “cone”); the ideal is that point where the sound could be taken as either of the two English sounds.

And finally, the au sound arises when a is combined with o, so that the position of the lips is roughly half way between that used for u and a, and the throat is relaxed.

The au sounds similar to the vowel in “down” or “hound” but without the glide from a to u.


1.A.6 Summary of All Vowels

Combining the previous five sketches illustrates the central role played by the a sound.

Note that all these vowel sounds may be sounded continuously for a full breath: there is no glide from one sound to another. Also note that the four sounds e ai o au, being an addition of two sounds as it were, are naturally long (dīrgha) and may also be prolonged (pluta), but have no short measure.

Vowel Sounds
Vowel Throat Tongue Lips Eng. Approx.1
a tense relaxed wide open “but”, NOT “bat”
ā relaxed relaxed wide open “harm”, NOT “ham”
i / ī tense raised back wide open “pink” / “peep”
e relaxed raised back wide open “fair” or “eight”
ai relaxed half-raised back wide open aisle” or “pie
u / ū tense relaxed small circle “put” / “boot”
o relaxed relaxed small circle between “owe” and “awe”
au relaxed relaxed large circle “down” or “hound”
tense half-raised back,
tip vertical
wide open “acre
tense half-raised back,
tip vertical
wide open “table

1.A.7 The Sixteen śakti: aṃ aḥ

To these fourteen vowels are added the anusvāra and visarga to form what are called the sixteen mātṛkā or śakti (powers or energies). The anusvāra () is an “after sound”, a nasal sound following a vowel. It is sounded through the nose only, and should be independent of mouth position. Later on we shall consider how it may be substituted by a nasal consonant depending on the following letter. The visarga (), or visarjanīya, is an unvoiced breath following a vowel, and is breathed through the mouth position of that vowel. Some traditions append an echo of the vowel after the breath, so that aḥ may be sounded as aha, etc.

Strictly speaking, the anusvāra and visarga are not part of the alphabet inasmuch as they arise only through the rules of sandhi (euphonic combination). Since these both arise only after a vowel we shall precede them with a (though they can occur with other vowels too) when sounding the sixteen śakti, which form the start of the alphabetical order, i.e.:

a ā i ī u ū e ai o au aṃ aḥ

In the transliteration scheme shown above, the lines and dots, called “diacritical marks”, are used because the Sanskrit alphabet has more letters than the English alphabet. Diacritics are combined with Roman letters to represent new sounds, for example the macron (horizontal bar above the letter) is used to indicate the long (dīrgha) version of the vowel.


1.A.8 Practicing the Alphabet

One way of memorizing the script is by writing it: look at the form of the letter, sound it, and then write it. In this exercise it is important to associate the sound with the form. When you write the letter, write the whole letter without referring back to the original. If, half way through, you forget how to continue the letter, then start again: and do not continue with that half-completed letter. Remember that the exercise is not simply to copy the original form, but to associate a sound with a whole form, so do not practice half letters. When the shape has become familiar then time can be spent refining the proportions of the letter.

Another method of practicing the alphabet is to use flash cards with the devanāgarī letter on one side and the transliterated Roman letter on the other (in case you forget you can turn over). These cards can also be used in the other direction: from the transliterated Roman letter, see if you can visualize the devanāgarī form. In fact, there needs to be a three way association, namely between both the written forms and the sound, so that any one of these associates with the other two.

The ideal way of becoming familiar with these sounds and letters is to spend 15–20 minutes each day on the written exercise, and one minute at a time 15–20 times throughout the day with the flash cards.

Pens with nibs pre-ground to the correct angle are not generally available, so start with an inexpensive calligraphy fountain pen (Sheaffer, Platignum, etc.) and file the end of the nib to 22º as shown. File across the nib (in the sketch, into the paper) and finally remove the sharp edges by “writing” on 1000-grit water paper on a firm flat surface.

You will find that a broad nib (≈2.5mm) is best for practicing the forms of the letters, and a much narrower nib (≈0.6mm) for normal writing. As a very rough guide the nib width should be ⅛ of the overall height of the character, and the thickness of the nib about ⅙ of the width.

Here are the first six devanāgarī characters to practice. They are the short (hrasva) and long (dīrgha) measures of the three primary vowels.

The transliteration of the first row is a ā, the second i ī, and the third u ū.



Lesson 1B


Note: Until you are familiar with the pronunciation of the consonants (given in the next lesson), do not attempt to pronounce the Sanskrit words included in the text: this will save the unnecessary labor of unlearning the incorrect pronunciation.


1.B.1 The Concept of Dhātu

A dhātu is a rudimentary verbal element from which words are derived: it is the nucleus to which other word fragments are added to form a whole word.

Consider the English verb “to stand”. Prefixes may be added to this to form further verbs, such as “misunderstand”, or suffixes may be added to form nouns and adjectives, such as “standard”; indeed, a host of words may be derived from “stand”, such as constant, constitution, stagnant, instant, static, estate, extant, ecstatic, etc.

But a dhātu or root is even more fundamental than a verb. The dhātu itself is not found in general speech or writing, and may be likened to the universal idea of a verbal activity, which diverges into many specific meaning, each of which is an aspect of that common universal idea.

To appreciate how “stand” changes to “state” for example, it would be necessary to study its etymological derivation from the Latin, and ultimately from its Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root STĀ, meaning “to stand, stand fast”. From this PIE root STĀ are derived other simple English verbs, such as stay, stow, stack, stem, stammer.

The situation is a lot simpler in Sanskrit, for these fundamental roots are included in the language itself, and its grammar fully describes the development of words from the dhātu to its fully inflected form as found in sentences.

The PIE root STĀ is allied to the Sanskrit dhātu sthā, which has the sense of “cessation or absence of movement”, and thus the simple verb derived from the dhātu sthā may be translated as “to stand”. Monier-Williams’s dictionary gives several dozen English words that may be used in translating the verb: to stand, stay, remain, continue, be intent upon, make a practice of, keep on, persevere, endure, last, adhere to, stand still, stay quiet, remain stationary, stop, halt, wait, tarry, linger, hesitate, rely on, confide in, desist, be left alone, etc. — all these express some sense of “cessation or absence of movement”, which is the sense of the meaning of the dhātu sthā given in the Dhātu-Pāṭha (lit. “recitation of roots”), which is a list of roots (about 2000 of them) giving grammatical information about their inflection, together with a concise sense of their universal meaning.


1.B.2 Introduction to Verbs

A dhātu (indicated with a surd or root symbol “√” before it) develops to form a stem (aṅga), and to the stem is added a personal ending (tiṅ-vibhakti) to form a complete verb (kriyā). For example:

dhātu (root) sthā sense of “cessation or absence of movement”
aṅga (stem) tiṣṭha to stand
kriyā (verb) tiṣṭhati he / she / it stands

As in English, there are three persons (puruṣa): the first person (prathama-puruṣa), middle person (madhyama-puruṣa), last person (uttama-purusa). The word uttama derives from ud- (up) and -tama (superlative suffix) to mean best, uppermost, or highest, so that uttama-puruṣa can also mean Supreme Spirit; however, in a series of place or time or order, as we have here, it means “last”. In Sanskrit the personal ending of the verb changes according to puruṣa, to give the singular (eka-vacana) forms:

prathama-puruṣa tiṣṭhati he / she / it stands
madhyama-puruṣa tiṣṭhasi you stand
uttama-puruṣa tiṣṭhāmi I stand

Note that the order is the reverse of that used in English.

In forming the stem (aṅga), the dhātu does not necessarily undergo as great a change as with √ sthā, for example √ vad remains clearly recognizable in the form vadati “he / she / it speaks”.

Some words, such as adverbs and conjunctions, do not have endings; these are called indeclinables (avyaya). An example of this is ca (“and”) which is placed after the last word of the series it links (or after each word in the series).

With this limited vocabulary, simple sentences may be constructed:

vadāmi I speak OR I am speaking
tiṣṭhati vadāmi ca He stands and I speak.
tiṣṭhasi vadasi ca You stand and you speak, OR You stand and speak

1.B.3 Exercises

A wealth of information is presented in these notes, but is not at all necessary to learn all this or the Sanskrit technical terms: indeed, it is preferable NOT to learn them. The practical way to become familiar with the basics of Sanskrit is through practice: all the theory that is provided is simply so that the practice may be intelligent, and lead to understanding.

With this aim in mind, at the end of each lesson a few simple exercises are presented.

  1. Practice sounding the sixteen mātṛkā in their correct order, and writing them in Roman script.
  2. Practice writing and recognizing the first six vowels in devanāgarī.
  3. Look up the verb “stand” in a good English dictionary and observe its wide range of meanings.
  4. Translate the following sentences into English:
    1. tiṣṭhasi vadāmi ca
    2. tiṣṭhati vadasi ca
    3. vadāmi tiṣṭhasi ca
    4. tiṣṭhāmi vadati ca
    5. vadasi tiṣṭhāmi ca
    6. tiṣṭhāmi vadāmi ca
  5. Translate the following sentences into Sanskrit:
    1. “He stands and I speak”
    2. “You stand and he speaks”
    3. “You speak and I stand”
    4. “You speak and he stands”
    5. “I stand and he speaks”
    6. “I speak and you stand”

The answers to #4 and #5 can be found in Appendix 2.


1.B.4 Flash Cards

The next sheet has the flash cards for the first six vowels. Cut these out and start using them. Flash cards for the rest of the alphabet will be provided at appropriate places in the course. It would be useful to keep the flash cards in a box (for example a cigarette box): there will be a total of forty-nine cards for the alphabet, and a further ten for the numerals.

Download Printable Flash Cards (PDF)

  1. The English approximations are only a very rough guide, especially considering the wide variety of accents around the world. Rather follow the instructions given earlier, or oral guidance given in person.