pronunciation of Sanskrit

zydenbos at zydenbos at
Wed Apr 9 15:22:00 UTC 1997

 > Subject: pronunciation of Sanskrit

What disturbs me a bit in this discussion is that some people are writing about
Sanskrit as a "dead" or "read-only" language. Why are there daily news
broadcasts in Sanskrit on national Indian radio? Are they intended not to be
understood? How is it that I hear panditas from different parts of India
converse with each other in Sanskrit? And I have done the same, speaking with
scholars from Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, because I speak no Telugu and
Gujarati. I see and hear scholars from far-off parts of India come to Mysore to
work in the Oriental Research Institute, and they discuss their matters with
the Mysorean employees of the institute in Sanskrit.

Some Westerners may decide to ignore these facts, or for some reason decide
that they do not need / want the possibility of communication through Sanskrit.
But the fact remains that Sanskrit, also spoken Sanskrit, is not conveniently
categorizable as either "living" or "dead". It is as undead as Latin was in
Europe till recent times (and medieval Latin in, e.g., Scandinavia was not
identical to that in, e.g., Iberia, also not in spelling, but nevertheless it
remained in profitable use).

F. Smith made a good point about the pedagogical usefulness of teaching
pronunciation. As for which pronunciation: this is a quite minor issue.
Phonemics matter, not phonetics. In my own teaching, I stress that one should
distinguish between (a) dental and retroflex consonants, (b) prosodically long
and short syllables, (c) aspirated and unaspirated consonants; if one gets
those right, more than half the work is done. Pragmatically, it seems best to
imitate the Indian Sanskrit speakers with whom one deals most. And my
Karnatakan Sanskrit is understood by Andhras and Nepalis, and I understand
Andhra and Nepali Sanskrit.

In the worst case, in a conversation, you simply ask your interlocutor to
repeat what he said when his pronunciation is difficult for you. The kind of
people who speak Sanskrit tend to be of good will! (But it is better to use
_real_ Sanskrit, not the 'simplified' Hindutva-Sanskrit of the ten-day crash
courses from Bangalore, which is nowadays also offered in North America.)

- Robert Zydenbos

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