pronunciation of Sanskrit

bpj at bpj at
Thu Apr 10 15:21:34 UTC 1997

At 00:54 10.4.1997 +0100, Robert Zydenbos wrote:
> > 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.

Admirable. Are there any dictionaries of Sanskrit terms for modern concepts?

I feel that my point has been grossly misunderstood. To begin with I was
speaking specifically of western students whose only requirement is to
master reading classical Sanskrit texts -- the incentive and opportunity to
actually learn to _produce_ Sanskrit mostly lacking --, secondly I did not
advocate a general laxity with regard to pronunciation, rather the aim of
_as_close_to_the_native_language_as_possible_, in place of a "historically
correct" laboratory-product; a teacher's own clear pronunciation, optimized
to the contrastive needs of the particular linguistic background of the
students, which may or may not agree in particulars with any one Indic or
"historical pronunciation.. If western Sanskrit teachers take the trouble
to look up an Indic model, among the several available, that suits best the
linguistic habits of their students' mother-tung, so much the better, but
they should then make the effort to master it _themselves_, rather than
relying on a tape of an Indian recitation. (I would for example imagine
that a South Indian pronunciation be more accessible for Finnish students,
a Marathi or Hindi one for Swedes. Does anyone have any idea of the
contrastive properties of different Indic languages as compared to
different western ones?)

I fully agree that the three main points are (1)vowel quantity/heaviness,
(2)retroflexion, (3)aspiration. As for retroflexion it can generally be
learnt, especially if an apico-cacuminal articulation is permissible, as it
is in Sanskrit. With the vowels I believe we will have to live with an
individual and substrate conditioned variation, so that some will realize
the distinction as stress or quality (or both) rather than quantity. After
all the main thing is that the distinction is not lost. With aspiration the
problem is to make people aware of it and able to control it consciously. I
have tried to teach Finns learning Swedish to apply it, and even a Swede
learning Finnish not to apply it, which was equally hard. Some grasp the
distinction easily -- maybe with the help of a candle or holding the back
of the hand in front of the mouth -- with others it just never clicks: they
rise the pitch of their voice instead.

I must admit that I have no first hand experience of teaching _Sanskrit_,
but my experience as pronunciation tutor for people learning Swedish as a
foreign language has shown me that an optimally clear and understandable
pronunciation that still varies from any native pronunciation is often
preferable to the results of a miscarriaged attempt to effect a native

>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).

Agreed. In fact I correspond in Latin with a person in Hungary, because it
is the only language in which we are about equally proficient, and it is
great fun too. :-)

>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.)

Pleasant to hear; I for one would love to be able to write and converse in
Sanskrit :-) it is hard to do from books, or from teachers who don't
themselves have that proficiency, though. About the 'simplified' Sanskrit:
if it is something like BASIC English, which your wording implies; either
you learn the real thing, or it is another thing that should be called by
another name.

Syaat tubhyam sarvam mangalam!!

Ashvamitro Vagiishvaradaanah (aka Philip Jonsson/Ngawang Dzyiyn-pa)

*  B.Philip Jonsson <bpj at>               *
*  Editor, Translator (English <-> Swedish),    *
*  Scholarly font-designer, Web-book designer   *

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