Pronunciation of Brahma

bpj at bpj at
Wed May 7 14:55:37 UTC 1997

At 19:12 22.4.1997 +0100, Martin Gansten wrote:
>On another list, I noticed this posting:
>>I would very much appreciate your advice on how the word
>>Brahma is to be pronounced.  Is it pronounced as Bramma
>>(with no h sound), Bramha (with the h coming after the m),
>>or is it pronounced as Brahma (with the m coming after the h)?
>>The way it is written in Sanskrit and in English is with the m
>>coming after the h.  However, in many vedic chanting recordings
>>and in recordings of Sri Vishnu Sahasranamam, I notice that people
>>are pronouncing the word with the h coming after the m, or as
>With the recent discussion among our Sanskrit scholars concerning what
>constitutes "correct" Sanskrit, etc, I thought it might be interesting to
>hear what pronunciation(s) you all feel would be permissible. Here in
>Sweden, I often hear the -h- pronounced more or less like a German Ach-Laut,
>which to my ears at least is an abomination (not in itself! -- only in
>Sanskrit words). But I suspect some would frown at my own pronunciation as
>well‚ as it tends towards the "bramha" variety so often heard among panditas.
>Any comments?

The metathesis hC --> Ch was regular in Prakrit, and lives on in
non-re-Sanskritized pronunciations of the modern Indic languages. It is not
all that uncommon that spelling has been Sanskritized while pronunciation
remains Prakritic. In ancient native Sanskrit the sound transliterated /h/
was of course _voiced_, while the visarga /H/ was a voiceless [h]. I also
used to have problems with these combinations in Sanskrit and tend to
pronounce "brahman" as [br at Qm@n], "du.hka" as [duxka]. It is quite OK from
the point of view of Sanskrit phonology. The ancient "prati$Akya" treatises
make this very clear: they explicitly say that /H/ was pronounced as a
bilabial voiceless fricative [F] before labials and as [x] before velars --
and even have special signs for these allophones! Moreover they explicitly
say that /h/ should be _voiced_, noting that it was a common error to
pronounce it voiceless. From the facts that

(1) both /h/ and /H/ were described as glottal
(2) /H/ was recognized as having a velar allophone
(3) it was important to keep /h/ distinct from /.h/ by being voiced

I deduce that it would have been OK to pronounce /h/ as a voiced velar
fricative. I do agree that the [braxman] mostly heard from Scandinavians
and Germans sounds ugly!

Incidentally I trained myself to pronounce /h/, /H/ and all aspirates etc.
in the prescribed way, only to find that they became inaudible to my
teacher, who reprimanded me! I swiftly switched back to /Q/ and /x/, and he
at least did not comment on these pronunciations. To this day I don't know
if anyone really notices that I make a distinction...


*  B.Philip Jonsson <bpj at>               *
*  Editor, Translator (English <-> Swedish),    *
*  Scholarly font-designer, Web-book designer   *
              _        _    .             _ _
|| Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha ||


More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list