A Guide to the Pronunciation of Pāḷi
by
Ānandajoti Bhikkhu

 

Pāḷi is the beautiful language of the early Buddhist scriptures. It is based on an Indian dialect that was spoken in the area where the Buddha did most of his teaching, and therefore must be very close to the language that the Buddha used during his 45 years of teaching. Without any doubt the Theravāda scriptures, which are preserved in the Pāḷi language contain the most faithful record of what the Buddha actually taught, so for those who are earnestly striving to put the Buddha's teaching into practice it is a great advantage to be able to read and understand the language of the text.

Pāḷi is notable for both its fluency and its rhythm, and there is no easier or quicker way to become acquainted with the language than through reciting the texts aloud, which will soon familiarize the student with key words and phrases which recur in the text, and at the same time will give a feel for the structure of the language. Below is an introduction to the pronunciation of Pāḷi, together with some notes to help clarify some of the difficulties that are encountered by those unfamiliar with Indian languages.

Ānandajoti Bhikhhu
July 2008

PDF

 

The Alphabet:

Vowels:

a

ā

i

ī

u

ū

e

o

Pure nasal:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consonants:

ka

kha

ga

gha

ṅa

 

 

 

 

ca

cha

ja

jha

ña

 

 

 

 

ṭa

ṭha

ḍa

ḍha

ṇa

 

 

 

 

ta

tha

da

dha

na

 

 

 

 

pa

pha

ba

bha

ma

 

 

 

Semi vowels, sibilant, and aspirate:

ya

ra

la

ḷa

va

sa

 ha

 

 

This is the basic pattern of all the Indian alphabets, and as can be seen, they are arranged on a very rational basis. First come the vowels (discussed below), followed by the pure nasal. Next come the definite consonants with their corresponding nasal sounds. These are organised according to their place of articulation, beginning with the gutturals pronounced at the back of the mouth, and ending with those articulated on the lips. Then come the indefinite consonants. There are five main difficulties for those unfamiliar with the Indian languages, which will be dealt with here.

Unlike English, for instance, the vowel system in Pāḷi is very precise, and the vowels are either short or long, with the latter being exactly twice as long as the former. It is important to distinguish the lengths of the vowels correctly, as a, for example, is a negative prefix; but ā is an intensifier (ananda means unhappy; ānanda means very happy). As a guide for the English reader:

 

a

as in another

ā

as in art

i

as in ink

ī

as in eel

u

as in under

ū

as in prudent

e

as in age (but before a conjunct consonant as in end)

o

as in own (but before a conjunct consonant as in orange)

 

Only one letter is used to represent the sounds e & o, which are normally pronounced long as ē, & ō. Before a conjunct they are normally pronounced short as ĕ, & ŏ, although it appears to be the case that when these vowels appear in sandhi before a double consonant, they retain their natural length, and should be pronounced as such, so that in jarādhammo 'mhi, we should read jarādhammō 'mhi.

The second and fourth letters in the consonant section of the alphabet (kha gha cha jha etc.), are digraphs representing the aspirate sound of the preceding consonant (ka ga ca ja etc.). They are pronounced as the latter, but with a strong breath pulse. Again, these must be distinguished (kamati, for example, is not khamati). Note that simple ca is pronounced as in change, cha is the same with a stronger breath pulse.

In Pāḷi ṭa ṭha ḍa & ḍha are pronounced with the tongue behind the dental ridge, giving a characteristic hollow sound. The sounds ta tha da & dha are pronounced with the tip of the tongue on the teeth. In English ta & da etc. are about halfway between the two, so move the tongue back for the first group, and forward for the second. Note that tha is never pronounced as in they or their, but is the aspirate of ta.

The nasal sounds are all distinguished according to their place of articulation. This in practice causes few problems when the nasal is in conjunction with one of its corresponding consonants. But some of them (ña ṇa na & ma) occur by themselves also, so again they must be recognised and pronounced according to their correct position. The sound of each can be found by pronouncing them before a member of their group, e.g. first as in ink. The pronunciation of ña is as in canyon, or the Spanish word señor. The letter represents the pure nasal which is sounded when the air escapes through the nose only.

Double consonants must be clearly articulated as two sounds, not merged into one, as is the tendency in European languages. When there is a double consonant it may help to imagine a hyphen between the two letters and pronounce accordingly. Therefore sut-taṁ, not sutaṁ (or sūtaṁ); bhik-khu, not bhikhu (or bhīkhu) etc.

To get a feel for the pronunciation and rhythm of the language it is strongly advised that beginners join in group chanting with people who are experienced in the language until they are able to manage the correct pronunciation by themselves. This will also help in familiarising students with certain basic texts.

Below is a guide to the correct pronunciation of the language, summarising the points discussed above, together with some further information regarding articulation.

 

a

is short as in another, academic

ā

is long as in art, father

i

is short as in ink, pin

ī

is long as in eel, seal

u

is short as in utter, under

ū

is long as in prudent, do

e

is long in open syllables as in age, but before a conjunct consonant it is short as in end

o

is long in open syllables as in own, but before a conjunct consonant it is short as in orange

 

 

is the pure nasal sounded through the nose

 

 

k

as in cat, keen

kh

somewhat as in blackheath

g

as in gadfly, gate

gh

somewhat as in log house

as in bank

 

 

 

 

 

 

c

as in change, church

ch

somewhat as in witch hazel

j

as in jet, jaw

jh

somewhat as in sledge hammer

ñ

as in canyon, señor

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following sounds as noted but with the tongue drawn back, thereby producing a hollow sound:

 

as in tap, tick

ṭh

somewhat as in ant hill (never as in they)

as in did, dug

ḍh

somewhat as in red hot

as in know

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following sounds as noted but with the tongue touching the tip of the teeth:

 

t

as in tub, ten

th

somewhat as in cat house

d

as in den, dig

dh

somewhat as in mad house

n

as in nip, nose

 

 

 

 

 

 

p

as in pat, pinch

ph

somewhat as in top hat (never as in photo)

b

as in back, big

bh

somewhat as in abhorrence

m

as in men, mice

 

 

 

 

 

 

y

as in yes, year

r

as in red, but with a stronger trill

l

as in lead, lend

as before, but with the tongue drawn back

v

at the beginning of a word, as in van, vane, elsewhere it more closely resembles wan, wane

s

as in say, send

h

as in hat, height