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Voice and Aspiration

Points of Pronunciation

The five points of pronunciation. This is an "inside" view of the mouth. The person in this image is looking left.

To reveiw, there are five points of pronunciation in Sanskrit:

For each point of pronunciation, we have four stops and one nasal. But for each of the points of pronunciation above, we only learned one stop consonant. How could these other three stop consonants be produced?

To start, we could consider whether the consonant is voiced or unvoiced. The letter "b" is voiced, but the letter "p" is not. The distinction between voiced and unvoiced consonants is a real and present part of English, and Sanskrit makes the same distinction. Thus tam and dam are separate words, just like "pail" and "bail" in English.

But Sanskrit does make a distinction that English does not. In Sanskrit, it matters whether a consonant is aspirated or unaspirated. Aspirated consonants are breathy and followed by an extra puff of air. (Compare the "g" in "log" to the "g" in "log house.") Native and near-native speakers of English can hear this distinction by comparing the "p" in "spit" — which is identical to the unaspirated Sanskrit sound pa — to the "p" in "pit" — which is identical to the aspirated Sanskrit sound pha. If an English speaker exchanges these two sounds, he can still be understood; but the same is not always true in Sanskrit.

For each of the 5 points of pronunciation, we have 4 stops and 1 nasal. This gives us a total of 25 stops and nasals.

Soft palate consonants

LetterApproximationExample
ka"k" in "skill"

kha"k" in "kill"

ga"g" in "great"

ghaaspirated "g"

ṅa"ng" in "lung"

Notice the order of terms here. The first two are unvoiced, and the rest are voiced; the second and fourth are aspirated, and the rest are unaspirated; and the last consonant is a nasal. If you are having trouble understanding the pattern, the table below might clear things up:

LetterVoiced?Aspirated?Nasal?
kaNo!No!No!
khaNo!Yes!No!
gaYes!No!No!
ghaYes!Yes!No!
ṅaYes!No!Yes!

Hard palate consonants

LetterApproximationExample
ca---

chaaspirated ca

ja---

jhaaspirated ja

ña---

Retroflex Consonants

LetterApproximationExample
ṭa---

ṭhaaspirated ṭa

ḍa---

ḍhaaspirated ḍa

ṇa---

Tooth Consonants

LetterApproximationExample
ta"th" in "thumb"

thaaspirated ta

da"th" in "the"

dhaaspirated da

na"n" in "now"

Lip Consonants

LetterApproximationExample
pa"p" in "spill"

pha"p" in "pill"

ba"b" in "bill"

bhaaspirated "b"

ma"m" in "mail"

The Alphabet

The stops and nasals appear in the order listed above.

Review

In this lesson, we've learned the following terms:

Term
Definition
voiced
using the voice. g is voiced, but k is not.
unvoiced
not voiced. k is unvoiced, but g is not.
aspirated
using an extra puff of air. This part of pronunciation may seem odd, but it occurs in English all the time. The "p" in "pit" is aspirated, but the "p" in "spit" is not.
unaspirated
not aspirated. The "p" in "spit" is unaspirated, but the "p" in "pit" is not.

In addition, we finished our study of the stops and nasals. We can organize these consonants as follows:

FirstSecondThirdFourthFifth
kakhagaghaṅa
cachajajhaña
ṭaṭhaḍaḍhaṇa
tathadadhana
paphababhama

This scheme is over 2800 years old.

In the next lesson, we will study eight more consonants. These consonants are produced by suppressing the flow of air.