Akṣarāṇi - LETTERS/ ALPHABET

The script used for writing the Saṃskṛta language is called Devanāgarī . A script is a symbol to denote the letters in a language. In Saṃskṛta, the group of all letters or the Alphabet is called Akṣaramālā or "Garland of letters".

The letters are mainly of two kinds - the Vowels and the Consonants. One does not require the help of other sounds to articulate a vowel sound. Hence, the Saṃskṛta vowels are rightly called the "Svaras" - svayaṃ rājante iti svarāḥ - the sounds that shine forth on their own, i.e., independently. Though fifteen letters are enumerated under Svaras, the last two, called Anusvāra and Visarga having the sound almost of m and h respectively, are part vowel and part consonant, since in usage, they are consonant sounds which are invariably preceded by a vowel sound. The nasal sound called the anunāsika,following a vowel,is also to be found in Sanskrit. The vowels other than these are technically called Ac. Of these, the letter lṛ is very rarely used nowadays.

The vowels are classified into three types - hrasva, dīrgha and pluta - short, long and prolated - on the basis of the time taken for their respective articulation. The time for the articulation of a short vowel is one mātrā, that for a long vowel is two mātrās and the same for prolated, three mātrās. The prolated vowel is generally used while calling out to someone far off, Eg. āgaccha Kṛṣṇā3, atra gauścarati - "come hither, O Kṛṣṇā3, the cow grazes yonder". The last vowel in the name "Kṛṣṇa" is here, prolated. Should the name end in a consonant or a group of consonants, the vowel immediately preceding it will be prolated as in āgaccha Richā3rd !

The consonants, called Vyañjanas, can be uttered only with the help of vowel sounds. Hence, in the Akṣaramālā, they are shown in combination with the first vowel,a. The consonants are divided into seven groups, five of which are on the basis of their points of articulation and are known by the first letter of their respective groups. Thus, we have the kavarga or the ka- group beginning with the consonant k. This group consists of the Gutterals. Likewise, the cavarga or ca - group comprises the palatals, the ṭavarga - cerebrals, tavarga - Dentals and the pavarga - Labials. Then there are also the semi-vowels - antaḥsthāḥ or madhyamāḥ and sibilants - ūṣmāṇaḥ.

The consonants are technically called "hal" and in writing a pure consonant, a symbol

() known as the halcihna is used underneath. In the absence of this symbol, the consonant is to be understood as being in conjunction with the vowel "a". There are likewise, specific symbols for specific vowel sounds following a consonant, which are tabulated below -

Vowel                                     Transliteration                   Pronunciation

अ                                                       a                                  as 'u' in 'us'

आ                                                      ā                                  as 'a' in 'far'       

इ                                                        i                                   as 'i' in 'in'

ई                                                        ī                                   as 'ee' in 'feet'

उ                                                        u                                  as 'u' in 'put'

ऊ                                                      ū                             as 'oo' in 'mood'

ऋ                                                      ṛ                              a sound between 'r'   and 'ri'

ॠ                                                   ṝ                              elongated form of the above sound

लृ                                                       lṛ                             this has regional  variations but is a very   rare sound and socan be ignored or the present          

ए                                                       e                                  as 'a' in 'take'

ऐ                                                        ai                                 as 'y' in 'my'

ओ                                                       o                                  as 'o' in 'mode'

औ                                                       au                                as 'ou' in 'out'

अं                                                        aṃ                               as 'an' in 'angst'

अः                                                       aḥ                                as 'uh'

These symbols when joined after pure consonants, yield various characters with their respective sounds. Eg., the consonant k, when combined with the above vowels will form the following letters -

Combination                         Result                                                 Pronunciation

क्+अ    k+a                             क         ka                                as 'cu' in 'cut'

क्+आ   k+ā                             का     kā                                   as 'ca' in 'card'

क्+इ   k+i                                कि        ki                                 as 'ki' in 'kit'

क्+ई   k+ī                                की        kī                                 as 'kee' in 'keep'

क्+उ   k+u                              कु         ku                                as 'ku' in 'Orkut'

क्+ऊ    k+ū                              कू         kū                                as 'coo' in 'coop'

क्+ऋ   k+ṛ                               कृ         kṛ                                as in 'Saṃskṛta'

क्+ॠ   k+ṝ                              कॄ         kṝ                                 long form of kṛ

क्+लृ    k+lṛ                             क्लृ       klṛ                                in Saṃskṛta word 'klṛpta’

क्+ए     k+e                             के         ke                                as 'ka' in 'Kate'

क्+ऐ     k+ai                            कै         kai                               as 'ki' in 'kind'

क्+ओ   k+o                             को        ko                                as 'co' in 'cope'

क्+औ   k+au                          कौ        kau                              as 'cow'

क्+अं    k+a                             कं         kaṃ                             -

क्+अः   k+aḥ                           कः        kaḥ                              -

The vowels e, ai, o, au are diphthongs. Similarly, conjunct consonants are also formed by joining two or more consonants without any vowel in between. Sometimes such conjunction results in variation in the script - Eg. -

k+va = kva क्व

v+ya = vya व्य

k+ya = kya क्य

A conjunction of five consonants can be seen in the word कार्त्स्न्यम् -kārtsnyam

Some conjunct consonants are written in an entirely different form such as -

क्+ष = क्ष kṣa

त्+र = त्र tra

ज्+ञ = ज्ञ jña

क्+त = क्त kta

(It is to be noted that the above examples of conjunct consonants have the vowel 'a' in the end. In the absence of a vowel, they would have the 'hal' symbol ,viz., क्व् - kv, क्ष् -kṣ, ज्ञ् –jñetc.)

Often, the conjunct consonants converge in the written form - Eg. -

तत्त्वम्   tattvam

कुक्कुरः kukkuraḥ

अम्बा   ambā

The consonant 'र् - r' when followed by another consonant is written on top of the latter and changes its form. Eg.- सूर्य             Sūrya

                                               स्वर्ग     svarga

                                        अन्तर्मग्नः   antarmagnaḥ etc.

               Vowels(Ac)                                                                        short           long       diphthongs     anusvāra     visarga

 

                                                                                   &

 

anunāsika

 

a

i

u

lṛ

 

ā

ī

ū

 

e

ai

o

au

 

aṃ

am̐

 

aḥ

 

            

 

            Consonants (Hal)

 

ku              cu               ṭu                    tu                    pu          Semi-vowels     Sibilants

 

ka-group    ca-group    ṭa-group     ta-group     pa-group                                &

 

                                                                                                                                           aspirate

 

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

 

ya

ra

la

va

 

śa

ṣa

sa

ha

 

The visarga, and anusvāra always follow a vowel though their articulation is similar to that of the consonants ‘m’ and ;h; respectively.

 

          Internal and External Efforts in Articulation of Sounds

 

The effort taken to utter a sound is said to be of two kinds - Internal and external.

 

Internal Effort - The points of articulation such as the throat, palate etc till the lips are internal and the effort exerted by them is called the internal effort. any other effort taken for the articulation of sounds is external. The Internal effort is of five kinds - totally in contact, slightly in contact, slightly expanded, expanded, and contracted. The first kind of effort i.e., total contact is of the twentyfive consonants beginning with k and ending in m. Slight contact is for the semi-vowels y, v, r and l . Slightly expanded effort is that of the sibilants and expanded effort is for the vowels. The short a has contracted effort in usage but in Grammar, it is treated as having expanded effort for the sake of easy operation of Grammatical rules. The Internal effort aids in the determination of homogeneity of letters. Letters having common points of articulation as well as common internal effort are said to be homogenous.

 

External Effort - The effort taken for the utterance of a letter before the vital air risen from the naval region enters the tip of the mouth, is called the 'external effort'. External effort is of eleven kinds, the first three, acute, grave and circumflex, belonging only to the accent of vowels. The next six fall into two categories –

 

i) Expansion, sonant and soft

 

   and ii) contraction, aspiration and hard

 

The semi-vowels, the letter h, and the last three letters of each class of consonants fall in the first category while the sibilants and the first two letters of each class of consonants come under the second. Furthermore, the first, third and fifth letters of each class as well as the semi-vowels are unaspirate whereas the second and fourth letters as well as the sibilants and h, are aspirate. The knowledge of external effort of each letter helps in determining its potential substitute during certain grammatical operations. Thus, before the final formation of the word utthānam, at the stage

 

ud + s+ sthānam when the letter 's' needs to be substituted by a homogenous letter, the fact that from among the four homogenous letters t, th, d and dh, it is the letter th which shares the same external effort hard, contracted and aspirated as well as the same point of articulation with the original, makes it the most favoured substitute.

 

Points of Articulation of Letters

 

Place of origin              Vowels       Consonants   Consonants             Identity of letters

 

                                                                                       outside the           according to point

 

                                                                                       five groups              of articulation

 

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Throat                            a, ā               k, kh, g, gh, ṅ h, ḥ             kaṇṭhyaḥ - Gutteral

 

(akuhavisarjanīyānāṃ kaṇṭhaḥ)

 

Root of the palate          i, ī              c, ch, j, jh, ñ            y, ś                  tālāvyaḥ - Palatal

 

(icuyaśānāṃ tāluḥ)

 

Roof of the palate        ṛ, ṝ               ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ            r, ṣ                         mūrdhanyaḥ -

 

(ṛṭuraṣāṇāṃ mūrdhā)                                                                                                      Cerebral

 

Teeth                               lṛ                 t, th, d, dh, n             l, s                  dantyaḥ - Dental

 

(lṛtulasānāṃ dantāḥ)

 

Lips                                         u, ū                 p, ph, b, bh, m                       oṣṭhyaḥ - Labial

 

(upūpadhmānīyānāmoṣṭhau)

 

Root of Tongue                                                                                            jihvāmūlam

 

(jihvāmūlīyasya jihvāmūlam)

 

Throat - Palate                     e, ai                                                                 kaṇṭhatālu -

 

(edaitoḥ kaṇṭhatāluḥ)                                                                                          Palato gutteral

 

Throat & Lips                                    o, au                                                              kaṇṭhoṣṭhya -

 

(odautoḥ kaṇṭhoṣṭhau)                                                                                        Labio gutteral

 

Teeth & lips                                                                                v dantoṣṭhyaḥ -

 

(vakārasya dantoṣṭhau)                                                                                    Dentolabial

 

Nose

 

(ñamaṅaṇanānāṃ nāsikā ca)     ñ, m, ṅ, ṇ, n          ṃ, m̐                             nāsikyaśca   -

 

Nasal also

 

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