Sanskrit pronunciation – Meditation. Precision. Lucidity.

The conscious articulation of Sanskrit words and texts can turn into a meditation on articulation and sound. As you increasingly master the correct pronunciation, mantras and slokas will reveal their lucid beauty. Especially as a yoga teacher, you will also gain greater precision with technical terms.

Sanskrit and Devanagari

Classes of speech sounds

The Sanskrit alphabet sorts speech sounds according to their type; all in all, there are 9 vowels, 20 plosives, 5 nasals, 4 semivowels and 4 fricatives.



On the articulation of a vowel, air streams out almost unimpededly. In Sanskrit, vowels oscillate, either as long or short vowels, from guttural (a,ā), palatal (i,ī), retroflex (r̥,r̥̄) and dental (l̥,l̥̄) to labial (u,ū). The umlauts (vowel mutations) (o,au,e,ai) are always long.



On the articulation of a plosive, built up pressure is released by a sudden release of air. In Sanskrit, plosives are ideally pronounced sonant and aspirated from guttural (k,kh,g,gh), palatal (c,ch,j,jh), retroflex (ṭ,ṭh,ḍ,ḍh), and dental (t,th,d,dh) to labial (p,ph,b,bh).



On the articulation of nasal sounds, the closure at the place of articulation is not released. Most of the air streams out through the nose. The closed back part of the oral cavity thus becomes a variable resonance chamber for ṅ,ñ,ṇ,n and m.



Phonetically, a semivowel lies between a vowel and a plosive. In contrast to a vowel, a semivowel does not represent a syllable on its own when articulated. Neither is the vocal tract blocked for the pressure characteristic of a plosive. The tongue moves in the direction of the place of articulation to produce an approximant. In contrast to a fricative, though, the approximation does not go so far as to produce the friction necessary for a fricative. In Sanskrit, there are semivowels for four of the five places of articulation (y, r, l, v).


Fricatives and Aspirates

On the articulation of a fricative, a confined space is created. The air streaming out is swirled and creates a fricative. Compared to semivowels, which also count as approximants, the tongue moves closer to the confined space, though without the contact necessary for a plosive. In Sanskrit, there is a semivowel for four of the five places of articulation (h, ś, ṣ, s).

Places of articulation

Within each class of speech sound (vowel, semivowel, fricative, plosive, nasal), Sanskrit classifies sounds according to their place of articulation. Here, we differentiate between five different locations, from back to front: guttural, at the palate (palatal), behind the teeth (retroflex), at the teeth (dental) and at the lips (labial).

Visarga (ḥ) and Anusvāra (ṁ)

Visarga (ḥ) and Anusvāra (ṁ) are a special feature of the Sanskrit language. These two sounds are pronounced differently, depending on the sound that follows. Visarga (ḥ) is pronounced as a fricative with the same place of articulation as the following sound, Anusvāra (ṁ) as a nasal with the same place of articulation as the following sound.


Visarga (ḥ)

Translated literally, Visarga means "to send out" or "to release". It creates a lingering sound after the vowel. It can be understood as an allophone of r, s or h and is, depending on context and school of pronunciation, pronounced variably between these sounds.


Anusvāra (ṁ)

Translated literally, Anusvāra means "lingering sound" or "following (anu) the vowel (svāra)". It either indicates that the preceding vowel is pronounced nasally or is pronounced itself as a nasal consonant.

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