Sanskrit : Generic Consonants


The consonants in Sanskrit are known as "vyanjanani" and total thirty-three in number, though in recent times, a few additional ones have been included to support some frequently used syllables.

The consonants are grouped into six groups. The first five have five consonants each and the last one has eight. The grouping is based on the natural ordering of sounds such as gutterals, palatals, etc.

An interesting observation is that the letters of Sanskrit are given names exactly matching the sound they represent. A consonant derives its name from the sound when the basic vowel "a" is sounded with the consonant. In Sanskrit and in other Indian languages, each consonant has a generic form in which its pronounciation will not have any vowel sound associated with it. The generic form is required when more than one consonant is used in forming syllables and there are many such combinations in Sanskrit. It was common practice to introduce the consonants to the children learning the language, not in their generic form but in the form where they are used with the first vowel "a". The writing system in Devanagari has a representation for the generic form of a consonant through the use of a special mark written at the bottom of the consonant's familiar representation. This mark is known as the "nether stroke" or the "halanth".

Let us look at the first consonant.

क  (ka)

The generic form of क is क्. The nether stroke ् is attached below the letter क.
Now, the familiar form of a consonant in Sanskrit is the form when it is sounded with the first vowel, ie: आ. Thus
क् + आ = क

Producing a consonant in its generic form requires that no vowel sound be added to the generic consonant sound.  The generic sound is quite similar to the sound associated with a basic phoneme corresponding to a consonant in English.  For the consonant क the associated generic sound will be like the ending syllable of words "lake", "bake", etc.

A pure consonant is linguistically defined to be one without any vowel attached to it.  Consonants can be meaningful in practice only when uttered along with a vowel.  Ancient linguistic scholars referred to vowels as "life giving" aksharas while the consonants were likened to the body.

It is common practice to introduce the consonants to the student, in the form where the first vowel आ forms the syllable with the generic sound of the consonant.  Thus the student learns that क is pronounced like the first sound of "cup".  In India, children are often taught the aksharas in this manner.

Continue to gutterals.

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