Classical Sanskrit distinguishes about 36 phonemes. There is, however, some allophony and the writing systems used for Sanskrit generally indicate this, thus distinguishing 48 sounds.
The sounds are traditionally listed in the order vowels (Ach), diphthongs (Hal), anusvara and visarga, plosives (Sparśa) and nasals (starting in the back of the mouth and moving forward), and finally the liquids and fricatives, written in IAST as follows (see the tables below for details):
- a ā i ī u ū ṛ ṝ ḷ ḹ ; e ai o au
- ṃ ḥ
- k kh g gh ṅ; c ch j jh ñ; ṭ ṭh ḍ ḍh ṇ; t th d dh n; p ph b bh m
- y r l v; ś ṣ s h
An alternate traditional ordering is that of the Shiva Sutra of Pāṇini.
- See also: R-colored vowel#Vocalic R in Sanskrit
The vowels of Classical Sanskrit with their word-initial Devanagari symbol, diacritical mark with the consonant
प् (/p/), pronunciation (of the vowel alone and of /p/+vowel) in IPA, equivalent in IAST and ITRANS and (approximate) equivalents in English are listed below:
The long vowels are pronounced twice as long as their short counterparts. Also, there exists a third, extra-long length for most vowels, called pluti, which is used in various cases, but particularly in the vocative. The pluti is not accepted by all grammarians.
The vowels /e/ and /o/ continue as allophonic variants of Proto-Indo-Iranian
/ai/, /au/ and are categorized as diphthongs by Sanskrit grammarians even though they are realized phonetically as simple long vowels. (See above).
- There are some additional signs traditionally listed in tables of the Devanagari script:
- The diacritic ं called anusvāra, (IAST: ṃ). It is used both to indicate the nasalization of the vowel in the syllable ([◌̃] and to represent the sound of a syllabic /n/ or /m/; e.g. पं
- The diacritic ः called visarga, represents /əh/ (IAST: ḥ); e.g. पः
- The diacritic ँ called chandrabindu, not traditionally included in Devanagari charts for Sanskrit, is used interchangeably with the anusvāra to indicate nasalization of the vowel, primarily in Vedic notation; e.g. पँ
- If a lone consonant needs to be written without any following vowel, it is given a halanta/virāma diacritic below (प्).
- The vowel /aː/ in Sanskrit is realized as being more central and less back than the closest English approximation, which is /ɑː/. But the grammarians have classified it as a back vowel..
- The ancient Sanskrit grammarians classified the vowel system as velars, retroflexes, palatals and plosives rather than as back, central and front vowels. Hence ए and ओ are classified respectively as palato-velar (a+i) and labio-velar (a+u) vowels respectively. But the grammarians have classified them as diphthongs and in prosody, each is given two mātrās. This does not necessarily mean that they are proper diphthongs, but neither excludes the possibility that they could have been proper diphthongs at a very ancient stage (see above). These vowels are pronounced as long /eː/ and /oː/ respectively by learned Sanskrit Brahmans and priests of today. Other than the "four" diphthongs, Sanskrit usually disallows any other diphthong—vowels in succession, where they occur, are converted to semivowels according to sandhi rules.
- In the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit, whenever a consonant in a word-ending position is without any virāma (freely standing in the orthography: प as opposed to प्), the neutral vowel schwa (/ə/) is automatically associated with it—this is of course true for the consonant to be in any position in the word. Word-ending schwa is always short. But the IAST a appended to the end of masculine noun words rather confuses the foreigners to pronounce it as /ɑː/—this makes the masculine Sanskrit words sound like feminine! e.g., shiva must be pronounced as /ɕivə/ and not as /ɕivɑː/. argues that in Vedic Sanskrit, अ indicated short /ɑ/, and became centralized and raised in the era of the Prakrits.
IAST and Devanagari notations are given, with approximate IPA values in square brackets.
The table below shows the traditional listing of the Sanskrit consonants with the (nearest) equivalents in English (as pronounced in General American and Received Pronunciation) and Spanish. Each consonant shown below is deemed to be followed by the neutral vowel schwa (/ə/), and is named in the table as such.
Plosives – Sprshta
/kə/; English: skip
/kʰə/; English: cat
/gə/; English: game
/gʱə/; somewhat similar to English: doghouse
/ŋə/; English: ring
/cə/; English: exchange
/cʰə/; English: church
/ɟə/; ≈English: jam
/ɟʱə/; somewhat similar to English: hedgehog
/ɲə/; English: bench
/ʈə/; No English equivalent
/ʈʰə/; No English equivalent
/ɖə/; No English equivalent
/ɖʱə/; No English equivalent
/ɳə/; No English equivalent
/t̪ə/; Spanish: tomate
/t̪ʰə/; Aspirated /t̪/
/d̪ə/; Spanish: donde
/d̪ʱə/; Aspirated /d̪/
/n̪ə/; English: name
/pə/; English: spin
/pʰə/; English: pit
/bə/; English: bone
/bʱə/; somewhat similar to English: clubhouse
/mə/; English: mine