The Pali Alphabet
Pali Language and Its Script
The Buddha proclaimed the Dhamma and gave all his teachings in Pali Language, more than 25 centuries ago (6th century B.C.). The monks used to memorise these teachings and pass them on to the next generation of monks verbally, through recitation and memorisation. As the words of the Buddha were not committed to writing, this vast Pali literature does not have a script of its own. The Tipitaka was written down for the first time at the time of 4th Dhamma Saṅgīti (Buddhist council) which was convened in Sri Lanka. During this Saṅgīti the entire Tipitaka along with commentaries was written down in Sinhalese script. Later on the Pali Tipitaka came to be written in various scripts such as Devanagari, Burmese (Myanmar), Thai, Khmer, Lao, Roman etc.
The Pali Alphabet consists of 41 characters. Each character indicates a particular sound. The following diacritical marks are added to roman characters to indicate these sounds.
|Position of the Diacritical Mark
|Above the letter ( ˉ )
|ā ī ū
|Above the letter ( ˜ )
|Above the letter ( ˙ )
|Below the letter ( . )
|ṃ ḍ ṇ ṭ
The 41 characters in Pali Alphabet are divided into 8 vowels and 33 consonants. Before we begin to read and write these characters, let us note an important difference between Pali and English Alphabet. A character in English Alphabet does not have a specific sound assigned to it and it can be pronounced in different ways in different words. For example, consider the sound of English character ‘A’ in the following words.
Apple, After, Again, Age.
This is not the case with Pali characters where each character represents a specific sound and it does not vary as per the words in which it appears.
This feature makes it pretty easy for us to read Pali with correct pronunciation. All we need to do is to understand the produce the sound of each of the 41 Pali characters properly.
For detailed notes on Pali Alphabet and Pronunciation, please refer to Section three : Pali Alphabet of the Introduction to Pali course: https://learning.pariyatti.org/mod/page/view.php?id=1874
Let us now practise pronunciation of the Pali Alphabet, starting with 8 vowels.
|Gutturals / Velars
|Retroflex / Cerebrals
ṃ is called a niggahīta which is a nasal.
Please note that, unlike all other consonants, ṅ and ṃ are not followed by ‘a’ in the above chart and their sound is shorter compared to other nasals like ña, ṇa, na and ma. The absence of ‘a’ at the end of these characters also indicates that these consonants are never followed by a vowel. ‘ṅ’ is always followed by a consonant (from ‘ka-vagga’) and ‘ṃ’ can be followed by a consonant or a word can end in an ‘ṃ’.