Are ṁ ṃ and ṅ ṇ different letters?

Hello everyone!

pls clarify this moment. afaiu these are the same letters ṁ and ṃ. same for ṅ and ṇ

but somehow in both legacy and current data-masters are used different letters

below is the source, the letter and quantity (how many times each letter is found in according texts)
ṁ 0
ṃ 663389
ṅ 67621
ṇ 160451

ṁ 629549
ṃ 0
ṅ 60814
ṇ 152080

it’s pretty clear that ṃ in legacy suttacentral was replaced by ṁ in current version. but what is the reason to use two variants of ṅ ṇ?

or there is difference between these letters and they mean different things?


Hi dhammagift,

The variants ṁ and ṃ represent the same nasal consonant, but (as I understand it) arose from different transliteration conventions. ṅ and ṇ are different consonants (nasal and retroflex). Since ṅ and ṁ/ṃ are nasal consonants (essentially the same sound as far as I know), it makes much more sense to use ṁ, for consistency, which, as you say, now does.

See this discussion on pronunciation at Pronunciation | A Chanting Guide

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For details, see here, especially the sections on the anusvara.


Greeetings in Dhamma, Mikenz!
I argue that they cannot be the same sound, just by the mere fact that they are two (phonetically distinct) letters of the alphabet (or abugida/syllabic alphabet). The descriptions of the Pāḷi grammarians (e.g. Padarūpasiddhi) further support their distinctness. For example, guttural is said to be produced in the region of the throat (kaṇṭhaja) and in the nose (nāsikaṭṭhānaja), that is, in two places altogether. The niggahīta is just produced in the nose (nāsikaṭṭhānaja). Thus, it can be demonstrated that they cannot be the same sound …

I made some detailed research on the niggahīta (included in the Māgadhabhāsā grammar pages 25–29) and the pronunciation of Pāḷi in general; perhaps good to share here some relevant passages from the section about the niggahīta:



Thank you for the clarification, Bhante! It’s very difficult for many of us to even hear the differences between some of these consonants, let alone figure out how to make the sounds, so some expert guidance is very helpful.


Can you give an example of a phonetic difference between these? Because I’m struggling!


Is this saying that the ṅ sound, as in ‘Aṅguttara’ (or the nasal in Saṃsāra) receives a different pronunciation than the niggahīta?
If so, I too would like to hear the difference.

Bhante, the guttural is like how the Sri Lankans or Thais pronounce it, will full occlusion (closure) of the place of articulation, that is, the throat. However, the niggahīta seems to be approximating (or corresponding) to nasalized vowels as they occur in French, such as in genre. In that way, the niggahīta still depends (nissāya) on the vowel (i.e., taking them up (gayhati) without full occlusion but a partial one), two characteristic features of the niggahīta.

For conventional purposes such as chanting I guess it doesn’t matter, as Mahesh Deokar put it: "convention always supersedes grammar,” but it is perhaps more important regarding legislative speech (kammavācā) for official purposes. This is how I understand it.

The guttural , yes; the as as in saṃsāra is the niggahīta, which is different from the former guttural (see above), just by the mere fact that they are two separate letters in the alphabet.


I hope you aren’t implying that this (in my opinion clearly) obscure pronunciation matter would invalidate an official act of the sangha.


Greetings in Dhamma, Snowbird!
Regarding the validity of ordinations according to the Theravāda tradition, in any case, some confusions of letters would certainly invalidate a saṅghakamma, but I am not sure if one between gutturals and the niggahīta would do so since it is not explicitly spelled out in the commentaries, as far as I can see, but I haven’t looked deeply into the issue. However, a confusion between an oral sound and the niggahīta, among others, would invalidate a saṅghakamma in the Pāḷi tradition since it follows the opinions of the elders of particularly the first council, which form part of the commentaries, where these explanations are found.

But there are also practical considerations one has to consider (difference of opinion among different groups or individuals within that tradition, for example, of what is the correct pronunciation). So, strict insistence doesn’t appear to be a wise choice in a number of instances. In most cases, one doesn’t even know, unless there is a recording of the procedure … If one undoubtedly knows, however, that a saṅghakamma has been performed incorrectly according to the necessary standards of ones tradition/group, it should be redone, which is, in most traditional countries a quick matter and unproblematic.

With mettā!
A. Bhikkhu

Thank you, Bhante

I had understood that the in Aṅguttara was there because it preceded the guttural “g”,
while the niggahīta in Saṃsāra was there since it preceded the sibilant.
In other words, the following consonant’s vagga determined which nasal was written, but they actually had the same sound.

In fact, if I remember correctly, the Gair and Karunatillake Pāli text book dispenses with the guttural entirely, spelling saṃgha and Aṃguttara, claiming they are the same sound.

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Interesting. Do you know where they elaborate on that? All the modern guides on pronunciation I know of and the ancient grammarians maintain that they are, in essence, different. Here from the Mahāsaṅgīti Tipiṭaka edition, giving a narrow transcription as well as a broad:


Right, I understand it like that too. As far as I would make sense of it, maybe both representations in writing amount to the same on a phonetic level. Even though the niggahīta is distinct as a phoneme from (with the former only having a partial closure of the articulatory organ and the latter fully closing), when writing either or before a guttural, it would amount to the same phonetic expression, since must change into before a guttural (because it produces a full closure for the preceding niggahīta, which therewith becomes , at least phonetically). Or at least I cannot make out a difference. Not sure if that makes sense … :slight_smile:

Addendum: Upon pondering a bit further, I think the niggahīta when corresponding to the French nasalized vowel does not have to change to before a guttural, on a phonetical level at least.


I’m trying to stay offline, but to end the search…

The G&K book reflects modern Sinhalese Pali orthography (this is not stated in the book, it is just something I have observed).

Not all modern Indic scripts distinguish guttural n and niggahīta.

Sinhala can actually technically distinguish them in script using අං (aṃ) vs අඞ් (aṅ) but the latter is a bit archaic looking.

Example: ලංකා (laṃkaa, normal modern spelling= lankaa) and ලඞ්කා (laṅkaa, archaic= lankaa)…as in Sri Lanka. My friend said she thought the latter was pronounced laḍakaa as a kid (i.e. due to ඞ/ṅa not being common, except as a typo for ඩ/ḍa).


Thank you Ayyā and Bhante.

For Gair and Karunatillake’s decision to use the niggahīta only, (like laṃkaa), see their intro page xvi. They say, “in this we have followed one Pāli manuscript tradition. “


In my Bangkok days I used to teach Pali occasionally, and when it came to the niggahīta the first thing I would tell my students was to disregard the common description of it as a “pure nasal consonant”.

Instead, depending on what comes after it, one should think of the niggahīta character as either, (1) a nasal cypher (or placeholder) that may represent any of the five vagga nasals, or (2) a diacritic that converts the vowel preceding it (always a, i or u) into a nasalized vowel.

The cypher or placeholder usage has already been touched upon by Ayya Suvira. It applies in those cases where a niggahīta is followed by one of the twenty non-nasal vagga consonants. It’s an orthographic convention in certain Asian scripts that instead of writing ṅ, ñ, ṇ, n or m, one represents each of these sounds by a niggahīta and leaves it to the reader to give the consonant its appropriate value based on what comes after it, e.g., pronouncing saṃgha as saṅgha, saṃcarati as sañcarati, saṃphusati as samphusati, etc.

As for the nasalizing diacritic usage, this applies where the niggahīta either comes at the end of a word or where it is followed by an avagga consonant like v or s.

And what does a nasalized / niggahīta-ized vowel sound like? Just watch the French language video below; all of the sounds highlighted in it are niggahīta-ized vowels.

Unfortunately they’re not for our purpose the right vowels. The French nasalized vowels are /ɛ̃/, /œ̃/,/ɔ̃/ and /ɑ̃/, but what we need for Pali are /ã/, /ĩ/ and /ũ/.

So, this morning I paid a short visit to Phoible, the internet’s most comprehensive phonetics inventory site, in search of some living language that uses Pali’s three nasalised vowels.

The first language I could find with aṃ, iṃ and uṃ in it was Mina, a language of the Volta-Congo family spoken by about 330,000 people in the southeast of Togo.

Then on YouTube I found a young Togalese man called Delali Idrissou, who’s uploaded three videos showing (though I doubt this was his intention) Pali-using Buddhists how the three niggahīta-ized vowels should sound:




I’d like to end this post with a quick plug for the Phoible site mentioned above…

For anyone with even a slight interest in phonetics, a visit to Phoible is definitely something to place on their “Things to Do before I Die” list. To date Phoible’s contributing phoneticians have succeeded in documenting a total of 2,029 consonants, 1,094 vowels and 60 tones from languages all around the world. On this page you will find all these sounds listed in descending order of frequency. If you click on the IPA symbol for any sound you’ll be presented with both a full phonetic description of it and a list of all the languages in which it’s been found.

I’ll conclude with some fascinating phonetic factoids:

• Commonest consonant in the world: /m/, labial nasal sonorant, found in 96% of the world’s languages.

• Commonest monophthong: /i/, 92%.

• Commonest diphthong: /ai/, 3%.

• Rarest consonant: /ʃ̞ʼ/, lowered palato-alveolar ejective fricative, found in Jibbali, a Semitic language spoken by a small mountain tribe in Oman.

• Rarest monophthong: /ɵ̆/, found in Standard Tatar.

• Rarest diphthong: /uœ/, found in the Southern Yukaghir language of Arctic Siberia.


Many thanks to Bhante @Dhammanando for informative and detailed posting. I am really sorry, but as a Sanskrit-ish person, I am wondering what source there is for this supposed usage (i.e. the one suggested by the videos? /ã/, /ĩ/ and /ũ/?)

In a very simplistic sense (it is obviously more complex than this), the OIA origin of the niggahīta (-ng sound, AKA anusvāra) is as an allophone of --m at the word boundary. This is very obvious in Sanskrit, where most (all) word-final niggahītas are post-sandhi transformations of --m. Niggahīta therefore never occurs in some positions in Sanskrit, like at the end of a sentence, or at the end of a word when quoted by itself. In these contexts, it is always -m.

The reason niggahīta is described as a nasalisation of the preceding vowel is for formal systematic reasons to do with how consonants are conceptualised in the Indian system, it doesn’t correspond to anything we would describe as a nasalised vowel in English speaking linguistics. Consonants always have an implicit vowel in the Indian system, the niggahīta doesn’t, so it is not called a consonant. Because it cannot stand alone, it is called nasalisation of the preceding vowel.

Even though the vowel preceding the niggahīta will undergo some positional variation, the basic thing being represented ought to really be conceived of as -ng as positional variation of --m.

Unless I have missed something. I had been quite surprised to see all these videos of “actual” nasalised vowels surfacing.


Bhante, thank you (special thanks to Delali) for your insightful thoughts about the issue! If I am permitted to add some minor factor: The niggahīṭa is always based upon a, i or u even if it functions as a placeholder in the scripts under your function (1).

Bhante, do you think that it actually functions as a placeholder or may we assume that one text having saṃgha and the other saṅgha have been pronounced differently? I ask because it seems to me that the niggahīta could still be pronounced as a nasalized vowel even when a non-nasal vagga consonant follows, without forming homorganic nasals (e.g. before a velar stop such as g). Is this scriptural convention of using the niggahīta for the vagga nasals at odds with the grammatical tradition since if one pronounces a guttural , it is no proper niggahīta anymore?

Thank you!


thanks for your learned response. I would be interested to read up on the propositions made in your reply as a whole. Could you perhaps give some pointers to your sources? I am also wondering, could you elaborate on why it must be [ŋ] (-ng) according to your understanding?

For one, discussing the niggahīta primarily in the context of Pāḷi, I would like mention that the Pāḷi grammarians classify it as a consonant (e.g. Kaccāyana, Padarūpasiddhi):

ṭhapetvā aṭṭha sare sesā akkharā kakārādayo niggahitantā byañjanā nāma honti. taṃ yathā? 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 sa ha ḷa aṃ, iti byañjanā nāma (Kacc 6).

Pronouncing it, again in the context of Pāḷi, as [ŋ], would go against how the grammarians explain how the niggahīta is articulated. It has only one place of articulation, that is, the nose (nāsikaṭṭhānaja), which is (partly) occluded, just as is the case with nasalized vowels, allowing parts of the air to flow through the nose and mouth respectively.

On the other hand, with simultaneous nasalization, blocking air flow with the mouth, makes for a labial [m]; blocking it with the tongue in the region of the soft palate, makes for a guttural [ŋ], thus, the grammarians, in fact, explain two places of articulation for these (and the rest of the group nasals; that is, their own place [sakaṭṭhānaja], such as lips/mouth, and the nose [nāsikaṭṭhānaja]). The niggahīta, again, has just one place of articulation and must, therefore, be distinct from any of the group nasals (, ñ, , n, m) – any form of full closure makes the niggahīta cease.

Thank you bringing this topic for discussion. A K Warder defines the niggahita as being pronounced with “no release from the mouth”. It is such a difficult letter in terms of its pronunciation and even where it is placed in alphabet charts of the Pali alphabet that I am not surprised it arouses so much discussion.

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Thanks Bhante for your kind words. I am not a learned person. In the prophetic words of my highschool social sciences teacher, I am “just an erudite ne’er-do-weller”.

Yes, the Kaccayana commentary puts it with the consonants…from memory, G&K follows this. There are different traditions.

I am sharing this 2013 George Cardona article on this point, “Development of Nasals in Early Indo-Aryan: anusvAra and anunAsika”.

ggr033003 (1).pdf (5.3 MB)

Key message is on p.33: anusvAra is not merely vowel nasalisation, because Panini and the Paninians said so. Panini’s Astadhyayi differentiates the anusvAra (appended nasal) from nasalised vowels.

Panini says: anusvAra yamAnAM ca nAsikA sthAnaM ucyate

→ the anusvAra is described as having its place of production in the nose.

I.e. without oral air release.

I understand that most textbooks of Sanskrit will follow Panini on this, and describe the anusvAra as a nasal appended to a vowel.

If there is nasalisation of the vowel, it is slight.

I hadn’t intended to comment on the manner of making the anusvAra sound, only on the fact that it isn’t vowel nasalisation.

Unfortunately I am not at liberty to dig further into the relationships between the Sanskrit and Pali grammars at present. It might be a good topic for someone else’s PhD.