(This essay is ongoing with frequent revisions, because I’m only willing to spend a certain amount of time on this per day)
The difference between long and short vowels in pāli is different than in English. In English, a long vowel and short vowel have a different tone/pitch/audio frequency. So they sound different.
rule #1: ‘short’ is 1/2 the amount of time it takes to say as a ‘long’
In Pāli, ‘long’ and ‘short’ refers to temporal duration. A ‘long’ vowel takes twice as long to say as a ‘short’ vowel. Or as I’ve learned in practice, it’s better to think of it as a ‘short’ vowel takes half the amount of time to say as a ‘long’. The reason for this is in the former case, you tend to think of ‘short’ as being normal, and you end up chanting/speaking too slowly as a result. The latter case, when you think of ‘long’ as normal speed, and ‘short’ as 1/2 normal duration, then it’s easier to acclimate to speaking at a normal conversational fluent speed.
Usually in pāli grammar books they’ll tell you for example, a long ‘a’ sound sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘father’. And a ‘short a’ sounds like the ‘u’ in ‘cut’. So you end up having to memorize rules like this for all the vowels, and it kind of works for some cases, but then in some words it just doesn’t sound right. Meaning when you follow the rule they gave you, it doesn’t sound like what a Sri Lankan pali speaking expert sounds like.
So by trial and error, I’ve figured out a simpler system with simpler rules to differentiate.
rule #2: ‘short’ vowel sounds different because it’s a truncated ‘long’
So instead of memorizing different ‘sounds’ for long and short, just pronounce every vowel the same as you would for a ‘long’ vowel. So for a short ‘a’ for example, you would still pronounce it like you would for the ‘a’ in ‘father’, but because a ‘short’ takes half as long to pronounce as a ‘long’, you truncate the ‘a’-‘in’-‘father’ sound to half the time, and it ends up sounding different than a ‘long a’ would have.
If you follow the grammar book rule of ‘long a’ sounds like ‘father’ and short ‘a’ sounds like ‘cut’, try pronouncing ‘anatta’ with that rule, and it is going to sound strange and wrong. But if you follow my simplified rules, it sounds about right (compared to a Sri Lankan Pali expert).
rule #3: pāli is weakly accented/stressed. Don’t emphasize any syllable, and things will turn out great
Unlike English where there are arbitrary rules to stress/accent/emphasize certain syllables in a word, in Pali, what works best is ignore all your instincts to keep track of what to stress/accent. Don’t try to emphasize or say any syllable differently. Just pronounce everything you see without any accent/stress, and let natural tongue gymnastics take care of the results.
The pali grammar rules of emphasis/stress/accent, which follows Sanskrit (and Sri Lankan is somewhat based on Sanskrit, which is why people say they’re more ‘authentic’), says something like the ‘stress’ should fall on the penultimate (second to last) long syllable in a word. Or something like that. What I found is if you just ignore all rules of stress, tongue gymynastics will take care of things automatically so the ‘correct’ sounding stress will happen by itself, if you pronounce the individual letters and syllables correctly.
the best way to learn to speak pāli correctly is frequently listen to an expert talk. for plenty of that, refer to audtip.org , Ven. Jiv’s pali sutta readings.
Sri Lankan is somewhat based on Sanskrit, which is why people say they’re more ‘authentic’.
Ven. Jiv is an ordained Sri Lankan Bhikkhu, and he has a large collection of recordings on audtip.org. I believe his daily practice consists of at least 20minutes of pali chanting (outside of whatever his Bhikkhu duties would require), and his intention is to record most, if not all of the pali suttas in existence.
A good sutta to start with is SN 45.8, the standard formula for 8aam (noble eightfold path).
Or SN 35.28, the fire sutta, 3rd discourse given.
Here are some notes I had from many years back. I thought there was a scanned PDF of a few pages from a pali grammar book ‘stress/emphasis, long/short’ on here, but I can’t find it.