Correct Pāli pronunciation differentiating 'long' and 'short' (vowels and syllables)

(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.

example: ‘anatta’

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.

https://audtip.org/suttas/sn/sn.html

misc.

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.
https://sites.google.com/a/audtip.org/wiki/wiki/pali/pali-pronunciation-differences/syllable_stress_emphasis

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Here’s an interesting question IMO.

What is the difference between “properly” pronounced Pāli and “properly” chanted Pāli?

Because there are a lot of details in Pāli chant that are mostly rhythmic and not too much based in the cadences of natural speech.

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Thank you very much for this link. It will really help me correct SuttaCentral Voice Assistant. Unhappy with Raveena’s inconsistencies, I’ve switched to Aditi, whose voice has full Hindi phonemes. I will try to follow Ven. Jiv’s pronunciations as well as I can.

:pray::pray::pray:

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Bhante Jiv’s pali sutta readings, by far most of them follow a simple intonation pattern. It kind if rises gradually toward the middle of a phrase he’s chanting, and then falls gradually towards the end. So I found it relatively easy, after picking up a base of vocabulary and listening to enough suttas, to filter out the rising and falling intonation and recognize and be able to speak a monotone version of the pāli phrase with no intonations that one would use in a conversational tone rather than a chanting.

With Thai pali chanting, they do musical melodic type of accents/emphasis/stressing of arbitrary syllables that have nothing to do with correct pali pronunciation. They exist presumably for musical reasons to induce positive spiritual feelings. There are some really messed up things with Thai pali pronunciation, I’ll address them as needed.

Burmese pali chanting is so messed up even experts have trouble figuring out how to describe it. Best to avoid if you can.

With Sri Lankan pali chanting, it’s pretty common on popular recordings that they don’t follow the Buddha’s rules that it shouldn’t be musical. But if you can mentally filter out the musical intonations, and the trills and intentionally sustained final syllables of a phrase, their pronunciation always seems to be correct and follow the rules, from all the samples I’ve heard.

The reason I’m passionate about correct pali pronunciation, is because this is an oral tradition, and if people don’t follow the rules, then words become misunderstood, incorrectly transmitted and the Dhamma becomes corrupt.

If you listen to Bhante Jiv’s recordings, and any good Sri Lankan pali chanting, you could set it to a metronome. A long syllable takes the exact amount of time as two short syllables.

So my acid test of how good and correct pali pronunciation needs to be, is this scenario.

Suppose Trump starts world war 3, all written suttas in the world are destroyed. So a 7th Buddhist Council convenes so everyone who has memorized pali suttas can record and check for fidelity.

Now you’re going to chant with a group. I could probably walk into any sangha in Sri Lanka, and just jump in and start chanting with them, only needing to adjust the tempo of my metronome to match theirs. I can understand them, they could understand me.

I could not do the same for a Thai or Burmese Sangha. In fact even amonst themselves, I’d bet different Burmese sanghas couldn’t understand each other.

So back to the 7th council. If they were all Sri Lanka style chanters following the rules, things would go quickly and smoothly. If you had other chanters who were following arbitrary regional pronunciation rules, it would seriously slow things down, and perhaps introduce many errors.

So if you learn to pronounce pali correctly, you would be an asset to the 7th council. If not, you would be a liability. Do you want to be an asset or a liability? That’s what it comes down to.

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example: anatta & Anāgata

L = Long
s = short
T = time it takes to say an “L” (long) syllable or vowel
t = time it takes to say an “s” (short) syllable or vowel

T = t + t = 2 * t = t * t = tt

Anāgata (adj.) [an + āgata] not come yet, i. e. future.

rule # 5 pali is an oral tradition, treat it phonetically, pronounce every letter you see in script

1. anatta

an-at-ta
s-L-s (short-long-short)
t-T-t , or t-tt-t
In the second syllable, it’s a long syllable even though the vowel is a ‘short a’. This is caused by the presence of the double consonant ‘tt’.

rule #6 when there is a double or multi-consonant letter combination, then a preceding ‘short vowel’ gets treated as a ‘long syllable’.

difference in pronunciation between long vowel and short vowel promoted to a long syllable

example: anatta and anāgata (second syllable)
for anāgata, the ‘ā’ is just basic rules, sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘father’, and takes ‘T’ amount of time to say it.
For anatta, the ‘att’ sounds like you were in the process of saying ‘a’ in father, but halfway through saying it, you truncated it. In the process of the truncation, it makes the ‘ā’ you were trying to say sound different. It may sound like ‘u’ in ‘cutting’, but it may sounds like something else, it’s up to tongue gymnastics and what the next syllable coming up is. So don’t get attached to and form an erroneous idea of what a short ‘a’ should sound like.

Timing: the ‘att’ in ‘an-att-a’, like long vowel ‘ā’, takes ‘T’ amount of time. Recall T = t + t, or 2 *t. Since you truncated the ‘att’ halfway through, at time ‘t’, now for the remaining time of ‘T’, you hold a silence.

rule #7: pronouncing double consonants should feel like you’re driving a car and hit a speed bump

Example: Buddha is, Bud–dha. NOT Buda.
I was in a sangha where the teacher pronounced ‘tattha’ as ‘tathā’. Which totally changed the meaning of the verse we were chanting. Don’t do that. What happens when you speed through a speed bump? You might crack your head against the top of the car and give yourself a concussion. The same thing happens when you pronounce multiple consonants in pali words like your’e flying through a speed bump. You destroy the meaning of the word and corrupt the Dhamma. Respect the Dhamma. Please pronounce it correctly.

rule #8 letters ‘e’ and ‘o’ are always long vowels.

Mentally imagine every ‘e’ and ‘o’ you see in romanized pali script has a bar drawn on top of it like ‘ā’ and ‘ī’ and ‘ū’. Now the people who came up with romanized pali script, I don’t know what they were thinking with ‘e’ and ‘o’. Maybe they figured, “hey, let’s save some ink and cost of printing?” That would be a negligible economic benefit. Maybe ‘e’ and ‘o’ with bars don’t exist in the romanized character printing block set they were borrowing from? I don’t know, but it sucks and it’s a standard so we English readers have to live with it and adapt. ‘e’ and ‘o’, always imagine they have bars over them.

exercise to train yourself to learn timing between ‘long’ and ‘short’

Pick a two syllable word, that has one long syllable and two short syllables. Could be any of the following:
Lss
ssL
The point of the exercise is the timing and contrast between Long and two Shorts, gives a relative reference point to each other so we can calibrate our internal metronome and learn the difference between long and short.

Examples:
ut-ta-ri (L-s-s)
man-ga-la (L-s-s)
u-da-ye (s-s-L)

  • step 1: tap your hand on the table like a metronome, in time units of ‘T’ for ‘L’.
  • step 2: pick a word similar to above, and start saying them in sync with the tapping
  • step 3: remember, 1 unit of T = t + t, L = s + s.
  • step 4: do this many times, every day, until you understand the difference between ‘long’ and ‘short’ vowels/syllables in pali.

According to Kaccāyana.

But the grammarian Moggallāna says that they are short when followed by double consonants

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A lot of people confuse the system for generating the “rhythms” in Thai chanting with how to pronounce Pāli in the manner of recitation (vs in a chanting manner).

The information creating the “melodies” is the tonality of the Thai language being implied behind the Thai letters used to transcribe the Pāli.

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Interesting, always good to refer to the source. Bhante, would you perhaps be so kind to point to the exact reference? I would like to include it in some writing. Thank you!

I’m afraid I can’t right now as I’m travelling and don’t have my flashdrive with the Pali grammar texts on it. In the meantime, if you want to try searching for yourself, the words the grammarians usually give to illustrate the rule are:

e: ettha, seyyo
ē: ēvaṃ, sēti
o: oṭṭha, sotthi
ō: ōdana, sōta

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Very nice, could easily trace it, though I only found it in the padarūpasiddhi: “kvaci saṃyogapubbā ekārokārā rassā iva vuccante. yathāettha, seyyo, oṭṭho, sotthi” – “anywhere before conjunct consonants, letters e and o are to be said as if short – as in ettha, seyyo, oṭṭho, sotthi.” Might it be the only place?

I believe it’s also in Dhammakitti’s Bālāvatāra, another grammar of the Kaccāyana school.

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Okay, I’m back with my disk again. The Bālavatāra reference is the commentary to Kaccāyana’s 5th aphorism:

Kaccāyana:
aññe dīghā.

Dhammakitti:
saṃyogato pubbe e-o rassā ivoccante, anantarā byañjanā saṃyogo. ettha, seyyo, oṭṭho, sotthi.

Oddly enough, I can’t now find the rule in Moggallāna’s grammar. :blush:

It is present, however, in Medhaṅkara’s Payogasiddhi, another grammar of the Moggallāna school. It’s in the commentary to the 4th aphorism:

Moggallāna:
pubbo rasso.

Medhaṅkara:
tesveva dasasu ye dve dve savaṇṇā, tesu yo yo pubbo, so so rassasañño hoti. yathā a i u e o. tesu ‘saṃyogato pubbāva dissanti dve panantimā’ta dassetuṃ tattha sādhuttā tesampi idha saṅgaho, yathā ettha seyyo oṭṭho sotthi. rassakālayogā tabbantatāya vā rassā. rassakālo nāma accharāsaṅghāto akkhinimmilanasaṅkhāto vā kālo, tena ekamatto rasso, dvimatto dīgho, aḍḍhamatto byañjano. chandasi diyaḍḍhamattampi rassanti gaṇhanti ācariyā.

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Much appreciated, bhante, thank you!

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If you haven’t already seen it, Alastair Gornall has a 40-page article on the Kaccāyana vs Moggallāna dispute regarding the long and short ‘e’ and ‘o’. It was published six years ago but has only just come to my notice.

How Many Sounds are in Pāli? Schisms, Identity and Ritual in the Theravāda Saṅgha

Abstract

This article highlights the central importance of Pāli phonetics in Theravāda Buddhism. In doing so, I focus on a single yet fundamental point of contention regarding the number of sounds in the Pāli language from the twelfth to fifteenth century. I argue that this debate on the number of sounds was of central concern due to the importance of Pāli pronunciation in the ritual sphere, the development of new regional monastic identities, and the introduction of regional scripts. In tracing this debate between two competing systems of Pāli grammar I show that these developments in the phonetic description of the Pāli language reveal the use and adaptation of Sanskritic phonetics in order to differentiate Pāli from Sanskrit, the Prakrits, and its surrounding vernaculars.

From the article:

This important debate can be traced to the aftermath of the saṅgha reforms of the Lankan king Parākramabāhu I in 1156, where the monarch famously united the three main nikāyas on the island, the Mahāvihāra, Jetavana, and Abhayagiri. As part of these reforms a new system of grammar, the Moggallāna system, was produced in order to supplant the earlier Kaccāyana grammatical tradition. The creation of the Moggallāna system, and by implication its deviation from the orthodox Kaccāyana tradition, was heralded by Moggallāna’s sole authorship of its rules (Moggallāna-vyākaraṇa [Mogg]), their gloss (Moggallāna-vutti [Mogg-v]) and commentary (Moggallāna-pañcikā [Mogg-p]).

Central to this schism was a disagreement about the number of sounds in Pāli, with the Moggallāna grammarians counting forty-three sounds and the Kaccāyana grammarians forty-one. In order to explain why the Pāli sound system became a point of dispute in the saṅgha, this article takes the separation of the Moggallāna and Kaccāyana traditions in the middle of the twelfth century as a starting point and traces this debate on Pāli sounds from its gestation up until the fifteenth century.

[…]

The Mogg begins its grammatical tour de force with Mogg. 1.1 a-ādayo titālīsavaṇṇā (beginning with ‘a’, there are forty-three sounds), a sūtra that advertises Moggallāna’s intent to separate from the Kaccāyana grammatical tradition, which holds that Pāli has forty-one sounds. Moggallāna’s addition of short ‘e’ and short ‘o’ to Kaccāyana’s enumeration appears to be the culmination of a debate that had been running within the Kaccāyana grammatical tradition itself.

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