It seems anusvāra was represented by ṁ not ṃ at the Geneva Congress of 1894

The Pali IAST transliteration system we use today was standardized at the Tenth International Congress of Orientalists in Geneva, 1894.

In 2001, it was adapted with minor emendations to form ISO 15919.

It is always said that one of the key differences between the two is the representation of anusvāra, which figures prominently in Pali as the nazalization at the end of words. IAST uses ṃ underdot for anusvāra, while ISO 15919 uses ṁ overdot.

Thus are the battle lines drawn.

Most Pali editions of the 20th century use ṃ underdot. The ISO standards committee used ṁ because of compatibility with other Indic languages. It is also more rational, as ṅ is the same sound as ṁ, but ṇ is a completely different sound. In fact, the superiority of ṁ seems so obvious it is surprising it was not recognized by the Congress.

Or was it? Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can read the proposal for the Geneva Congress by James Burgess, one of the participating scholars.

On page 30, Burgess states:

For the anusvāra, m with a dot above or below is the alternative. The dot below is distinctive of the linguals [i.e. the retroflex such as ṇ], but if placed above it distinguishes this sound from them, while it corresponds in position to the devanāgarī sign, and being already largely in use, ṁ is distinctly preferable.

And in his table for the transliteration, he does indeed use ṁ.

So the proposal used ṁ, arguing that it is “distinctly preferable”. But what of the official notice of the proceedings? The original French notice is available here.

This official committee report from the Congress also has ṁ for anusvāra (pg. 6).

A note discussing the report by the leading French Indologist Emile Senart likewise uses ṁ with overdot (pg. 13).

This report is also available in English translation.

Here we also find the main table uses ṁ overdot (pg. 881).

Screenshot from 2023-02-17 15-34-00

And the translation of Senart’s note is the same (pg. 887).

Subsequently, the Royal Asiatic Society published a Transliteration Report of 1896 which summarized the proceedings of the Congress.

This too also gave ṁ for anusvāra, without mentioning ṃ (pg. 6).

Screenshot from 2023-02-17 15-37-27

It also provides examples of Pali and Sanskrit text using ṁ for anusvāra (pg. 11).

Thus the proposed ṁ overdot for anusvāra, being well reasoned, was adopted by the Transliteration Committee at the Geneva Congress of 1894 and is recorded consistently in all the contemporary official publications. It is therefore the official IAST standard.

Later, ṃ became widely used in publications, and at some point it was assumed this was the recommendation of the Congress. I have no idea why; perhaps it was simply that the character sets available for printers had ṃ.


The JRAS volume containing it is available at Internet Archive.


Oh thanks so much, for some reason I couldn’t find it before. I’ve added this to the OP.

I’m seeing if I can trace the changes over this time. In 1895 the PTS published the 1st volume of AN, which uses ṃ underdot. It doesn’t adopt IAST, however, as it has â instead of ā and û instead of ū. This was published immediately after the Geneva Congress, but given that each volume was several year’s work it is safe to assume it was prepared before the Congress.

Volume 2 came out in 1888, and it has adopted ā (and ū , etc.) but still uses ṃ underdot.

The same was true of volume 3 of 1897.

And so for subsequent editions. It seems the PTS partially adopted the IAST recommendations from that point on.


Hmm PTS is still using ṃ on their website today.ṃsa/

So, basically the rule of thumb is “PTS uses ṃ, everyone else uses ṁ”? That’s at least easy to remember! :slight_smile:


Yet in 1888 in Trenckner’s MN Volume 1 published by the PTS, the text has overdot in the niggahiitta, macron for ordinary long vowels, and circumflex for long vowels resulting from contractions! See the quotation at cāssa on Wiktionary for reference, example and link to printed text.

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Certainly not only PTS. The Gair & Karunatillake textbook, the entire 6th Council online edition, and many publications including Ven Bodhi’s translations with Wisdom.


book Which
Buddha’s Words



It would be interesting to look at Ven Nanamoli’s manuscript of the Majjhima translation to see how he wrote it.

I have personally encountered m dot below far more frequently.

Sadly seems to have been taken offline? Used to be linked to from here: Ven. Ñāṇamoli’s Manuscript of the Majjhima Nikāya – Path Press

Interesting, thanks. There are a few others, so far identified:

  • Majjhima
  • Jataka
  • Patisambhidamagga
  • Milinda

They were all printed between 1877 and 1905, but there were also others at the time with underdot. Perhaps it was determined by the availability of characters in the typeface, or perhaps the preference of the editor.

Sure. It seems to have been variable around the turn of the century, then mostly standardized on underdot. I don’t think it was ever regarded as essential, though; IIRC, Peter Skilling’s books use the overdot.

Also Walshe’s Long Discourses uses overdot. It seems they changed to underdot with the Samyutta. This still uses the old DPalatino font (a fork of Linotype Palatino (I think) with diacriticals added.)

And we have another overdot!

Screenshot from 2023-02-26 10-24-49


I suppose counting up instances of the ‘eng’ character is next!

I love the eng! When I first began learning Pali it was with Buddhadatta’s New Pali Course, in which an over-dotted m represents the niggahīta in italic text, but an eng does so in regular text:

In contrast with these newfangled underdots and overdots, the eng has a long and glorious history, celebrating its 400th birthday back in 2019:

The First Grammatical Treatise, a 12th-century work on the phonology of the Old Icelandic language, uses a single grapheme for the eng sound, shaped like a g with a stroke ⟨ǥ⟩. Alexander Gill the Elder uses an uppercase G with a hooked tail and a lowercase n with the hooked tail of a script g ⟨ŋ⟩ for the same sound in Logonomia Anglica in 1619. William Holder uses the letter in Elements of Speech: An Essay of Inquiry into the Natural Production of Letters, published in 1669, but it was not printed as intended; he indicates in his errata that “there was intended a character for Ng, viz., n with a tail like that of g, which must be understood where the Printer has imitated it by n or y”. It was later used in Benjamin Franklin’s phonetic alphabet, with its current phonetic value.

Eng (letter) - Wikipedia


Wow! Check out that italic :heart_eyes: