Pali Pronunciation: Aspiration and Gemination

I’m not sure you can just listen to the Pali sounds and get it right though because of L1 interference/assimilation if you are an English speaker? And also due to perceptual deafness?

Actually, for English speakers, learning Pali aspiration is also a process of unlearning aspiration of initial k, t and p, which are always aspirated in English (Phali language, anyone?). This is in addition to the normal process of learning to “add air” for aspirates.

There are several Pali sounds which are problematic for [non-Indian] English speakers as these are not phonemically distinct in English, such as dental and retroflex t, d. I.e. we have them in English but we think they are the same sound. Studies have shown that English speakers are “perceptually deaf” to this distinction and cannot hear it in word-initial position. This is because the ability to distinguish these sounds closes at about 2 years of age. The most that English speakers can do initially is to hear the drag of the retroflex t/d on the preceding vowel in non-initial position. The jury is out on whether English speakers can ever actually learn to hear the difference between these sounds as adults: sometimes I think I can but I have had a decent amount of spoken Sinhala exposure as well.

So I am agnostic on whether English speakers would benefit from recordings of these sounds at all in the absence of explanatory material, given that we can’t perceptually distinguish certain sound pairs. The kindness thing is just to explain to people about their own deafness. I didn’t know about this when I learned Sanskrit and wasted hours listening to the recordings not knowing why I couldn’t hear a difference…

When I teach this, I get people to LOOK at the mouth of someone saying these sounds IRL: we can’t HEAR the difference, but we can SEE the tongue touch the teeth for dental t, d. So video of sounds is actually much better?

Anyway, sorry to info-dump: I just get really excited about teaching to correct L1 interference, I have a kind of personal interest in accent correction from my days as a translator.

P.S. @Jake there is no such thing as combining m. Not aspirating the aspirates is just plain wrong, not sure why anyone would teach that as it will wreck the meaning of words. Yes it is effort and yes you just have to learn how to do it. From memory, the traditional grammars actually give “effort” as one aspect of aspirated sounds.


Thank you, Venerable, for such great and helpful information.
I agree that the retroflexed consonants are very challenging- I find myself getting self-conscious and almost embarrassed sometimes when trying to be diligent about them. This might be since they sound so ‘foreign’ to English-speaking ears.

I would say the best way to learn how to pronounce Pāli is by pronouncing words, not isolated letters. Unless one is a linguist it can be super hard and very abstract feeling.


Yeah, there are a whole lot of other phenomena going on with fluent pronunciation, like stress, rhythm and linking (also at the level of the sentence). Normally I teach Pali stress on the basis of Geiger, but I haven’t seen anyone else doing this, which is a shame because you will typically get taught this if you take Sanskrit.

I agree: sometimes the thing which is correct in Pali actually sounds “wrong” to say as an English speaker. The work muditā comes to mind; English stress rules will lead to incorrect lengthening of the penultimate syllable, so we get mudīta.

I think the real purpose of language class is corrective feedback TBH, that is what stops the wrong pronunciations getting fossilised.


I often use Tiṭṭhati as an example of retroflexed/retroflexed aspirated.

When done sort-of right, a native English speaker really feels like they are using a new accent!


Aye, there is a geminate in there too, what a word…


….and then there is the issue of what a ‘correct’ Pali pronunciation really is- we all know how radically different Cambodian, Thai, Sri Lankan chanting can sound…

I’ve been told that the living language closest to Pali is Bengali, maybe someone can find a native speaker and have them speak some words slowly…

(I think there are some recordings of Dipa Ma chanting?)


I was at Cambodian temple last weekend and I am 100% certain that Khmer Pali is just Khmer Pali; it’s its own thing and not even attempting to be original Pali, there are certain rules about which sound substitutions should be used (as per Thai Pali) etc.

Sinhalese Pali is likely very close to whatever the original was, if there was an original. Especially if you listen to some of the most highly educated Sri Lankan speakers (and I mean, SPEAKERS) of Pali, who do all the aspiration correctly. Not including some of the more exaggerated features of Sri Lankan chanting which can vary regionally in SL though.


Ven Ñānananda’s Pāli is very beautiful to listen to. Easily found online.


Thank you Ayya and Stephen for your ongoing valuable contributions. I think I agree with everything you both said. :grinning:

Three quick general observations:

  1. It’s helpful to distinguish between info for teachers and info for beginners and info for advanced students. Jake is working on info for beginners here.
  2. Good language teaching involves presenting material from the bottom up (sounds and words first) and the top down (sentences first) because different learners have different learning styles; here synthetic vs analytic learning styles are applicable.
  3. What Jake is doing is making an audio guide to the phoneme table found at the beginning of all the textbooks. This seems useful, especially if added to the stable of other techniques a good language teacher has on hand. On its own it isn’t a methodology. Nor does it pretend to be a complete guide to Pali pronunciation.

I would also like to chime in from the opposite end of the spectrum. When I read Pali in Devnagari script, correct pronunciation of the words is automatic for me (I have a very good grasp of several Indian languages including Sanskrit) but I don’t understand the discussions about it in English because I don’t know what “retroflexive” and “germinate” and a host of other grammatical terms mean. :grin: I didn’t learn such things about English grammar in school — I mean we learnt English reading, writing, and elements of grammar, without going into what they are labeled.
Given the astute observations and objections raised by Venerable @Suvira, @Gillian, and @stephen, I feel a more helpful thing would be if there were rough diagrams of exactly where the tongue touches the palate and how long or short or airy the sound is, especially for t, th sounds and d, dh sounds etc…
Oh! I just realized that many of those grammatical labels are describing precisely that isn’t it? :joy::joy::joy: Anyway, I know the correct pronunciations but I don’t know how to explain them. :grin:

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Hi trusolo , here’s a starter website for you

FYI these are not grammatical terms because they don’t relate to grammar. They relate to phonetics and phonology. It’s information which is generally taught to undergraduate linguistics students so no need to worry about not knowing it. :grinning:

It is also good to share with trainee teachers to help in teaching pronunciation. But I would advise against sharing it on in a language class. I would rely instead on lots of different activities including the listen and repeat that Jake is developing and Ayya’s watch my mouth strategy.

Of course Pali isn’t a spoken language and we mainly use it for chanting. @stephen and Ayya @Suvira do you have thoughts about teaching Palifor chanting?


@Gillian Thank you so much! I realized I used somewhat loose language there and mixed up grammar and phonetics! :grin: I will check out the website. It is interesting though that more I think about it, the more I am realizing how difficult it is to teach these topics. I don’t even remember how I learned the languages as a kid, except Sanskrit; the brute force memorizing and “singing” of tables is seared in my memory.
Now that I think about it, Sanskrit is also predominantly learnt/memorized in the beginning by chanting and that too in a specific tune depending on the meter. When I first read Pali verse, I forget whether it was Dhammapada or some other text, I reflexively was reading it in the tune of the meter— a lot of the Pali verses are in Anushtup meter or a variation of it.


That’s the magic of kids’ brains.

I think instead of anuṣṭubh, many Pāli verses are considered to be in śloka (Pāli siloka) metre.

But understanding Pāli metre is difficult, especially if one is just starting out with the language.

It seems true that ‘singing’a text is an easier way to memorize it than just a plain recitation.
So perhaps a combination of careful attention to pronunciation detail and a bit of ‘bounce’ is the best way to go.


@stephen Yes you are correct; I was again speaking in somewhat vaguely because the meters seem to be close to each other. Ānandjoti Bhikkhu has a nice study on the topic (that I should finish reading…)

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Pali aspirates are fiendishly difficult for native English speakers. There are two main problems: (1) English speakers usually unconsciously say Pali kh, ch, th, and ph for Pali k, c, t and p; (2) English doesn’t really have a voiced aspirate, so gh, jh, dh and bh are not easy either. The best solution IMHO is to listen to Pali pronounced by Indians or Sri Lankans and to copy their accent. I asked for opinions on two pronunciations of:

‘a cup of tea’

/ə kʌp əv tɪ:/ (phonemic/ broad transcription found in English dictionaries).


[ə kʰʌpʰ əv tʰɪ:] (phonetic/ narrow transcription of native English speaker). 1


[ə kʌp əv tɪ:] (phonetic/ narrow transcription of English spoken by many Indians).

A native Marathi speaker preferred the second pronunciation on the grounds that it was pronounced as it was spelt, My theory is that native English speakers have trouble pronouncing unvoiced Pali aspirates kh, ch, ṭ h, th and ph differently from k,c, ṭ, t and p because they try to double-aspirate sounds that are already unconsciously aspirated, as in the first pronunciation of ‘a cup of tea.’ 2 I think their focus should be learning instead to de-aspirate Pali k, c, ṭ, t, and p thus sounding more like Indian speakers of Pali. This can be practised by holding the back of the hand to the mouth: if a large puff of air is felt on the hand, the sound is aspirated.

However, for voiced aspirated consonants, Pali g h , j h , ḍ h , d h and b h , native English speakers have the reverse problem of not easily aspirating them as the voiced aspirate [ɦ] is not a standard sound in the English phonetic inventory and may need to be practised. The standard English unvoiced aspirate [h] will not work with voiced sounds; for example, by using [h] bhāsati will sound incorrect, something like bahāsati . The voiced aspirate [ɦ] can be practised by holding the throat below the voice box (larynx, Adam’s apple), feeling the resonance of g, j, ḍ, d and b , then achieving the same resonance by relaxing the throat while saying /h/; once voiced [ɦ] is achieved, then it will go smoothly together with voiced consonants to make gh , jh, ḍh, dh and bh.

1 Phonetic transcription of English aspirates is discussed by Tench (2011:61ff) Transcribing the Sound of English.

2 The aspiration doesn’t always occur: it disappears in consonant clusters (e.g. ‘pin’, ‘tone’ and ‘kin’ are aspirated, but ‘spin’, ‘stone’ and ‘skin’ are not); aspiration is often dropped at the end of a word (e.g. ‘church’ has the first consonant aspirated, but the last one is often not aspirated).

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Not to be too pedantic about it but a śloka is not a chhanda (pure meter). It is just a verse-form and technically can be in any of the seven most common meters. The most popular and “perfect” verse form of ślokas comes from anushtup (“enhanced version”)— the one used in Bhagvad Gita for example. But a minority of ślokas in Geeta are also in other chhandas. This is based on classical Sanskrit Pingala system and it is possible that Pali had a slightly different classification. IIRC…

I’m not sure where I got this file from, except that it was linked from a previous discussion on this forum regarding pali pronunciation.

I’m not saying this is perfect, but it’s not a bad guide.

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Geminate? ṭ and ṭh are separate phonemes, so does this really count as consonant lengthening?

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I don’t know if they are officially geminate consonants, but double consonant lengthening is often ignored by native English speakers, at least in America.
Hence ‘meta’ (mettā), bood-ah, Mog-alana, Sari-puta, (with accent in wrong place) etc.

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