Lesson 1: The Script
Method / Goal
Even if its ancestor, Brāhmī, was loosely based on Aramaic, Brāhmī itself differed from the latter in being a so called abudiga or alphasyllabary. And that may be considered an advance over both phoneme-based alphabets on one hand and syllabaries on the other. Alphabets such as our own Roman script simply represent all of the phonemes in a language on the same level, with no formal distinction between consonants and vowels. Syllabaries go further in recognizing that speech consists of syllables (such as consonant-vowel units) and represent them with unique characters. However, each syllabic whole may differ from every other one in its form, regardless of whether they have one or more sounds in common. A common example is Japanese Hiragana, where there is no shared ‘k’ form in the three syllables ‘ka,’ ‘ke,’ and ‘ko’ ( け, か and こ ). By contrast alphasyllabaries like Devanāgarī are syllabic as well as alphabetic: each character is a syllable, but the same sounds within different syllables are consistently written in the same form (e.g., a single ‘k’ form in each).
- Every ‘consonant’ in Devanāgarī is a syllable: it also represents an inherent ‘a’ vowel (e.g., क ‘ka’ ग ‘ga’ etc.).
- When a vowel other than ‘a’ is needed, it is simply expressed with a diacritic above, below, to the right, or in one case to the left of the character: के ‘ke’ कु ‘ku’ का ‘kā,’ etc.
The easiest way to understand the logic of Devanāgarī is to understand how it analyzes a syllable. According to the script, a syllable is fundamentally:
- either an independent vowel (V) [one not immediately preceded by a consonant]
- or a consonant-vowel unit (Cv) [a vowel immediately preceded by a consonant]
Sanskrit manuscripts traditionally circulated in the regional scripts of South Asia, meaning that the same ‘text’ could have been expressed in several different scripts: e.g., Śāradā in the Northwest, Devanāgarī (North), Bengali (East), Grantha (South), etc. Except for Kharoṣṭhī, all of the region’s scripts derive from a single script: the ancient Brāhmī script. And both Brāhmī and Kharosṭhī are commonly considered to be based on Aramaic (the evidence is suggestive, but not conclusive). If you click on the arrows («») below, you will see how Kharoṣṭhi, Brāhmī and its major descendents differ in representing the same sounds:
Even today Sanskrit texts may be printed in some of these regional scripts, such as Bengali, Kannada, etc. But the overwhelming majority of Sanskrit texts have for many years now been printed solely or primarily in the Devanāgarī script. And it is that script that we’ll be learning.
The script tutors below from SOAS and UBC demonstrate how to write each of the characters in the script. The first tutor also provides the diacritic forms (mātrās) of the vowels as well as pronunciation and pronunciation-based tests (both of which are useful for our purposes, except in its Hindi pronunciation of ‘ai’ and ‘au’; Sanskrit ‘ai’ sounds like ‘eye,’ and ‘au’ like the ‘ou’ in “couch”).
SOAS Script Tutor
UBC Script Tutor
Although the script may look intimidating in the beginning, it is actually fairly simple. Hindi classes, for example, tend not to spend more than one week on it. If we devote a little more time to it, it will be to better practice the script’s many conjunct consonants (more on that in the second exercise). Rather than learn the entire script at once, we’ll be breaking it down into manageable chunks so that you can master each set of characters before taking on more. In all of your writing, you should practice pronouncing the characters at the same time. The more senses you engage in learning the script, the more quickly you will progress.
Certainly by the end of our work on the script (i.e., after the following 5 “exercises” pages) you will want to be able to reproduce from memory the following Devanāgarī table of the sound system, at least as far as the following categories and properties go:
- the vowels, consonants and dependent sounds
- the short and long vowels, simple and complex vowels (prolated vowels can be ignored), contact-sounds, semi-vowels and spirants
- what each complex vowel consists of (e.g., ए e = अ a + इ i [velar + palatal])
- which sounds are voiced vs. unvoiced and which are aspirated vs. unaspirated
- the places of articulation of every sound