Pāḷi is the language in which the Buddha’s teachings were written down a few hundred years after he taught. It is not certain that the Buddha actually spoke in Pāḷi, but it was probably that or a related language, Magadhi. Both were languages spoken by the common people, and did not have their own alphabets. So we read Pāḷi in transcriptions of different alphabets.
Just like any language, pronunciation will be a bit different in different areas and with different people. So Pali in Thailand doesn’t sound exactly the same as Pali in Sri Lanka. That’s ok! Here’s one guide to pronunciation, at least will get you familiar with the pronunciation markings and the basics.
How to pronounce some Pāḷi letters as transcribed in the Latin alphabet
Knowing just these will get you on the right road in your chanting — and may change your ideas about some Buddhism words!
ṃ — the letter ‘m‘ with a dot underneath — is not pronounced ‘m‘. It is pronounced more like a soft ‘ng‘, as in English ‘sing‘.
c is not pronounced ‘s’ or ‘k’. It is pronounced ‘ch’ as in ‘rich’. Same for ‘cc’.
v is not pronounced ‘v’. It is pronounced ‘w’, as in ‘warm’.
Consonants followed by ‘h’ do not change their sound, but only add an aspiration after the sound. In particular ph is not pronounced ‘f’, but is ‘p-h’, as in ‘uphill’; th is not pronounced as in English ‘there’, but is ‘t-h’, as in ‘take’. See below for more explanation.
Vowels with a line on top: ā, ī, and ū are pronounced long rather than short, and so will usually give emphasis on that syllable. Again, see below for more explanation.
All the sounds
If you want to really get it, here is a summary of all the Pāḷi sounds as transcribed in Latin letters:
|Short||Long||Exceptions: e and o change to short sounds in syllables ending in consonants. They are then pronounced as in ‘get’ and ‘ox’, respectively.|
|a as in a bout||ā as in faather|
|i as in hit||ī as in machine|
|u as in put||ū as in rule||e as in grey|
|o as in more|
|c as in ancient (like 'ch' but unaspirated)|
|ṃ, ṅ as 'ng' in sang|
|ñ as 'ny' in canyon|
|v rather softer than the English 'v' ; near 'w'|
|bh ch dh ḍh gh jh kh ph th ṭh
These two-lettered notations with 'h' denote an aspirated, airy sound, distinct from the hard, crisp sound of the single consonant. They should be considered as one unit.
However, the other combinations with 'h': lh, mh, ñh, and vh, do count as two consonants (for example in the Pāli words ‘jivhā’ or ‘muḷho’).
th as t in tongue. (Never pronounced as in ‘the’.)
ph as p in palate. (Never pronounced as in ‘photo’.)
These are distinct from the hard, crisp sound of the single consonant.
|ḍ ḍh ḷ ṇ ṭ ṭh
These retroflex consonants have no English equivalents. They are sounded by curling the tip of the tongue back against the palate.
This is taken from the Appendix of the PDF file “Morning and Evening Chanting and Reflections”, at Forest Sangha. There it continues with a good discussion of chanting technique.
Some good extended resources for pronunciaton
- A Guide to the Pronunciation of Pāḷi, by Ānandajoti Bhikkhu
- The Pāḷi Alphabet and its Pronunciation
- Pāḷi Language at Omniglot.com, with the sounds in Devanāgarī, Latin, and phonetic alphabets, audio of a Pāḷi text, and links to more resources.
- Pāḷi Pronunciation of a selection of common words, as playable sound.
More about the Pāḷi language
- We have a page on the Pali language, with more resources there for those interested.