The Sanskrit Language
作者:Walter Harding Maurer



System of Writing
Rattling the Dry Bones of Grammar

Alphabet Chart(PDF)


System of Writing

The Sanskrit alphabet consists of 46 different letters. These letters are organized based on their phonetic properties, such as articular surface, aspiration, and voicing. Click on the 'Alphabet Chart' button at the top of the page to download a PDF of this organization. The first page of the PDF shows the categorization of each letter according to its phonetic properties. The second page of the PDF has a diagram of the five articular surfaces used in the Sanskrit alphabet.

Sanskrit can be written in any phonetic script, i.e. a script that has a distinct character for each sound. Most publications of the past few centuries use the Devanagari script that is used in modern Indian languages such as Hindi and Marathi. Devanagari is an abugida script, which means that each character represents an entire syllable, and not just a single letter as in the Roman script.

A syllable is one vowel with any number of consonants. The basic characters in Sanskrit either represent a consonant followed by the vowel 'a' (
अ), or a vowel on its own. Thus the character represents the syllable 'ka'. Changes are made to this basic character in order to substitute the 'a' (अ) with another vowel, e.g. कि represents the syllable 'ki'. These changes are listed in the table on the second page of the PDF.

There are two methods to indicate a consonant that is not followed by a vowel. If the consonant is at the end of a word or sentence, a short tail called a halanta (
हलन्त) or virāma (विराम) is placed beneath the basic character, e.g. क् represents just the consonant 'k'. If the consonant is in the middle of a word or sentence, followed by another consonant, the two consonants are somehow combined to form a 'conjunct consonant'.

The formation of conjunct consonants is the most difficult aspect of the Devanagari script. There are some general rules to their formation, but there are many variations and exceptions. One general rule is that the basic character of the first consonant is cut vertically through the middle and joined with the second consonant. Hence
क्व represents 'kva'. Other consonants are joined one underneath the other, e.g. द्व represents 'dva'.

The consonant 'r' (
र्) has a special notation when it forms a conjunct consonant. If 'r' comes before another consonant, it is represented by a hook on top of the other consonant, e.g. र्क represents 'rka'. If 'r' comesafter another consonant, it is represented by a diagonal line towards the bottom of the other consonant, e.g. क्र represents 'kra'. Finally, two special characters are used to indicate the conjunct consonants kṣa (क्ष) and jña (ज्ञ).

Rattling the Dry Bones of Grammar

The two basic components of a sentence are a noun and a verb. A noun denotes an thing. A verb denotes an action. The following is an example of a sentence in English:

Ascetic sees god.

In English, the ending of a noun tells us its number, e.g. 'ascetic' and 'god' are both singular. In English the position of a noun relative to the verb tells us its role, e.g. 'ascetic' is the subject (doer) of the action of seeing because it occurs before the verb, whereas 'god' is its object because it occurs after the verb. Certain roles of nouns are also indicated in English by a preposition, such as 'in', 'to', 'by' and so on.

In Sanskrit both the number of a noun as well as its role are indicated by the ending of a noun. A single noun has several possible endings, each of which indicates a combination of a role (called a case) and a number. There are 8 cases and 3 numbers (i.e. singular, dual, and plural) in Sanskrit, so each noun has a total of 24 different forms. The dual number forms will be learned later on, so for now, each noun will have 16 different forms.

Each of the 8 cases in Sanskrit has several uses. The primary uses will be learned first, and additional uses will be introduced later. In traditional Sanskrit grammar, the cases are not named but numbered, i.e. First Case, Second Case, and so on. Western grammarians have named these cases according to their primary uses and names in other languages. Thus the numbers, names, primary role, and common translation of each of the cases is as follows: