White Notebook - A Brief Note On Sanskrit

White Notebook - A Brief Note On Sanskrit

Ryan Todd Garza
A creative based in Los Angeles, CA

Considering that I have chosen to leave many Sanskrit terms untranslated, I figured I might say a few words about the language. In order be as concise as possible I have included a few resources at the end of this section that explore Sanskrit in much greater depth than the scope of this document allows.

An obvious time to include a Sanskrit term over a translation is when no direct translation exists. There are many terms in Yogic philosophy that cannot be explained without a handful of sentences. To approximate with a term that is “close enough” for the sake of brevity is a huge disservice to anyone truly trying to understand. I would posit that extending a reader’s lexicon is preferred to amending or overriding it.

Another reason it is often preferable to use an untranslated terms is that Sanskrit is considered a perfect language. I am not only referring to the traditional idea that Sanskrit was not devised by human minds but is rather a “language of the gods” (dēvavāṇī). Also not that the word saṃskṛta itself comes from the joining of samyak meaning “perfect” or “well” and kṛta meaning “made.” I am referring more specifically to the fact that Sanskrit is the only language in existence that is a context-free grammar. This means that it is entirely unambiguous. Every sentence can be derived from a set of rules.

The most common example I have seen is in comparing the two English sentences “fruit flies like an apple” and “time flies like an arrow.”1 Even though they are lexically identical, they are contextually different. “Flies” is a noun in the first sentence and a verb in the second, and “like” also has a different meaning in each sentence. So it is apparent that a reader must be familiar with both the language and the context to understand the differences. Now the really great thing is that such sentences are impossible to make in Sanskrit. Because of the rules of the language, word order is not even an issue. With a very specific system for verb conjugation and noun relationships, sentences can always be interpreted correctly grammatically.

A small aside abut spoken Sanskrit—its sounds make use of the entire range of the human vocal palette and its syntax encourages maximum resonance of the voice, whereas many spoken languages only partially employ these capabilities. This is one reason why chanting in Sanskrit is encouraged.

Another choice I have made in this document is to include diacritical markings to be clear about pronunciation of the Sanskrit terms. Let’s take this a bite at a time. First of all, what is a diacritical marking? A diacritical mark, or diacritic is a sign above or below a letter that indicates a different pronunciation than the same letter with no sign or a different sign. Why do we need them? You can read this because you are familiar with the Roman alphabet and since you are aware of the sounds each character of the alphabet represents, you can pronounce these words. So a compromise we can make between a pure transcription and the necessity of learning a new script entirely is to romanize the language. We can use familiar characters to represent the phonemes of the Sanskrit with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

But the problem now arises that there are forty-six Sanskrit phonemes (I have seen one reference to the existence of fifty-two. Need to confirm the contradiction.) that need to be represented by only twenty-three Roman characters. Rather than arbitrarily inventing new ones we can add markings to existing characters to account for the extra phonemes.

For example, you might be familiar with the word Savasana and may have seen it spelled Shavasana, but based only on this romanization how can we actually know how to pronounce this? The second version gets us closer because it includes sh, a pair of characters (digraph) that we recognize as making a distinct phoneme, but we can do better. The same word with diacritical markings is written Śavāsana. Even though there have been only two little marks added, with a little study we can see that this gives us much more information. No more guessing. The ś sounds like sh in the word shut and the ā implies that this one is pronounced long. So by comparison we also know that all of the other as are short. Now we can speak our Sanskrit with confidence.

I have included a reference sheet to all of the diacritics in the resources at the end of the section.

This may have all seemed self explanatory or maybe it didn’t, but believe me, once I put a little effort into understanding the diacritical markings I felt much more certain about my Sanskrit pronunciation and wondered how anyone gets by without them. Actually, I can tell you how. They mispronounce things a lot!

Resources

  • Sanskrit Pronunciation Key

  • americansanskrit.com The American Sanskrit Institute is an incredible resource for learning the language. There are classes, a learn at home program, and atlas courses that incorporate texts like the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.
  • ashtangayoga.info Dr. Ronald Steiner has a brilliant thing going here. You can find transliterations of the asanas, mantras, entire source texts, tools for learning Sanskrit and much more.
  • lexilogos.com The Lexilogos site makes typing the diacritical markings way less daunting of a task. I keep this link bookmarked in my browser.

  1. Pinker, Steven (1994). The Language Instinct. W. Morrow and Co. pp. 209.