(derived from Wat Metta Chanting guide)
Pāli is the original language of the Theravadin Buddhist scriptures, the closest we have to the dialect spoken by the Buddha himself. It has no written script of its own, so every country that has adopted Theravada Buddhism has used its own script to transcribe it.
Pāli has two sorts of vowels:
long—ā, e, ī, o, ū, & ay; and
short—a, i, & u.
Unlike long and short vowels in English, however, the length here refers to the actual amount of time used to pronounce the vowel, and not to its quality. Thus ā & a are both pronounced like the a in father, simply that the sound ā is held for approximately twice as long as the sound a. The same principle holds for ī & i, and for ū & u. Thus, when chanting Pāli, the vowels are pronounced as follows:
a as in father
o as in go
e as in they
u as in glue
i as in machine
ay as in Aye!
Consonants are generally pronounced as they are in English, with a few unexpected twists:
c as in ancient
p unaspirated, as in spot
k unaspirated, as in skin
ph as in upholstery
kh as in backhand
t unaspirated, as in stop
ṁ & ṅ as ng
th as in Thomas
ñ as in cañon
v as w
Certain two-lettered notations—bh, dh, ḍh, gh, jh—denote an aspirated sound, somewhat in the throat, that we do not have in English.
Pāli also contains retroflex consonants, indicated with a dot under the letter: ḍ, ḍh, ḷ, ṇ, ṭ, ṭh. These have no English equivalent. They are sounded by curling the tip of the tongue back against the palate, producing a distinct nasal tone.
The meters of Pāli poetry consists of various patterns of full-length syllables alternating with half-length syllables.
Full-length (long) syllables:
* contain a long vowel (ā, e, ī, o, ū, ay);
* or end with ṁ;
* or end with a consonant followed by a syllable beginning with a consonant (e.g., Bud-dho, Dham-mo, Saṅ-gho).
(In this last case, the consonant clusters mentioned above—bh, dh, ḍh, gh, jh, kh, ph, th, ṭh—count as single consonants, while other combinations containing h—such as ḷh & mh—count as double.)
Half-length (short) syllables end in a short vowel.
Thus, a typical line of verse would scan as follows:
Van - dā - ma - haṁ ta - ma - ra - ṇaṁ si - ra - sā ji - nen - daṁ
…with the bolded syllables receiving a full-length beat, and the others only a half-length.
4 simples rules of pronunciation to get you immersed quickly
🔗 4 simple rules
for proper pronunciation
🔗finger tapping metronome
🔗AN 5.29 walking meditation, pali pronunciation audio
Gorilla (guerrilla) quick rules of thumb that will help you to not only survive but to thrive in the jungle quickly and easily.
1. pronounce every letter you see
2. know the difference between 'long' and 'short' syllables and vowels. A short syllable is half the amount of time it takes to pronounce a 'long'. Think of it that way, rather than a long syllable takes twice as a long as a 'short'. I will explain the reason for that later.
2b. multiple consonants should be treated like speed bumps - you slow down and come to a full stop. Example 'satta': Pronounce every letter you see, 't' pronounced twice, with a speed bump and a full stop in between.
(Romanized pali exception with aspirate character will be discussed in a more advanced guide).
2c. pali pronunciation guides will often tell you that a long vowel sounds like such a way, and a short vowel has a different sound. Ignore those instructions! They work sometimes, but often not, and then you'll be totally confused when you follow their instructions and it sounds wrong when you chant along with an expert.
Here's the simple rule: Only learn the correct sounds for 'long' vowels, and pay no attention to what the pali rule books say the 'short vowel' version of the sound should be.
Just pronounce all vowels with the 'long sound'.
But when you pronounce a short vowel, since it takes half the time of a 'long sound', so the full sound of the 'long' gets truncated and may end of sounding slightly differently. So that's the natural gorilla way of producing a 'short vowel' sound. Just pronounce every letter you see with the right timing difference between long and short, and it will automatically come out about right.
3. pali is a weakly accented language. In fact, don't try to accent any syllables at all when you're pronouncing words. By following rule #1 and rule #2, the 'long' syllable will tend to stand out as a 'weak accent' in contrast to the short vowels and syllables in the word.
4. listen to correct proper pali pronunciation often, like Ven. Jiv's recordings on lucid24.org.
Here's an example of him chanting 16 steps of breath meditation:
4b. And as much as possible, don't listen to Burmese and Thai chanting, it will mess you up. I had recordings of Thai chanting to use when I was first learning pali pronunciation, and it almost drove me insane, because there didn't seem to be any rules that were being consistently followed, and the same vowels would sound different for no reason and changing seemingly randomly. Burmese has even worse problems.
Having correct samples of audio with proper pronunciation is a miracle. Just listen to it often, chant along with it reading the text, and in no time you'll be able to pronounce correctly.
Bonus rules that are really helpful
5. Keep tongue in neutral position
Back in my early days learning pali, a Sri Lankan monk gave me this great tip.
Most westerners trying to pronounce pali tend to have their tongue in the wrong position.
If I recall correctly, he said the error being the tongue was either too labial (lips) or dental (teeth).
He suggested keeping the tongue in a more centered, neutral location.
I took that advice to heart, and between that tip, and listening to audio of Sri Lankan pali chanting experts, I found that was enough for me to get a decent pronunciation going, without practicing all the detailed nuances from the full blown pronunciation guide. Just listen to correct pronunciation, try to reproduce what you hear, and the tongue being in a more neutral position ensures whatever you make is not too far off. Ultimate gorilla (guerrilla) warfare for quick usable results in the jungle and real life application.