Update: 2016-09-10 11:31 PM -0400


Pali Grammar


by Narada Thera (Lanka)

Edited, with additions from other sources, by U Kyaw Tun (UKT) (M.S., I.P.S.T., USA) and staff of Tun Institute of Learning (TIL) . Not for sale. No copyright. Free for everyone. Prepared for students and staff of TIL  Computing and Language Center, Yangon, MYANMAR :  http://www.tuninst.net , www.romabama.blogspot.com

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  nuclear vowel of syllable

UKT notes :


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UKT 160910: We will meet two kinds of vowels - the inherent vowel (of the akshara), and the nuclear vowel (of the syllable). We have already met the inherent vowel in file on the akshara - aksha.htm . In this file, we will meet the nuclear vowel.

Vowels (sonants) are produced way down in the throat - the voice -box. You can feel the voice-box behind the area of Adam's apple. The vowels come up in little puffs of air. The ancients could never see how these are produced in a living person. What they could study is what they could see in the open mouth. Of course they could have studied the vowels by placing their fingers over the Adam's apple and feel the vibrations of the vocal folds. These vowels can be modified by the articulators such as the tongue, lips and jaw. We say the vowels are modified by the consonants (co-sonants).

The Eastern Ancients, the rishis, who devoted their whole lives to the study of a particular discipline such as astronomy/ astrology, medicine, mathematics, and human sound rightly teach their students studying a language how to say the vowels correctly. What they are doing is teaching {n-poan:kri:}. I had my first taste of this method as a child, repeating over and over again:

Basic vowels of Bur-Myan
{a.} {a}, {i.} {i}, {u.}, {u}, {} ...

modified vowels
... ... ...
{ta.} {ta}, {ti.} {ti}, {tu.} {tu}, {t} ...

UKT 160906: I had thought the Burmese and Mon vowels would have the same pronunciation because both use the same glyph and because of Theravada religion. You can listen to the Mon-Myan vowels given below, and decide for yourself:

- lesson02-61txt<))

The Pali Akshara Alphabet consists of forty-one glyphs: 8 vowels and 33 consonants.

UKT 160829: There is a world of difference between Akshara and Alphabet. The two words come from two separate systems of writing:

Abugida-Akshara :
   Akshara-glyphs, e.g. Myanmar {ta.}, is pronounceable
Alphabet-Letter :
   Letter-glyphs, e.g. Georgian Consonant-Letter "Tan" თ is mute.

The relationship between the two systems can be illustrated with Georgian Consonant-Letter "Tan" თ and Myanmar-Akshara, {ta.}. Myanmar Akshara is pronounceable because of its inherent vowel which is likened to the English short a . On the other hand, the Georgian Consonant-Letter "Tan" თ is mute. It must be coupled with Vowel-Letter "An" ა . The combination თა is pronounced similar to {ta.}.

Pali is a phonetic language. As such each letter has its own characteristic sound. Since, Pali is spoken in many countries - Lanka, Myanmarpr (BurPali & MonPali), Thailand, etc. International Pali (Pal-Lat) is based on Sinhala-Pal), and the pronunciation given by Ashin Narada is also applicable is also applicable to it (i.e. Pal-Lat).

However, because of ethnicity of the different speakers the pronunciation is different: primarily due to different ethnics using different sets of muscles to move the hyoid bone.

Yet, because of the same religion and the phonetic nature of the script, a Theravada Buddhist can still follow the same Paritta recited by another speaker. Listen the same Mora sutta recited by:
Mingun Sayadaw - bk-cndl-Mingun<))
Rev. Jandure Pagngnananda Thero (釋明高) - bk-cndl-Chinese<))
The text of Mora sutta (below) by Sao Htun Hmat Win in Eleven Holy Discourses of Protection, Rangoon, 1981. Listen to the whole Sutta - bk-cndl-Mingun<)) 
Now concentrate on the two verses of interest: the first is to rising sun udetayaṁ, and the second is to setting sun apetayaṁ. The vowels u and a are on the opposing sides of the vowel space, and they give opposing meanings : "rising" and "setting".

udetayaṁ cakkhumā ekarājā /
harissavaṅṅo pathavippabhāso /
taṁ taṁ namassāmi harissavaṇṇaṁ pathavippabhāsaṁ / 
tayājja guttā vīharemu divasaṁ // - Mingun Sayadaw Mora Sutta - MingunMora1<))
... ... ...
apetayaṁ cakkhumā ekarājā /
harissavaṅṅo pathavippabhāso /
taṁ taṁ namassāmi harissavaṇṇaṁ pathavippabhāsaṁ / 
tayājja guttā vīharemu rattiṁ // - Mingun Sayadaw Mora Sutta - MingunMora2<))

Now for a change listen to Sri Lanka monk and the laypersons reciting
the Five Precepts - bk-cndl-LankaPali<)) (link chk 160908)
If you are a Myanmar-Buddhist you must have heard the above in Pali-Myan.

Once a person has passed the age of 10 or 13 (onset of puberty), it is very difficult for him or her to learn a foreign language, an L2. He is forever stuck with his L1. Though he thinks that he is singing the vowel of a different ethnic, he is singing a vowel coloured by his L1. We can know the difference only by studying the formants. In the pix, you can see the formant overlaps of Danish and English /i/ and other front vowels.

Thus we should expect the foreign phoneticians missing the Pal-Myan {a.} (IPA /θ/ the non-hissing thibilant). They think it should be pronounced as {Sa.} / {S.} (IPA /s/ the hisser) as in Pal-Lanka. Similarly they could never "hear" our Palatal Plosive-stops, they can only hear what they are used to - the Palatal Affricates. Thus, their International Pali is quite dissimilar Pal-Myan of Myanmarpr. Yet we can still understand the Pali text, because of the same Theravada faith, and because our languages are based on sound phonetic principals of the Asokan script.


Pronunciation as given by Shin Narada (Lanka) may help the native English-speakers, but for Bur-Myan speakers they are of little help, if not downright misleading. That, "it may help the native speakers" in itself is doubtful if one realises that there are two forms of pronunciation, the 'strong form' and the 'weak form'. According to DJPD16, the strong form is /bʌt/ and the weak form /bət/.

To help the Bur-Myan speakers, I am giving examples from PTS Dictionary read together with PMDict (Compendium Pali Dictionary) by {l-ti-paN~i.ta.} U Maung Gyi, Rangoon, 1966, pp.524 - in Bur-Myan. e.g. <atta> {t~ta.}:
"The Arahant has neither atta nor niratta, neither assumption nor rejection, he keeps an open mind on all speculative theories." -- reminds me what all scientists should aim for.

Vowels in Indic scripts and also in Myanmar are written in two forms: the vowel letter "stand-alone", and "dependant" vowel-sign, in which a consonant akshara has to be inserted. I have given both forms In the above table. Below, are the basic vowels mixed with stand-alone vowel letters. Not all Pal-Myan vowels have these stand-alone vowel letters, with the possible exception of {a.}.

Basic stand-alone vowel letters in BEPS
Pali-Myan: {a.}  {a}  ; {I.} {I}  ; {U.}   {U}  ; {}   {AU}
Pali-Deva: अ a आ ā ; इ i ई ī ; उ u ऊ ū ; ए e ओ o
  Note: 1. / is traditionally given as o
  Note: 2. Asokan (Brahmi) script has 9 vowels: the extra being {:} ऐ ai
  Note: 3. Bur-Myan script also has 9 vowels, the extra being the same as in Asokan and Devanagari , {:} ऐ ai.
- BG1899-indx.htm > BG1899-1-indx.htm > ch01-3.htm (link chk 160910)
  Note: 4. Pali-Dev from Pali in Various Scripts. See downloaded file in TIL SD-Library
  - Pali-vari-script<> / bkp <> (link chk 160906)

UKT 160910: It is claimed that Magadhi the language of Magadha Mahajanapada is so simple that even the animals can understand it. If that is so, why is Pali - invented in Lanka from Magadhi and Lanka speech - has such a complex grammar?

The Bur-Myan language has a very simple grammar as pointed out by A. W. Lonsdale in his Burmese Grammar and Grammatical Analysis 1899 . In Part 1, Orthoepy 'pronunciation', and Orthography 'spelling', Chapter 01, Preface and original TOC :
- BG1899-indx.htm > BG1899-1-indx.htm > ch00.htm (link chk 160910)
" The Burmese language is constructed on scientific principles, and there is no reason why its grammar should not be dealt with also from a scientific standpoint. But it may be safely said that Burmese grammar as a science has not received that attention it deserves.
" With regard to the grammatical treatises by native writers, it is no exaggeration to say that there is not one which can be properly called a Burmese grammar. These writers, not content with merely borrowing the grammatical nomenclature of the Pali language, also attempted to assimilate the grammatical principles of the uninflected Burmese to those of the inflected Pali; so that they produced, not Burmese grammars, but modified Pali grammars in Burmese dress. The servile veneration in which they held Pali, the language they had adopted as the classic, is, no doubt, directly responsible for the composition of such works. In their endeavour to conform strictly to Pali methods, they often introduced unnecessary terms and misapplied them, ignoring those grammatical points in Burmese for which they could find no parallel in Pali. How futile their attempts were may be judged by the numerous difficulties and anomalies they created, from some of which even now teachers of the language have not quite extricated themselves - take, for instance, the case-inflexions."



Additions to the above 8 vowels found in section on pronunciation:

ē  pronounced as a in <fate>
ō  pronounced as o in <note>

The author Ashin Narada (Lanka) gives unsuitable examples by giving English words that end in e - the silent e . To add more sense to the examples, I am giving the IPA spellings:

<fate> /feɪt/
<note> /nəʊt/

The vowels "e" and "o" are always long, except when followed by a double consonant; e.g. ettha, oṭṭha.

UKT 160829: The idea of a double consonant originated with the Westerners who first came in touch with Pali in Sri Lanka. The so-called "double consonants" are found in works transcribed into the Eng-Lat Alphabet-Letter system. There is no such thing in Pal-Myan or in Bur-Myan. Notice that these words have two syllables and the boundary is right in the middle of the "double". Thus, you can write: et-tha & aut-tha. Remember <tha.> is Pal-Myan r4c2 {hta.}.

Thus, if you transcribe according to Bur-Myan transcription, et-tha & aut-tha become {et~hta.} & {aut~hta.}, and the "double-consonant" disappears.

Because of my limited knowledge of Pali, pronunciation of words that begin with o always gives me trouble. For example, <ojā̄> {AU:za}. Notice that the vowel o has now become {au}. Please refer to PTS Dictionary p165 and you will see that this word has the same root as Latin <Augustus>.


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The nuclear vowel

In addition to inherent vowel, you will come across another type of vowel present in syllables: the nuclear vowel of a syllable of canonical form CV. Since Pali syllables and words always end in vowels, the canonical form is CV, and by nuclear vowel we mean the V of CV. This will be given in Syllable -- syllable.htm .

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UKT note



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End of TIL file