A Practical Grammar of the PŒli Language
Chapter 1

The Alphabet

1. The PŒli Alphabet consists of 41 letters; namely: 6 vowels, 2 diphthongs, 32 consonants and one accessory nasal sound called Niggahta.

2. The vowels are divided into short and long; the short vowels are: a, i, u; the long vowels are Œ, , .

3. The value of a long vowel is about twice that of a short one, so that it takes twice as much time to pronounce a long vowel as to pronounce a short one.

4. The sign of a long vowel is a dash placed over it. Besides the above three long vowels, all short vowels are prosodically long that come before a conjunct or double consonant: for instance, in bhikkhu, raha and puppha, the -i before kkh, the -a before h and the -u before pph are said to be long.

Long also are a, i, u when followed by (niggahta), as in: puppha, a flower; cakkhu, eye; kapi, monkey.

5. The two diphthongs are e and o, which are always long. They are diphthongs only grammatically, because they are supposed to be the product of the meeting and contraction of two vowels (a + i = e; and a + u = o). In reality and practically they are simple vowels.

6. The consonants are divided into: 25 mutes, 5 semi-vowels, one sibilant and one aspirate (spirant). The 25 mutes are divided, according to the place of their formation and utterance, into 5 groups of 5 letters each.

The following table shows at a glance the classification of all the letters:

Surd Sonants
Unaspirate Aspirate Unaspirate Aspirate Nasals Semi-vowels
Spirant Sibilant Vowels
gutterals k kh g gh   h   a, Œ e o
palatals c ch j jh y     i,
linguals h h r,        
dentals t th d dh n l   s
labials p ph b bh m v     u,
(niggahta) - sonant

7. is now generally considered to be a semi-vowel and it is a liquid, a modification of l; in palm-leaf MSS l and are constantly interchanged. is not seldom the substitute of ; it is a lingual because it is pronounced as the letters of that class (, h, etc.).

8. or niggahta comports, properly speaking, no classification; it is merely a nasal breathing found only after the short vowels: a, i, u.

9. The Gutterals are so called from their being pronounced in the throat;
The Palatals, from being uttered by pressing the tongue on the front-palate;
The Linguals are formed by bringing the up-turned tip of the tongue in contact with the back of the palate;
The Dentals are so called from their being pronounced with the aid of the teeth;
The Labials are formed by means of the lips;
The Nasals are sounded through the nose;
The Sibilant has a hissing sound; and,
The Spirant a strong aspirated breathing.
The Mutes are so called on account of their not being readily pronounced without the aid of a vowel;
Surds, are hard, flat, and toneless;
The Sonants are soft and uttered with a checked tone;
The Liquids, readily combine with other consonants: (except, perhaps, );
The Aspirates are pronounced with a strong breathing or h sound added to them;
The Unaspirates are pronounced naturally, without effort and without the h sound.

The Pronunciation

The Vowels

10. a is pronounced like a in art.
Πis pronounced like a in father
i is pronounced like i in sin, pin
is pronounced like ee in been, sheen.
u is pronounced like u in put, bull
is pronounced like oo in fool, boon.
e is pronounced like a in table, fate.
o is pronounced like o in bone, stone.

The Consonants

11. Remark. In all cases, the aspirates are pronounced like the unaspirates, but with the addition of a strong h sound; hence the pronunciation of the unaspirates only is given.

k is pronounced like k in king.
g is pronounced like garden, go.
is pronounced like ng in king, bring.
c is pronounced like ch in church, chip.
j is pronounced like jail, jar.
– is pronounced like ny in banyan.
t is pronounced like table, tack.
th, it must be borne in mind, is never pronounced like the English -th, in such words as: the, thin, etc. It is merely -t, uttered with an effort.
d is pronounced like d in deed.
n is pronounced like n in nag.
p is pronounced like p in part.
ph, it must be remarked, is simply the aspirate of p, and ought not to be pronounced like f (as in: philosophy).
b is pronounced like b in book.
m, y, r, l, s, h are pronounced like the corresponding English letters.
v, not preceded by a consonant has the sound of v, in vine, vile. But preceded by a consonant, it is sounded like w in wind, win; tvŒ, therefore, is pronounced twŒ.
, (niggahta), found always at the end of words is, in Burma, pronounced like m in, jam, ram; in Ceylon, it is given the sound of ng in, bring, king.

Conjunct Consonants

12. Two consonants coming together form what is called a conjunct or double consonant. For instance, in: vassa, kattha and pandŒpeti, the ss, tth, and nd, are conjunct consonants.

13. Only the letters of a same vagga or group (viz., the five divisions of the mutes: gutterals, palatals, etc.), can be brought together to form a conjunct consonant: the first and second, and the third and fourth only: the fifth letter of each group, that is the nasal, can be coupled with any of the other four consonants in its group.