Pali written in Roman letters is pronounced largely as one would expect from English, with the following clarifications:
Vowels are of two lengths:
Short a as in ‘cat’ or, at the end of words, as in ‘about’ i as in ‘hit’ u as in ‘put’
Long ā as in ‘father’ ī as in ‘machine’ ū as in ‘rule’ e as in ‘gain’ o as in ‘more’, or French ‘au’
Consonants are mostly as in English, except:
c like English ch ṃ and ṅ like ng in ‘sang’
ñ like ny in ‘canyon’ v rather softer than English v; near w
ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, ḷ, ṇ These retroflex consonants have no English equivalent. They are sounded by curling the tip of the tongue back against the palate. But an English pronunciation will do fine.
kh, gh, ch, jh, ṭh, ḍh, th, dh, ph, bh Each of these combinations with h represents a single consonant, one with a marked puff of air after it. For example, Pali t is ideally pronounced like the t at the end of the English word ‘at’, or like a French t, and Pali th like the t at the beginning of ‘tea’, emphasising the puff of air.
th as t in ‘tongue’. It is never pronounced as in English ‘the’. ph as p in ‘palate’. It is never pronounced as in English ‘photo’
All other combinations with h, as for instance lh, mh, vh and yh are two separate consonants, with the h pronounced separately. Double consonants are pronounced double, for example tt is pronounced like the two ts in English ‘hot tea’, ss like the c and s in ‘lettuce soup’.
Chanting as Group Practice
The following principles are helpful in developing chanting as a group practice — as well as improving the quality of the chanting.
Some chants, like English songs, have natural breaks at the end of and sometimes in the middle of lines, where it is appropriate to take a breath. In many chants, however, the sound of the chanting is continuous and unbroken, except in some cases at specific stop points near the beginning or end. In these chants each chanter needs to breathe at a different time from others so that no silent gaps occur between words or at the ends of lines. To breathe, stop chanting for one or more syllables, and take as long an in-breath as you wish — don’t snatch a breath between words or lines; but be mindful of the people on each side of you and try to take your in-breaths while they are continuing to chant. This is mindfulness of breathing internally, externally and internally and externally together.
Most of the chants that we do in Samatha are in this continuous style, apart from a few like the refuges and precepts and the Offering Verses. Chants like the Iti pi so, the Mettasutta, the Maṅgalasutta and the Mahājayamaṅgalagāthā and indeed most paritta chants are chanted continuously.
Always chant more quietly than the loudest chanter in the group and more loudly than the quietest.
Follow the leader
Always listen carefully to the group, and in particular to the leader. Follow the leader in speed, volume, pitch and style. The leader is always right. (This is particularly important as variations develop in Samatha modes of chanting particular chants, so different leaders lead differently.) Conversely, the leader needs to give a clear lead throughout the chant, not only in the ‘lead-ins’ (indicated in bold in the text of the chants). This is particularly important in the trickier parts of chants.
The better you know the chant, the more effectively you can use it as a practice. Learning by heart makes a big difference, and gets easier the more you do.
Rhythm and Syllables
Pali poetry takes its rhythm from the pattern of long and short syllables. In chanting poetry, and in many prose chants too, a long syllable is chanted twice the length of a short one, i.e. two beats as opposed to one, which brings this rhythm out clearly.
To work out for yourself which syllables are short and which long:
First divide the chant into syllables. Ignore spaces between words. All syllables start with a single consonant where possible, taking it from the end of the previous word if necessary. Double consonants are pronounced double, and where two consonants occur together, the first finishes the previous syllable and the second starts the next one. So icc evaṃ is broken into syllables: ic – ce – vaṃ, and chanted that way. Remember that kh, gh etc. are single consonants (see p.84). (br, and sometimes tr and dr, are generally treated as a single consonants too.)
Short syllables are ones ending in a short vowel (a, i, u).
Long syllables are all others, i.e. they contain: a long vowel (ā, ī, ū, e, o), or a vowel plus ṃ (ṃ cannot begin a syllable) or they end in a consonant.
Here is the beginning of the Mettasutta, with hyphens between the syllables. Spaces between words and even between lines must be ignored. Long syllables are in bold.
Double consonants and nasals in Thai chanting style
Especially in slow chanting of verse, for example in the style in which we usually chant the Buddhamaṅgalagāthā and the Bojjhaṅgaparitta, double consonants often have a nasal sound (n, ṇ, ñ, m or ṅ (ng)) between them which is ‘hummed’, for example: sabmbe with the m hummed between the two bs. So while English is always sung on vowels, punctuated by consonants, Thai chanting allows for some humming too. (This kind of humming also occurs in Sri Lankan and other kinds of Pali chanting but not necessarily in the same places as it would in Thai.)
A good place to start learning to make these nasals (which we often produce in English without necessarily noticing) is to say bmbmbmbmb keeping the lips closed throughout. Notice what you are doing with the back of the tongue to make the b sounds. Now try sabmbe also without opening the lips between the two bs.
The same can be done with tt: try tntntntntnt, this time keeping the front of the tongue in the same position throughout: the back of the tongue moves up and down in the same way as with bmb. Then try it in satntā.
In each case the nasal used will be formed in the same way as the consonants on each side of it, just with the air expelled through the nose instead of being blocked off completely.