Sanskrit, Music, and Science: Learn the art of mastering any accent

The planet Earth inhabits over 8 billion people on 7 continents, consisting of at least 200 countries. And we have disagreements from time to time. Some of these disagreements are always ongoing because they sprout from differences in culture, region, and language. While other things may or may not be in our control, language is something that surpasses all barriers because all humans have this wonderful resource, which sets us apart from other animal species. There are 7151 languages spoken in the world according to Ethnologue, one of the most extensive and comprehensive language catalogs, including sign languages in different parent languages. So as humans, we have something for everyone. But even in this scenario, we have trouble understanding each other because of something called an accent. This changes from place to place and it becomes difficult to comprehend. However, an accent is not something exclusive to people in a given region. It is all about having control over our tongue position and mouth shape while speaking. If one really tries, then they can blend in with the other people without much difficulty.

No accent is right or wrong. It is a way of speaking for the inhabitants of that region.

Maybe if we all made an effort in speaking clearly, non-natives may be able to pronounce the “dha” sound of Hindi and similar languages, or the unique “r” sound of German, French and similar languages, or even the “zh” sound in the Tamil language (which is nothing to do with z or h). I have already covered the Sanskrit language in an older article (Jayatu Samskritam: Victory to the cause of Sanskrit!), where I have talked about the unique aspects of it that make Sanskrit a source of all round development for learners. It has another aspect that will help us get over our accent troubles, which I want to discuss in this article.

Origin of the Sanskrit Alphabet

The existing approach to learning the Sanskrit Alphabet using the categorization into consonants and vowels (which is related to the present style of learning other languages) has been formulated from the original Maheshwara Sutras composed by Maharishi Panini which he derived from the beats of Nataraja’s Damru (Lord Shiva’s ever dancing form). The following verse from the Maheshwara Sutra describes the origin of the Sanskrit Alphabet as composed by Maharishi Panini:

Nruttaavaasane natarajarajo nanaada dakkaam navapanchavaaram |
Udhdhartukamah sanakadisiddhadinetadvimarshe shivasootrajaalam ||

This verse essentially means that the ever-dancing form of Lord Shiva, Nataraja, is the King of all dancers (Nata + Raja), and at the end of the dance, Nataraja played 14 combinations of sounds by the beat of his Dhakkam (or Damru) to bless the great sages like Sanaka and so on, which came to be known as the Shivasutrajalam. From this originated 14 sutras that form the basis of the entire Sanskrit language, and blessed are those who heard and identified Nataraja’s Damru. The 14 sutras are as follows:

For more insight into this, you may start here. Listen to the following audio reciting the above. It is first recited unaccompanied and then accompanied by the rhythm of a Damru from 00.54. You can hear the clear similarities between the music and the recitation:

This audio was taken from The Matheson Trust Website and exclusively belongs to them.

The Sanskrit Pronunciation Technique

The reason Sanskrit is a suitable language for vocal training is that Sanskrit is an engineered language. It is a script that was created to be able to write the spoken language. Hence, the original Sanskrit script encompasses most of the spoken sounds and the technique of producing those sounds. Sounds can be of two types:

  1. Those that can be produced naturally or exist without any dependencies (SwaraH), and
  2. Those that need a special effort from the different parts of our mouth and throat (Vyanjanam).

SwaraH mainly includes vowels and some other sounds as well. They are pretty straightforward and you can already take a look at them at this link. I will focus today on the Vyanjanam because I feel they need more explanation. We can start by understanding that our mouth has five focal points of emphasis, one nose, and one tongue. Combining all these in different combinations will produce a different sound. However, these combinations are not random. But first, let me give you an essence of what to expect in this technique. Bear with me for this section and try to make the sounds as I describe them. You will be able to understand the science of making sounds. There is a term for each of the positions and placements in Sanskrit as well.

Say these sounds out loud and feel the position of the tongue and the shape of your mouth:

  1. Ka (As in kangaroo): Tongue touches the back of the mouth (throat)
  2. Cha (As in charge): Tongue touches the roof of the mouth
  3. Ta (As in towel): Tongue hits against the bump on the roof of the mouth
  4. Th (As in thanksgiving): Tongue touches the back of the teeth
  5. Pa (As in paternal): Joining of lips

These are the basic five language palettes in your mouth on which all the sounds are based. Here is a diagram that shows the five points we need to focus on:

Image adapted from Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Before we start understanding sounds, I will explain the term aspirate.

What does aspirate mean?

In several pronunciation guides, they use this term but it is not explained properly. This is the major issue many non-Indians face when pronouncing words from Indian languages. We have words like “Khagol” in Hindi or “Khana” in Urdu, which start with Kh. This is different from just K. So, many people end up pronouncing it as Kah. Rather, it is the sound of K and H together. I have a solution for you if you would like to practice how to aspirate. Try this:

  1. Say Ka (As in Kangaroo) multiple times and get used to the associated tongue placement.
  2. Now say Ha (As in Happy) and get used to the associated tongue placement.
  3. Finally, place your tongue in the position where you are about to say Ka. At this point, exhale heavily (as if saying Ha) Repeat this a few times, and you will now be able to say Kha easily.
  4. You can do the aspiration of any sound in the five positions of the mouth as given above.

Getting back to the five points above

At each of these points, we will:

  1. Place tongue in position, exhale from the mouth, and simultaneously, release tongue from the position.
  2. Do the same as above, but aspirate the sound.
  3. Do step 1 but give it your voice as well instead of only exhaling.
  4. Do step 3, but also aspirate the sound.
  5. Do step 3, but speak using a nasal voice.

If you were able to follow these steps, you will get the first 25 consonants of the Sanskrit Alphabet without trouble.

The next 4 are as follows:

These sound pretty straightforward in their English equivalent. The final 4 are as follows:

Sa and Ha seem straightforward, but how are the two sha‘s?

Try making the natural “shhhh” sound with your mouth. This is Sha.

Try making the “shhhh” sound with your tongue as close to the roof of the mouth as possible. This is sha.

When you’ve gotten all of the above, you’ve mastered the consonants in the Sanskrit Alphabet and along with the combination consonants and vowels (Click on vowels if you would like an elaboration on that as well), you have most of the sounds you would need in any language. This is because once you understand how sounds are generated, you will be able to generate the mechanism for any sound and speak the language the way it should be spoken. As I said before, Sanskrit is highly articulate in terms of sounds because it originated from musical beats, and later this language was given a script to denote the various sounds, which was the Brahmi script that later developed into the Devanagri script. The script and the language may have evolved over time, but the science at its heart remains the same.

If you would like to learn all this with a video, I found some informative videos here:

It will take some effort, but make the effort if you would like to make yourself understand by understanding other people. This is not to say that Sanskrit is the only language that can help with practicing vocal techniques, but Sanskrit is one of the good languages that focus on vocal development among others. I know Sanskrit, which makes me write about it. If you would like to suggest a language, go ahead and let us know in the comments.

We have everything right in front of us. A little effort will take us to levels we haven’t even imagined!

Point to ponder?

Be Priya-fied!


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