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Transliteration, transcription and pronunciation of Tamil and Sanskrit

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Happiness and the Art of Being

Transliteration and Pronunciation

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The transliteration scheme that I use here is based upon several closely related schemes, namely the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST), the scheme used in the Tamil Lexicon, the National Library at Kolkata romanization scheme, the American Library Association and the Library of Congress (ALA-LC) transliteration schemes and the more recent international standard known as ‘ISO 15919 Transliteration of Devanagari and related Indic scripts into Latin characters’.

The table below summarises this transliteration scheme. In the first column I list all the diacritic and non-diacritic Latin characters that I use to transliterate the Tamil and Sanskrit alphabets; in the second column I give the Tamil letter that each such character represents (followed in square brackets where applicable by the Grantha letter that is optionally used in Tamil to denote the represented sound more precisely); in the third column I give the Devanagari letter that it represents; and in the last column I give an indication of its pronunciation or articulation.

In the Tamil and Devanagari columns, a dash (–) indicates that there is no exact equivalent in that script for the concerned letter in the other script. In the Tamil column, round brackets enclosing a letter indicates that it is pronounced and transliterated as such only in words borrowed from Sanskrit or some other language. Likewise, in the Devanagari column, round brackets enclosing a letter indicates that it is not part of the alphabet of classical Sanskrit, though it does occur either in Vedic Sanskrit or in some other Indian languages written in Devanagari.

Vowels:
a Short ‘a’, pronounced like ‘u’ in cut
ā Long ‘a’, pronounced like ‘a’ in father
i Short ‘i’, pronounced like ‘e’ in English
ī Long ‘i’, pronounced like ‘ee’ in see
u Short ‘u’, pronounced like ‘u’ in put
ū Long ‘u’, pronounced like ‘oo’ in food
Short vocalic ‘r’, pronounced like ‘ri’ in merrily
Long vocalic ‘r’
Short vocalic ‘l’, pronounced like ‘lry’ in revelry (not to be confused with the Tamil consonant ள், which is also transliterated as )
Long vocalic ‘l’
e (ऎ) Short ‘e’, pronounced like ‘e’ in else
ē Long ‘e’, pronounced like ‘ai’ in aid
ai Diphthong ‘ai’, pronounced like ‘ai’ in aisle
o (ऒ) Short ‘o’, pronounced like ‘o’ in cot
ō Long ‘o’, pronounced like ‘o’ in dote
au Diphthong ‘au’, pronounced like ‘ou’ in sound
Consonantal diacritics:
Tamil āytam, indicating gutturalization of the preceding vowel, pronounced like ‘ch’ in loch
Sanskrit anusvāra, indicating nasalization of the preceding vowel, pronounced like ‘m’ or (when followed by certain consonants) ‘ṅ’, ‘ñ’, ‘ṇ’ or ‘n’
Sanskrit visarga, indicating frication (or lengthened aspiration) of the preceding vowel, pronounced like ‘h’ followed by a slight echo of the preceding vowel
Consonants:
k க் क् Velar plosive, unvoiced and unaspirated
kh (க்) ख् Velar plosive, unvoiced but aspirated
g க் ग् Velar plosive, voiced but unaspirated
gh (க்) घ् Velar plosive, voiced and aspirated
ங் ङ् Velar nasal
c ச் च् Palatal plosive, unvoiced and unaspirated (pronounced like ‘c’ in cello or ‘ch’ in chutney)
ch (ச்) छ् Palatal plosive, unvoiced but aspirated
j ச் [ஜ்] ज् Palatal plosive, voiced but unaspirated
jh (ச்) झ् Palatal plosive, voiced and aspirated
ñ ஞ் ञ् Palatal nasal
ட் ट् Retroflex plosive, unvoiced and unaspirated
ṭh (ட்) ठ् Retroflex plosive, unvoiced but aspirated
ட் ड् Retroflex plosive, voiced but unaspirated
ḍh (ட்) ढ् Retroflex plosive, voiced and aspirated
ண் ण् Retroflex nasal
t த் त् Dental plosive, unvoiced and unaspirated
th (த்) थ् Dental plosive, unvoiced but aspirated
d த் द् Dental plosive, voiced but unaspirated
dh (த்) ध् Dental plosive, voiced and aspirated
n ந் न् Dental nasal
p ப் प् Labial plosive, unvoiced and unaspirated
ph (ப்) फ् Labial plosive, unvoiced but aspirated
b ப் ब् Labial plosive, voiced but unaspirated
bh (ப்) भ् Labial plosive, voiced and aspirated
m ம் म् Labial nasal
y ய் य् Palatal semivowel
r ர் र् Dental tap (in Tamil phonology) or retroflex trill (in Sanskrit phonology)
l ல் ल् Dental lateral approximant
v வ் व् Labial semivowel
ழ் Retroflex central approximant (transliterated as in the Tamil Lexicon, and commonly transcribed as zh)
ள் (ळ्) Retroflex lateral approximant
ற் Alveolar plosive, unvoiced (pronunciation of ற only when it is muted, that is, not followed by a vowel)
ḏṟ ற் Alveolar plosive, voiced (pronunciation of ற only when it follows ன்)
ற் Alveolar trill (pronunciation of ற when it follows and precedes a vowel)
ன் Alveolar nasal
ś (ச்) [ஶ்] श् Palatal aspirated sibilant, pronounced somewhat like ‘s’ in sure (or ‘sh’ in she)
(ச்) [ஷ்] ष् Retroflex aspirated sibilant, pronounced somewhat like ‘s’ in sure (or ‘sh’ in she), but with the tongue curled further back
s ச் [ஸ்] स् Dental aspirated sibilant, pronounced like ‘s’ in see
h க் [ஹ்] ह् Voiced glottal fricative

For a more detailed explanation of this transliteration scheme and a fuller explanation about the pronunciation of each letter, please refer to Transliteration, transcription and pronunciation of Tamil and Sanskrit.

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