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Paali is the original language of the Theravadin Buddhist scriptures, the closest we have to the dialect spoken by the Buddha himself. It has no written script of its own, and so every country that has adopted Theravada Buddhism has used its own script to transcribe it. In Thailand this has meant that Paali has picked up some of the tones of the Thai language, as each consonant & consonant cluster in the Thai alphabet has a built-in tone -- high, medium, low, rising, or falling. This accounts for the characteristic melody of Thai Paali chanting.

Paali has two sorts of vowels, long -- aa, e, ii, o, uu, & ay; and short -- a, i, & u. Unlike long and shorts vowels in English, the length here refers to the actual amount of time used to pronounce the vowel, and not to its quality. Thus aa & a are both pronounced like the a in father, simply that the sound aa is held for approximately twice as long as the sound a. The same principle holds for ii & i, and for uu & u. Thus, when chanting Paali, the vowels are pronounced as follows:

a as in father
o as in go
e as in they
u as in glue
i as in machine
ay as in Aye!

Consonants are generally pronounced as they are in English, with a few unexpected twists:

c as in ancient
p unaspirated, as in spot
k unaspirated, as in skin
ph as in upholstery
kh as in backhand
t unaspirated, as in stop
"m & "n as ng
th as in Thomas
ñ as in cañon
v as w
Certain two-lettered notations -- bh, dh, .dh, gh, jh -- denote an aspirated sound, somewhat in the throat, that we do not have in English and that the Thais do not have in their language, either. The Thai solution to this problem is to pronounce bh as a throaty ph, dh as a throaty th, and gh as a throaty kh.

Paali also contains retroflex consonants, indicated with a dot under the letter: .d, .dh, .l, .n, .t, .th. These have no English equivalent. They are sounded by curling the tip of the tongue back against the palate, producing a distinct nasal tone.

The meters of Paali poetry consists of various patterns of full-length syllables alternating with half-length syllables.

Full-length syllables:

contain a long vowel (aa, e, ii, o, uu, ay); or
end with "m; or
end with a consonant followed by a syllable beginning with a consonant (e.g., Bud-dho, Dham-mo, Sa"n-gho).
In this last case, the consonant clusters mentioned above -- bh, dh, .dh, gh, jh, kh, ph, th, .th -- count as single consonants, while other combinations containing h -- such as lh & mh -- count as double.)

Half-length syllables end in a short vowel.

Thus, a typical line of verse would scan as follows:

Van - daa - ma - ha"m  ta - ma - ra - .na"m  si - ra - saa  ji - nen - da"m
 1     1   1/2    1   1/2   1/2  1/2   1    1/2  1/2    1   1/2   1     1

In this book, wherever possible, many of the long compound words have been broken down with hyphens into their component words to make them easier to read and -- for anyone studying Paali -- to understand. This creates only one problem in scanning: When the hyphen is preceded by a consonant (usually m or d) and followed by a vowel, the consonant forms a syllable together with the vowel following the hyphen and not with the vowel preceding it. Thus, for instance, dhammam-eta"m would scan as dham-ma-me-ta"m.; and"m as"m.

If all these rules seem daunting, the best course is simply to listen carefully to the group and to chant along, following as closely as possible their tempo, rhythm, & pitch. All voices, ideally, should blend together as one.

Revised: Wed 16 May 2001