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I'm confused as to how I'm to pronounce Sanskrit's "v" letter. My teacher mostly pronounces it as a "w" in words such as "deva", "svara" or "dvipa" but invariably utters a "v" in syllables "vra" or "vya".

The definition my teacher once quoted, from an old Indian grammarian, was that "semivowels arise when the other vowels approach vowel 'a' " which clearly suggest the intimate relationship between "w" and "u" (as in good), as well as between "y" and "i" (as in deep).

Since they were so thorough in their classification of sounds, I'm sure the ancient Indian grammarians would've noticed the "v" as a labio-dental consonant, different from semi-vocalic "w", and given it its own name and place in the alphabet - so I believe that letter was supposed to have just one sound.

I try really hard to always pronounce "v" as "w", but my "vya" sounds more like a rapid "wiya", and "vra" sounds really like "ura". But then, trying it the other way around (always as "v") yields "dvipa" or "hva" to become almost impossible to be said.

Any thoughts?

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    The fact that this phoneme is represented by a single character doesn't rule out the possibility that it could have had different pronunciations in different phonetic environments: since these would have been allophones rather than separate phonemes, you wouldn't expect them to be spelled with different characters. But I don't know if there's any evidence that it did. – TKR Nov 30 '13 at 21:38
  • Devanagari and other Indian scripts write the language phonetically rather than phonemically - very small phonetic distinctions are noted down, even very regular sound changes that wouldn't have altered the meaning of a word for a native speaker are written down (e.g. changing a "na" into a retroflex "n", for certain case endings, when the vowel preceding it is other than "a"). The intent was clearly to aid brahmans to recite the prayers in an "exact" way, rather than aiding the masses to read/write (in which case all this attention to detail would be overkill). – Joe Pineda Dec 1 '13 at 3:17
  • Phonemes which vary between "v" and "w" depending on their environment are pretty common. Georgian has it and I've just found out Mongolian has it too. – hippietrail Dec 1 '13 at 12:38
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    @JoePineda Devanagari and other Indian scripts write the language phonetically rather than phonemically - not exactly: they do show allophonic variation, but only when the allophone coincides with another phoneme that exists independently, as in your example of [n] becoming retroflex [ɳ] in certain environments, or as in voicing of e.g. [t] to [d] before voiced sounds. These can be written because /ɳ/ and /d/ are independent phonemes so have their own akṣaras, but that wouldn't be the case if e.g. /w/ had a conditioned allophone [v]. – TKR Dec 1 '13 at 17:36
  • It's pronounced as "v" in all cases, except when the letter follows another consonant, where it optionally may be pronounced as "w." So "स्वतन्त्र" is usually pronounced as "swatantra," but "svatantra" is also correct. However, "वर्ग" should always be pronounced as "varga." – user67444 Aug 10 '15 at 22:13
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From Whitney's Sanskrit Grammar (p. 20):

"...as the original w has in most European languages been changed to v, so also in India, and that from a very early time: the Paninean scheme and two of the Prātiçākhyas (VPr. and TPr.) distinctly define the sound as made between the upper teeth and the lower lip -- which, of course, identifies it with the modern v-sound."

As hippietrail points out in comments, though, this could just as easily describe a labiodental approximant [ʋ] as a labiodental fricative [v]. W. S. Allen's Phonetics in Ancient India (which I don't have at hand) is sure to have more information on how the grammarians described this sound.

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    OK, so even in Panini's time the sound was a "v"! But then, how am I supposed to pronounce "hva" or "tva" (as in "sattva")? Could it be that "va" is the only letter in devanagari meant to be understood phonemically rather than phonetically? I mean, I can understand it should sound as "w" in these (and possibly) other situations, just would like a confirmation this is really the case - and, if possible, the set of rules as to when to emit which sound. Thanks! – Joe Pineda Dec 1 '13 at 3:29
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    I can think of a couple of languages that have the consonant clusters [sv], [dv], [tv] and [hv] – Russian is one. You may have trouble with them as they don’t occur in your native language, but that doesn’t mean the original speakers of Sanskrit did. – neubau Dec 1 '13 at 6:51
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    There's more than one sound that can be made between the upper teeth and the lower lip. The labiodental approximant, [ʋ], apparently exists in Hindi and Marathi (and also Tamil). This is a distinct sound from the labiodental fricative that seems to be TKR's only possible conclusion. – hippietrail Dec 1 '13 at 12:42
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    @hippietrail Good point - I've edited the answer to reflect that possibility. – TKR Dec 1 '13 at 17:31
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    Thanks to both @hippietrail and TKR, I'm accepting this answer - I wish I could mark both of you as answerers. The labiodental aproximant makes much more sense to me - does sound like a "u" while still allowing "dva", "vra", etc to be pronounced easily. Thanks! – Joe Pineda Dec 2 '13 at 16:26

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