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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. 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. 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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There is interesting research that the switch from hunter-gatherer to agriculture changed the jaw alignment creating an overbite that made the labio-dental consonants "f" and "v" a common letter in farming cultures. [see Blasi, D. E., Moran, S., Moisik, S. R., Widmer, P., Dediu, D., & Bickel, B. (2019).] Balthasar Bickel associates this change to the replacement of the Proto-Indo-European patēr to Old English faeder about 1500 years ago. With that actual biological change in language production, from the Earliest Vedic Sanskrit to Paninean Sanskrit to how our modern jaw pronounces labio-dentals, there may have been a slow change. After reading the article by Blasi et al, I held my teeth directly over each other like a hunter-gatherer and the pronunciation of the 'v' sound was almost impossible, and it actually made saying 'wra' easier than 'vra'. This makes the answer to how to pronounce Sanskrit's "v" letter much more complicated than just looking at a single Panini reference.

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  • this is not an answer to the question. Anyhow, your self-experiment proves nothing when you wilfully avoid producing the v sound when moving your lower jaw out of that position. The question however is also off-topic'ly language specific, and nonsense, because "supposed to" is a concept foreign to linguistics in general, and not applicable to a pluristic language such as Sanskrit. TKR's Panini was millions of years after the fact, according to the book, huhu.
    – vectory
    Jul 20 at 20:34

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