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Pali Alphabet & using the PED Dictionary

How is the alphabet arranged? How do you use a Pali dictionary?
Well the Pali alphabet runs as follows.
a, ā, i, ī, u, ū, e, o
(ṃ*) k, kh, g, gh, (ṅ)
c, ch, j, jh, ñ
ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, (ḍh), (ṇ)
t, th, d, dh, n
p, ph, b, bh, m
y, r, l, (ḷ), (ḷh), v, s, h

Vowels first, then consonants. [Note the letters in brackets have no entries in the dictionary.]

Pali is a phonetic language so each entry above represents a single sound. Every letter always has the same pronunciation regardless of its context, no letter has more than one pronunciation, and no sounds are represented by more than one letter.
For pronunciations see this video:

The Pali Alphabet & Pronunciation Guide | Learn Pāli Basics

A tutorial on how to pronounce the Pali alphabet [in Roman script], its phonetics, and why the niggahīta turns into a nasal - featuring how Pali characters are pronounced - with animations of where...
or visit this  YouTube playlist of Pali pronunciation.

As there are more sounds than letters in the roman alphabet, to make distinctions, special symbols or glyphs, called diacritics, are added to the basic letters. See also the posts on how to enter diacritic marks.

One feature, which I find irritating, of Pali dictionaries and glossaries is that they follow the order of the Pali alphabet, which differs from the order of the English alphabet, and makes looking up words counter-intuitive. So it is important to learn the alphabet as it is the order followed by dictionaries.

Of course, digital searches mean that one no longer has to page through a dictionary by hand.
The PED list nouns in their stem form and verbs in the 3rd person singular. Which means dictionary lookup is fine if you know the stem of the word in which you are interested. If you don’t it's a bit more complicated.

First one must attempt to remove any inflectional suffixes and then deduce the original stem. For most Pali words, the stem itself doesn’t alter in form much during the inflection process; so if you strip off the last 1 or 2 letters from the end of nouns, what remains will be close to the stem form - close enough to find it in the dictionary. For verbs you are looking for the -ti form.
Note also prefixes usually have to be removed from the beginning of the stems too! So if you can't find the word you're looking for, check to see if it is possibly prefixed...

The major exception are pronouns whose form (spelling) can alter significantly during inflection and if you don’t know these by heart then one has to fall back on the standard lookup tables. I you suspect you have a pronoun, see the post on Pali pronouns here for a searchable spreadsheet.

One final problem with dictionaries is the 'niggahīta' which can be transliterated as η, ṁ or ṃ in the texts. The modern form is ṃ. However, the PED uses the old η form and only lists what are called 'true niggahīta' (also sometimes called true anusvāra). No word begins with a niggahīta but they can occur mid-word. This results in the following entries:
-ηy-, -ηr-, -ηh-, -ηv-, -ηs-
In the dictionary order, they are treated as being the 1st consonant (coming before k) but phonetically they are not a separate sound.

One final point is the PED consistently uses 'n' instead of 'ṅ'...

To summarise, the basic pattern followed by dictionaries:
saṃy-; saṃr-; saṃh-; saṃv-; saṃs-; saṃ˙-;
sak-; sakh-; sag-; sagh-; saṅ- (including: saṅk-, saṅkh-, saṅg-, saṅgh-);
sac-; sach-; saj-; sajh-; sañ- (including: sañc-, sañch-, sañj-, sañjh-);
saṭ-; saṭh-; saḍ-; saḍh-; saṇ- (including: saṇṭ-, saṇṭ˙-, saṇḍ-, saṇḍ˙-);
sat-; sath-; sad-; sadh-; san- (including: sant-, santh-, sand-, sandh-);
sap-; saph-; sab-; sabh-; sam- (including: samp-, samph-, samb-, sambh-); say-; sar-; sal-; sav-; sas-; sah-.

  What is a false niggahīta

What have become termed 'false niggahīta' (also sometimes called false anusvāra) are niggahīta which appear before any letter other than: -ηy-, -ηr-, -ηh-, -ηv-, -ηs-. So if you come across a Pali word which has a niggahīta in the middle of it, other than those listed above, you have to transform that niggahīta into a nasal in order to find the word in the dictionary as follows:
niggahīta followed by:
PED entry
η, ṁ or ṃ
k, kh, g, gh or ṅ
n (ṅ)
η, ṁ or ṃ
c, ch, j, jh or ñ
η, ṁ or ṃ
ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh or ṇ
η, ṁ or ṃ
t, th, d, dh or n
η, ṁ or ṃ
p, ph, b, bh or m
η, ṁ or ṃ

This is true of Margaret Cone's new dictionary too!

So it can be quite a challenge just to use the dictionary! In order to aid the student I've created a the PED  lookup tool for a quick way of converting Unicode Pali to PED format. This little tool corrects all the issues listed above and creates link to the PED entry too. Enjoy!

For more See Ariyajoti's guide to anusvāra

Other audio guides to pronunciation:
YouTube Pali Pronunciation playlist
Pāli Vaṇṇamālā (Pāli Alphabet) 21Mar2018 with Audio and Places of Articulation

Next post: Video tutorials to the Pali Language
Or skip ahead to What is noun declension?

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