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Jan. 15, 2022
Author - manisar
Interest in Vedanta brings with it, howsoever little, an interest in Sanskrit.
And one having interest in Sanskrit is sure to get perplexed by these two super-fine concepts - of Visarga and Anusvara.
To one's surprise, both of these are vowels in Sanskrit!
But these are unlike other vowels in the sense that these are actually applied to other vowels (and not to consonants)!
So, these are special vowels - vowels which aid other vowels!
And, that's why they have only 1/2 matra (duration of pronunciation), whereas short vowels have 1 matra, and long vowels have 2 matras.
I assure you that once you get the hang of these, you will be amazed by how perfection-loving, peculiar and precise the rule-makers of Sanskrit were - no wonder it was called Sanskrit - the refined one!
Let's look at these one by one, in the end you will clearly see how connected these two ideas are.
You may jump to the TL; DR below.
Just keep these two things in mind regarding both of the visarga and anusvara:
The first thing to note is that visarga (:) can not be pronounced like other consonants and vowels* in the fashion ह and ह् can be. Visarga needs to be applied to a previous vowel to make it pronunceable.
The following discussion is regarding the Sanskrit anusvara.
Anusvara in Hindi can sound in many different ways - scroll to Hindi! When you Borrow, Misuse, but then Improvise! for learning more.
The name 'anusvara' is composed of two words - a prefix 'anu' and the main word 'svara'.
While the latter means a vowel, the former can have different meaning depending upon the context.
It can mean 'later', or 'following' and that is what is understood by most people trying to understand 'anusvara' - 'that following a vowel', or 'that (manipulating) the previous vowel'.
There is another meaning of 'anu' that I would want to use here - subordinate/inferior/smaller. That suggests that anusvara would be a smaller vowel.
So, like visarga, the anusvara is applied to the previous vowel (and not to other consonants).
So much for the theory.
Unlike other distinct nasal sounds such as न, न्, म and म् (and there are more - ङ, ञ and ण), the anusvara is merged with the previous vowel (the vowel applied to the letter below it) - there is absolutely no gap between that vowel and the nasal sound.
With anusvara, the nasal sound starts coming right at the end of the pronunciation of the letter below it (i.e. right after the pronunciation of the consonant + vowel below it).
So, again, this can be explained by the four stages of merging the nasal sound with the previous (or next) letter (just like in Visarga, we merged the h sound with the previous letter).
The fourth one above represents anusvara.
Though written like ṃ, anusvara has NOTHING to do with the sound of m or म!
Linguists should have come up with a different symbol for anusvara in English.
In fact, in most cases, anusvara sounds more like n than m.
Try to make the sound of n separately as it sounds in sing - just with your nose - do not add any effort from your throat, tongue or teeth - that is the sound of anusvara. Just like Visarga, it needs a another vowel before it for making itself pronounceable like other vowels and consonants*.
So, e.g. when we are saying अहं (ahaṃ), we are ending the word with one and a half vowels in succession - a and ṃ
Here ṃ is nasalizing the previous vowel a.
Think of the sound of the letter s (स्). Without any vowel, it is like the hissing sound.
In order to pronounce it properly:
The full proper word is अहम्.
Depending upon the word following it, according the rules of sandhi, म् generally changes in two steps as described below (when followed by a consonant):
This is my understanding and I may be wrong.
Anunasika, is simply anusvara without its (1/2) matra.
So, without any matra, anunasika cannot be used at most places except with the following:
Note that the first three above are mandatory - it's not even possible to use the anusvara at these places with its 1/2 matra. Anunasika is the only choice.
Fourth one is optional - both पुंस्कामा and पुँस्कामा are legitimate.
Summarlily, anunasika (ँ) is a milder/shorter version of anusvara.
*Cannot be pronounced like other consonants and vowels - what does it mean?
Of course, both visarga and anusvara have a sound of their own, but, you do not have much control over them, e.g. you cannot control their loudness which is possible for other consonants, even vowels.
The confusion Hindi speakers have with Anusvara (ं) roots in the following.
Hindi is an easy and forgiving language - quite like English - and that is one of the main reasons for its popularity.
One example where it tried to simplify things is this.
Try to pronounce these five words paying attention to the nasal sound:
You will note that the nasal sound in each of these is markedly different from others.
That's Ok, and that's why Sanskrit had different letters for each of such nasal sounds.
But wait, what if we change the nasal letter in a couple of them?
It's easy to see that it's very difficult to pronounce the nasal sounds differently (as compared to the pronunciation of their original spellings)!
What if we just have a common symbol for the nasal sounds in all of the words above, and let the reader decide how to pronounce it? It's not going to make any noticeable difference. So, that's what they did.
The only mistake - instead of using a distinct unambiguous symbol, they simply used the existing anusvara - ं! So, now these words become:
So far so good - it's not stupid if it works, right?
This actually leads to some ambiguity - in Sanskrit अहंकार and अहङ्कार would be read differently - in the former, the ह is nasalized, in the latter, क is preceded with its corresponding nasal (ङ्), and ह is not nasalized at all! Try pronouncing these once this way 🙂.
But the difference is so subtle that Hindi chose to ignore it!
Similarly, what about those places where the anusvara is meant to do its Sanskrit-like-job - that of nasalizing the letter below it, instead of adding a nasal consonant after it?
Simple again - Hindi lets anusvara do that at those places! E.g. हंस.
After this, there remains one last bit - to take care of cases where we need a milder/shorter nasalization than what is provided by the anusvara usually.
There are definitely those cases out there, I'll show below.
So, Hindi borrowed another symbol from Sanskrit - the anunasika or the Chandra-bindi - the gorgeous ँ!
See below the need of the chandra-bindi by comparing the highlighted nasal couplets appearing in the following phrases:
वह हंस को देख के हँस पड़ी (ह in हँस has a milder nasalization, and so on below)
संवत् सँवर गया
साँप का सैंपल
साँसों में संदल की खुशबू
संध्या में हवा की साँय-साँय
हांडी को हाँजी
कूंड में कूँ-कूँ
पंख और पूँछ
In all of the above, the anunasika or chandra-bindi is doing what it did in Sanskrit - providing a milder form of nasalization.
So, that's the story.
Except, it's not over.
To further simply writing, Hindi uses one more convention.
If a chandra-bindi is needed for a letter that has a matra (मात्रा) over it, the convention is to simply use the anusvara, and read it like a chandra-bindi.
Sometimes, the reader has to use their discretion, that's it - e.g.: मेंढकों में लड़ाई!
It's a small price to pay for simplicity, isn't it 🤔?