Pāli 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, so every country that has adopted Theravada Buddhism has used its own script to transcribe it. In Thailand this has meant that Pāli 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 Pāli chanting.
Pāli has two sorts of vowels: long—ā, e, ī, o, ū, & ay; and short—a, i, & u. Unlike long and short vowels in English, however, the length here refers to the actual amount of time used to pronounce the vowel, and not to its quality. Thus ā & a are both pronounced like the a in father, simply that the sound ā is held for approximately twice as long as the sound a. The same principle holds for ī & i, and for ū & u. Thus, when chanting Pāli, 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
ṁ & ṅ as ng
th as in Thomas
ñ as in cañon
v as w
Certain two-lettered notations—bh, dh, ḍh, 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.
Pāli also contains retroflex consonants, indicated with a dot under the letter: ḍ, ḍh, ḷ, ṇ, ṭ, ṭh. 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 Pāli poetry consists of various patterns of full-length syllables alternating with half-length syllables.
contain a long vowel (ā, e, ī, o, ū, ay); or
end with ṁ; or
end with a consonant followed by a syllable beginning with a consonant (e.g., Bud-dho, Dham-mo, Saṅ-gho).
(In this last case, the consonant clusters mentioned above—bh, dh, ḍh, gh, jh, kh, ph, th, ṭh—count as single consonants, while other combinations containing h—such as ḷh & mh—count as double.)
Half-length syllables end in a short vowel.
Thus, a typical line of verse would scan as follows:
Van - dā - ma - haṁ ta - ma - ra - ṇaṁ si - ra - sā ji - nen - daṁ
…with the bolded syllables receiving a full-length beat, and the others only a half-length.
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 Pāli—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-etaṁ would scan as dham-ma-me-taṁ, and tam-araṇaṁ as ta-ma-ra-ṇaṁ.
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, and pitch. All voices, ideally, should blend together as one.
The two most prominent Thai chanting styles are Magadha (Makhot) and Saṁyoga (Saṁyok). The above scanning rules apply to both styles, although Magadha pauses at commas, periods, and the ends of lines, whereas Saṁyoga does not. As for pronunciation, Saṁyoga has no retroflex consonants; it uses rising tones in syllables where Magadha uses falling tones; and it pronounces:
b & bh as an aspirated p (as in pin)
d & dh as an aspirated t (as in tin)
g & gh as an aspirated k (as in kin)
j & jh as ch
ñ as y