This is the first in a series of 101 articles intended as a short introduction of the system of vowel combination called sandhi, which Hindi has, in a fossilised form, inherited from Sanskrit. Since the system is fossilised, i.e. does no longer produce new forms in Hindi, it is likely to baffle a student of the language who does only see its effects and has no knowledge of the mechanics behind them. Having a basic knowledge of certain aspects of sandhi will make a student more confident in dealing with Hindi words derived from Sanskrit and enable him or her to understand them by breaking them down into meaningful units instead of just memorising a string of syllables. As it shall help the reader to understand the origin of sandhi, the present article will refer to another article, found on the Zabaan blog, entitled: why are the vowels ए (ē) and ओ (ō) always long? The reader is advised first to read through it, before continuing with the main section of this article.

What, then, is sandhi? The word संधि itself is formed from the prefix सम्, together, and the root धा, to put or place, hence union or joining. It is an extensive and purely cosmetic system used in Sanskrit, by which adjacent sounds, both vowels and consonants, are fused together and adapted to each other in order to prevent vowel hiatus, the pronunciation of two vowels in immediate succession, and to make pronunciation easier – certainly not reading! – by bringing their points of articulation closer together. The type of sandhi with which this article is concerned is the one affecting the combination of the vowels अ or आ with इ and उ or their long equivalents.

As has been explained in the article mentioned above, the vowels ए and ओ are originally diphthongs in -इ and -उ respectively. The vowel ए would have originally consisted of the two components अ and इ. It is a unique feature of Sanskrit that any अ and इ coming into direct contact in the same syllable, even when not belonging to the same word, automatically fuse into an ए. The sandhi rule अ+इ=ए therefore only represents a surprisingly consequent continuation of the phonological development of original Indo-European diphthongs in Sanskrit and not a whimsical trait developed by the language on its own because it felt that it was not yet quite complicated enough already. Just as the laws governing the way colours blend and break, the laws of sandhi are unalterable laws of nature – of how the sounds of speech blend and break in a kaleidoscope of airwaves.

Some of the most common examples of the rule explained above are to be found in personal names containing इंद्र (the supreme god of the Vedic pantheon) or ईश्वर (ruler, lord) as their second element. राजेंद्र is composed of राजा (king) and इंद्र.  The name नरेंद्र employs the same second element but combines it with नर (from नृ, meaning man), which results in the meaning the Indra of men, i.e. ruler of men. The name of the deity गणेश is similarly composed. It consists of गण (herd, tribe, multitude) and ईश (ruling), making गणेश the one who rules over the multitudes.

In the same way and for the same reason as अ+इ results in ए, अ+उ results in ओ. Examples are: परोपकार, which consists of पर (other) and उपकार (help, assistance) and therefore means assistance given to others, benevolence; and ग्रामोद्योग, consisting of ग्राम (village) and उद्योग (effort, endeavour), hence meaning village industry.


Silvio Zinsstag,

teacher for ancient languages