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Difference between śa (श) and ṣa (ष)?

I'm not hearing the difference at all in the exercises. What is the difference supposed to be?

July 21, 2018



श is from Persio-Arabic words and ष is from Sanskrit. The latter is far less frequently encountered because, to be honest, people tend to prefer the Persian terms to the wacky old Sanskrit ones :o ! And your average Indian villager (majority of the population!) can't be bothered to do the Sanskrit pronunciation. Hence, it's the situation again where someone will swear there is this proper way to do ष that you just MUST do, but the kids who missed school that day never got the memo. The "proper" way is to make sh sound while retroflexing your tongue. Otherwise, pronounce both the same :)


"The "proper" way is to make sh sound while retroflexing your tongue."

i cannot fathom how that is physically possible.... isn't that one of those greyed-out squares on IPA tables?

though, trying to build an Urdu letter for it شؕ but i just made that up adding the marker from ٹ ڈ ڑ (ट ड ड़) to ش which is both श and ष i think...


The difference between English th and s is that you pull back your tongue. Pull it back some more and you'll get sh. Pull it back even more and you get retroflex sh.

The same sound in Mandarin Chinese is written as "sh" (They represent alveolar sound with "x".) Here's the IPA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_retroflex_fricative


Sadly, this entire analysis of श being persian, and ष being samskrut is wholly untrue.

There are literally THOUSANDS of samskrut words with श - शरण, शंकर, ईश - I could go on. The REAL answer is, they are just distinct sounds that had a merger in the last 1000 years, and ष phased out of common usage.


You can search about it and read long research level answers.

But a simple one line answer would be - there is no practical difference and both the letters are pronounced like the sh of show or shack.

The separate letters exist only because of historical reasons.


So, I'm hearing that in practice people don't distinguish the two, but if you were to distinguish them, is it anything like the Russian sounds, i.e. श=щ and ष=ш? Or at all like the Mandarin sounds x and sh? Or not really?


It's just tongue more forward versus more backward. The important thing is that in Hindi, even if you can make a different sound, for all intents and purposes it is not meaningful to understanding. (Compared to Mandarin, where the distinction is absolutely essential to create meaning.) Just say SHHHHH! (Quiet! the movies is starting), in any old way, and you will be golden. The only singular reason this is an issue at all is because the SCRIPT (not the language) presents us with two symbols. When you write the same in Punjabi Gurmukhi script, the same symbol is used for both. When you write the same words in Nastaliq (Arabic alphabet) for Urdu -- which is basically the exact same language -- you use the same symbol for both.

Here's a real tip--and I hope I get 100 down votes for this: If you encounter a word with ष, don't say it. Chances are, there is a synonym word of Persio-Arabic or English origin that everyday Hindi speakers prefer. Thus, the most one ever sees ष is when learning Devanagari and on the wall in some government building that everybody calls by a different name. And in Rashtrapati. hehe

Let's not open the can of worms where some Hindi speakers of the countryside sort don't ("can't") pronounce "sh" at all... :o


Just posted the following on a thread with a similar question.

श and ष do represent two different sounds: श is a palato-alveolar fricative while ष is a retroflex fricative. Basically, श is "English sh" (as in "shape") and ष is "Russian sh" (ш). That said, people often, if not always, pronounce both of them as श. Suffice it to say that I haven't heard any Hindi speaker make a distinction between श and ष in speech. This might have to do with the absence of word pairs in Hindi that differ only with respect to one of the two sh-sounds (such word pairs are called minimal pairs) and the fact that श is the easier one to pronounce. Nevertheless careful speakers like myself do pronounce the two differently.

Since the audio samples in this course aren't helpful in discerning them, you can make use of the fact that ष occurs in way fewer words than श and try to memorize the words containing ष as you come across them (there won't be many).


I am a native russian speaker and a fluent english speaker, but I can't distinguish from audio samples here. However I feel very well the difference between russian ш, english sh, chinese sh (which is even more retroflex than russian ш), and щ and few other fricatives. Either audio samples aren't right, or ष is not retroflex fricative :)


Dmitry, There is no difference between the sounds represented in श and ष in normal, everyday Hindi. Actually, ष is an uncommon letter. And people who pronounce it distinctly from श are sort of "showing off" their special education. (We have the joke in the U.S. about Latino/a news broadcasters who speak in English accent but when they say their own names, they exaggerate a Spanish accent, "Rrrrrodrrrigo!")

The situation in which one would pronounce a retroflex /sh/ would be if an s/sh came write before a retroflex stop, for example "ट". The tongue would prepare for the /t/ while still pronouncing the /sh/ and so the /sh/ would come out retroflex. But that's pretty rare, too, and more likely when saying a word borrowed from English like "first"... which might come out sounding like /faṣṭ/ in a Hindi accent.


Since even native Hindi speakers have such a hard time with the distinction between these two, does it really make sense to have so many exercises distinguishing the pronunciation of the two? I think it is just frustrating.


It is not only frustrating, it is absurd.


I have the same problem. It wouldn't trouble me except that there are exercises that require one to listen and choose which one they've just heard.

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