Top 10 Most Mispronounced Sanskrit Words.

Via on Feb 22, 2012
photo taken in India by Melissa Smith

Fresh from the Texas Yoga Conference, Nicolai Bachman, Sanskrit (संस्कृतम्) scholar and well known author of the book The Language of Yoga, takes a moment to share the mispronunciations and correct pronunciations of 10 most commonly used Sanskrit words.

If you teach yoga, you need to hear this.

 

 

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More articles by Melissa, including a serenade by Steve Gold.

~

Editor: Brianna Bemel

About Melissa Smith

Melissa is a freelance writer, zealous traveler, momma, and AcroThaiTherapeuticsYogaLifeStudentOccasionalTeacher. She leads advanced teacher trainings for Leeann Carey Yaapana Yoga, specializing Therapeutic Partner Practice and hosts retreats in Texas, Thailand & New Orleans for Grace Yoga Retreats. Connect with her on Facebook, her Grace Yoga Blog, and Twitter. or read other Elephant Journal articles.

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64 Responses to “Top 10 Most Mispronounced Sanskrit Words.”

  1. tamiapland says:

    thanks for this, melissa!

  2. Śodhanānandaḥ says:

    he says sans-skrit, not sun-skri-tam (the "correct" way, haha) (teehee)

  3. Jean LeBlanc says:

    Being French-Canadian, I get very angry when someone from France coaches me on the "correct" pronunciation of French. There's no such thing as correct or wrong pronunciation in any language.

    • guest says:

      WTH? yes there is!

      • NO there isn't…tell someone from new york that water is said the way someone from texas says it… regionality matters.

        • Dave Keays says:

          Excuse me for injecting some things I’ve learned over the years here. But this blog isn’t one I have frequented so by definition I’m a troll. Sorry.

          Remember that our language is a part of theirs and they both are in the indo-aryan family. The gutterals are like german, rolling r’s are like Scottish, and nasalizations are like Portugese or Spanish.

          The dravidian sound system in the south is very different than the hidustandi system in the north where there was more interaction with Aryan and Persian conquerors.

          What they teach in schools, kariboli, is the dialect from uttar pradesh. It is as close as we can come to the language before the split between urdu and sanskrit.

          Years ago I heard a story that the word “hindi” came from “people of (the river) Sindhu” as pronounced incorrectly by Persians. They had no siliblant (‘s’ sound) and used an aspiration (‘h’ sound) instead. When the indian wanderers returned home they brought back the mis-pronounciation. Their mistake was the basis for the name of the language and the people.

          Then there is the fact that like many eastern languages, they use a completely different script which is sometimes difficult to write with Romanicised letters.

          नमस्ते

    • Lisa says:

      There is no such thing as incorrect NATIVE pronunciation. So Canadian French is no better and no worse than Parisian French. English from New Orleans is no better and no worse than BBC English. But, believe me, if you heard me pronounce French (as a non-native) you would think it was not correct!!! :-)

      • youcancreatemagic says:

        You would not have said this if you really were exposed to French-Canadian French on a daily basis – they literally butcher an otherwise beautiful language. So yes, there is an INCORRECT way to speaking a language. I am from Montreal, Quebec and any French from France that comes here unfortunately gets the shock of their life because of the way French-Canadians speak the language. It is quite pathetic that they get offended when someone calls them on it, yet they truly have no idea how to speak proper French – and by the way, my comments have nothing to do with the "accent."

  4. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    LOL Nobody's perfect. ;-)

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  5. Sangeeta says:

    Thank you for bringing this to attention! I had the privilege of growing up in India and study Sanskrit as my second language to Hindi, a daughter of Sanskrit (both share the Devnagari alpha bate). I always wondered if anyone cared to pronounce correct Yoga words, so I very much appreciate this video!
    Actually to add, the word Yoga should have the very first one on the list, which is supposed to be pronounced as "YOG" with "A" being silent but just supporting the full sound pronunciation of "G" :))

    • melissa says:

      thank you for sharing that. in the west, I (we) can't even pronounce things in English very well!… so makes it challenging to work with an ancient language. :)

  6. OK I knew the ones he listed :)

    what's funny is how I have studied with a few people from india and they say them in even more fun and interesting ways…

    Like yoga is just YOG — and asana's don't even have the a sound at the end. and i"m not just talking about how it's in a sentence but as a stand alone.

    I guess this is the difference that akaranandah is talking about…but at some point I have to question who REALLY knows?

  7. [...] The Sanskrit language has evolved several terms to describe a teacher’s abilities, running the gamut from providers of information to guides in the inner journey. There is a huge world of difference between those who address the former type of ignorance and those who address the latter. [...]

  8. Who would have thought that an article about Sanskrit would be such a big hit on elephant.

    But that's one of the reasons I love my job so much, surprises every day!

    Thanks, Melissa.

    Bob W.
    Associate Publisher

  9. This is Nicolai here to address some of these comments. Yes, I pronounced Sanskrit as it it pronounced in English, not as it is pronounced in Sanskrit (as Samskritam) because very few people would recognize the name of this language if I said Samskritam. Also, words like YOGA are pronounced as YOGA in Sanskrit but as YOG in Hindi and other Indian languages. The final "a" sound is often dropped in the prakritic languages (those derived from Sanskrit) but is definitely pronounced in Sanskrit. Also, there is in fact a correct way to pronounce in Sanskrit, although there may be regional variations, so maybe not 1 way. Remember that in Sanskrit the sound is related to the meaning, so if one pronounces the word any way they please (and there are WRONG ways of pronouncing for sure) then the vibration and energetic are different.

    • vijay says:

      Nicolai, you are right on about changing the meaning and vibration when mispronouncing a word. this especially in sanskrit or samskritam.

  10. Meredith P. says:

    Great post, Melissa! Thanks for helping us all. Now to retrain my tongue.

  11. Karmen Wilson says:

    Sanskrit is a foreign and obscure language to North Americans, so it seems reasonable that most people might have some trouble with it. The content of this posting is interesting, but I found the delivery awfully condescending ("all the time").
    Knowing how to speak Sanskrit perfectly doesn't say a thing about your level of enlightenment. The finger is not the moon… though you are admittedly excellent at pointing yours.
    What's next? Mocking people for their imperfect asanas?

    • melissa says:

      oh, I think he was just having fun. :) not to take ourselves so seriously.
      it's all good… we're all just learning…. it's like learning a new language. if you say a word, just slightly differently..it has a whole new meaning. that's all.
      thanks for sharing.

    • Debbie says:

      Oh, I agree… I found it hard to listen to him because he sounded so arrogant. "Mocking" was a good choice of words, Karmen. I'm sorry I wasted my time listening to him.

  12. someone says:

    For heaven´s sake! don´t get lost in the details! It is already prostituion enough that everyone calls asanas “yoga” and that everyone considers themselves “yogis” just because they practice asanas for you to come up with this! Yoga is so hard to practice, the real yoga. It is union with God. Do you talk to God yet, face to face? It is doable and a few have done it. If you don´t guess what! you ain´t no yogini!

    • Pranjali says:

      well said.. although i wouldn't have said it in such an explicit manner :) but i hear you
      i hate it when people who show up at yuppie yoga studios call themselves "yogi"

      and am guilty of this too.. despite having learnt yoga at the age of 10 in India , my home country.

    • Ridz says:

      I love every word of yours because it reflects today's pop yoga culture where everyone who practices asanas by default call themselves "Yogi"…To be a true Yogi takes real trials and tribulations! It is a union with 'Bhramn' – the deepest of all consciousness that is omnipresent! Greetings from India.

  13. apimom says:

    Which foreign language is foreign but not obscure? What does obscure actually mean to a language?
    I am sure God really cares if you pronounce anything right or wrong. Last time I checked he was not petty.

    "Remember that in Sanskrit the sound is related to the meaning, so if one pronounces the word any way they please (and there are WRONG ways of pronouncing for sure) then the vibration and energetic are different. " You must be kidding me! Fascinating that quite often the status of something is elevated by mentioning that "the correct word for it is "xxx", as if calling a spade something else changes its intended use and efficiency.

    By all means use the original word pronounced correctly but don't make it a religion.

    My first language is not English and I tested the truth about my statement! No change with language switch although I am always offended (kidding) that million dollar movies cannot get another language comment right or hire someone to make sure it resembles the intended language comment.

    • melissa says:

      I appreciate your comments. However, I don't think he's making it a religion at all. Just assisting in the study of the language of Sanskrit. It's good that you have a sense of humor about it all! : )

  14. vijay says:

    I really hate those kirtan singers who release music and have the pronunciation completely wrong. I recently heard some one say "narayaani" instead of "naaraayani". Thats just pure stupidity to me.

    OK, "hate" is really not the word I should be using but when I listen to those kind of mistakes it pains me and upsets me.

    • melissa says:

      I appreciate what you have to say. However, hate is a strong word.
      I love that everyone seems to feel so strongly about this… wonder what the kirtan bands would say to weigh in….

      • vijay says:

        I agree about using "hate". I realized that too, hence the second line in my comment.

        The main problem is when people listen to these mispronounced kirtans and chants, they are going to follow and do the same mistake. I care less about asanas being mispronounced but kirtans and chants are sacred to millions of hindus and one just cannot sing/chant how ever they want . Thats being disrespectful to others' feelings/beliefs. I am from India and from a traditional brahmin family and grew up chanting but there are americans and many non-Indians I came across that are way better than me because of the training they went through and hard work they put in. But I guess if some one is in it just to make some money then they will not put in the effort.

        And yes, I would love to find out kirtan artists' opinion on this.

      • OK , I lead a Kirtan group, so I'll weigh in for you… Quick background: learned the Nepali language (Devanagri-based) and studied Indian classical music at The Ali Akbar College. The latter involved reams of songs sung in Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Panjabi, etc. Pronunciation of these languages is difficult for westerners, but only in the sense that any foreign language is a challenge. These discussions seem to deal primarily with vowel sounds and accent points which, though they require attention and focus, are considerably easier than dentals, labials, retroflexes, etc.! I would also support the view that Devanagri, the wriiten script of this language, is what should be learned as it is a direct route to accurate pronunciation. I am actively re-learning my 'Nagri as well as researching/studying Sanskrit pronunciation AND usage so my devotional singing reflects the origins of it's tradition.
        Roots, however, do not determine the exact configuration of the foliage nor guarantee the sweetness of the fruit. Singers of any style have always exercised some intuitive freedom in the artful blend of words and melody and although I do prefer the greatest accuracy I believe that intention trumps perfection. As a kirtanwallah, I strive to provide accurate words, pronunciations and meanings for my kirtankars. It is a constant challenge to pursue this and sometimes I fall short but I'd rather call the name of God than remain mute because I didn't have the sound exactly right.

    • sandra says:

      one of my students went to a kirtan once and she heard OM Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya as "Oh no no baklava for me" (she has no background in Sanskrit pronunciation)!

  15. Dearbhla Kelly Dearbhla says:

    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  16. Wow – this post has generated very strong reactions. I am very surprised to see so much negativity around pronouncing a few Sanskrit words.I certainly did not mean to be condescending. I was trying to keep the interview light and enjoyable, which is probably why my eyes may have rolled a few times. Of course pronouncing correctly has nothing to do with enlightenment, and I never said it did. Of course if your primary practice is mantra and you are using that mantra to connect within, then pronunciation is important. It is true that the word "yoga" now connotes "asana". I agree that the real "yoga" is indeed connecting to one's divine inner light of awareness, and asana can be an important part of the yogic process. But this post is not about yoga, it is about Sanskrit, and every language has words that can be spelled correctly or incorrectly, and pronounced with an acceptable degree of accuracy. One's practice is paramount of course. Pronouncing words properly in Sanskrit generates the sound vibration that is related to the meaning of what is said. This is especially important when reciting a mantra. Sanskrit is a beautiful, sacred, and important language in our world. It deserves our admiration and respect.

    • Andrew Jones says:

      I deeply appreciate what you did. I actually laughed quite a bit throughout. In my brief foray as a yogasana teacher I have had the delight of having my Indian friends draw me aside to "assist" my attempts at pronunciation. I am sure we all have a unique accent and I don't mind as long as it is not a blatant mispronunciation due to stubbornness and not just birth location and the ability to speak fluently ones native language. I have learned German from a Czech, Spainish from an Italian and a smattering of Hebrew from a Californian and the odd Israeli. I speak none of them well anymore (if I ever did!) and find languages and your humor around Sanskrit hilarious. However, I do understand that Sanskrit is a very powerful tool and, when done correctly, can set up a resonance that is quite beneficial. Another short blip on other words would be quite welcome.

    • Keren says:

      Hi Nicolai,
      I personally enjoyed your post and the free mantras you posted on your website. I teach yoga but I am not Indian so I find them useful as being another tool to understanding the culture that surrounds the yoga practice. I travelled a lot before becoming a yoga teacher and realized how important it was to learn some of the languages of the places I was visiting. Many languages have different meanings for the same word but with various pronunciations. When I used to teach English as a Second Language I would have to explain that "sheet" and "shit" are two different words just as "ship" and "sheep" have different meanings. A slight pronunciation difference can communicate something completely different. The beauty of a language is in its creation. In the Italian language if you don't pronounce the double consonants or drop the final vowel you don't get to enjoy the musicality of the language. That said, I am much more tolerant of mispronouncing sanskrit/yogic terms with beginning students. Appreciating Sanskrit might be something that evolves with ones spiritual evolution and respect for the origins of yoga. Just as learning to do the postures right is the language of the asanas that takes time and practice to learn and understand profoundly. The asanas are in fact the complete expression of its name. The mind-body connection is very subtle. Precision of postures and precision of Sanskrit terms is part of the work. By the way, I didn't think you were rolling your eyes in a negative or disrespectful way. In fact, I quite enjoyed your light-hearted approach. Namastè.

      • vijay says:

        Keren, what great examples you gave about "sheet"/"shit" and "ship"/"sheep" to illustrate how one can mispronounce something and change the entire meaning of it.

    • Kymm says:

      I did find it light and enjoyable. Thank you.

  17. vijay says:

    "Pronouncing words properly in Sanskrit generates the sound vibration that is related to the meaning of what is said. This is especially important when reciting a mantra. Sanskrit is a beautiful, sacred, and important language in our world. It deserves our admiration and respect." Very well said Nicolai.

    I commented earlier about some of the kirtan singers(unfortunately I do not know who it is, otherwise I would have mentioned names) completely mis pronounce some of the chants/mantras. I recently heard "naarayaani" instead of "naaraayani" which is absurd. Also some very basic mistakes in chanting hanuman chaalisa. These chants and mantras are sacred to many hindus and by not putting enough hard work to get the pronunciation right these so called kirtan artists are being very disrespectful and ignorant. People who listen to this music do the same mistake and so it has a ripple effect. I guess they are in it just to make some money in the "yoga business".

  18. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    yeah "san" skrit (instead of sun-skrit) should be number one…. but personally, why the fetish with sanskrit?!

    i have always found it a bit pretentious/faux-authoritative and in-group to even use it much in teaching, let alone be preoccupied with correct pronunciation – isn't the real stuff the actual experience all human nervous systems have while engaging in the practice which transcends names and words and cultural appropriation?

    oh, wait – did i forget the special vibratory word magic that only certain aaaaaaancient languages have!?

    give me a break.

  19. AnOldTimer says:

    So, why bother with sanskrit? I've got a coupla ideas:

    1) Fun. It's just fun. Why not use it? English isn't the center of the universe or the end all be all of language, so why not enjoy the sounds to your ears and the vibrations in your body (yes, sounds make vibrations in your body, no matter if you believe they are divine or therapeutic or whatever or not — again, maybe just fun).

    2) Tradition. Or rather, respect for tradition and what it's brought us. This is something that comes from outside the Englsih speaking world. Yes, 'east and west' if you will have long been in conversation and give-and-take where yoga is concerned, so the transmission of the practices has not only been a one way thing. But Sanskrit has a long and respected history and influence on many other language and cultures. Like learning Greek and Latin (skills that are making a comeback in European education, at least) learning aspects of an ancient language can be intesting and provide avenues for intellectual and, in the case of yoga, emotional growth…. and did I say, it can be a lot of fun?

    Fun and respect and trying to pronounce things correctly doesn't need to be fetishistic. It can just be nice.

  20. AnOldTimer says:

    OK, I've got a question I don't think's been answered yet. I was in a class once with an Indian teacher who also said, with a cheeky monkey grin, that we should please not say "SHakra" but instead "CHakra". Said that "shakra" was a rude term in some parts of India, but wouldn't tell us what the term meant, what it translated as.

    I've been dying to know ever since!

    Any ideas? Anyone?

  21. lorasybert says:

    I am very disappointed in this video and the fact that it was posted to this site. I practice yoga, meditate and like this sight because I am trying to uncover my real self. The very first thing I learned when I started this journey years ago was the one of the guiding, mainframe concepts is "non judgment", and "trying is doing and accept yourself exactly as you are and where you are". I did not get that vibe from this video. I felt like I was being scolded by my mother. I was born and raised in America, not India. I am pretty good with pronouncing spanish words, but I still sound like an American speaking spanish. Namaste!!

    • vijay says:

      I think this video mostly applies to the yoga teachers? If some one is teaching a class, they have to be extra careful with how they pronounce(and what they say) because students will most probably just follow the instructor and do the same mistake.

  22. Kristin says:

    YES! I agree with Melissa's comment about Nicolai’s lighthearted nature… he's very, very sweet and playful and has a beautiful heart FAR from pretentious or condescending. I am a student of Sanskrit and a Kirtan artist who continues to study to improve my pronunciation every day, though it is FAR from perfect! :) My Sanskrit teacher says: Devotion first, Meter second, & Pronunciation third–then all will come in due time. The truth is that Sanskrit is part of yogic practice–a deep process that many are not even aware of–this video could be what evokes awareness surrounding this important topic. It's not so we can feel defensive or judgment from ourselves or anyone else. We are so fortunate to have Sanskrit teachers like Nicolai to share the importance and the energetic differences that proper pronunciation makes and that one little subtle difference changes the entire meaning and manifestation of the word or principle. The more I learn, the more I realize that I don't know… that I am far from even being a beginning student of Sanskrit.
     
    We were so blessed to have had a fun and playful dinner with Nicolai after the TYC, chatting about our own challenges and experiences with the language. He understands the vast nature of this Sacred language, knowing full well that it would take a multitude of lifetimes to even begin to grasp its magnitude, for it's far more than just a language–it carries a living presence that evokes abstract yogic principles through sound into this manifest, material world. It would sort of be like if your name were "John" and someone keeps calling out to "Jane." Unless you're the only person in the room, you probably wouldn't even turn to look or respond. What's more is that you had told this person over ,and over again your name, but they still continue to mispronounce it, and now your neighbors think that your name is Jane; then on top of everything else, "Jane" usually denotes a feminine form instead of a masculine form…needless to say… a fair amount of confusion. This type of mistake happens often in pronunciation of  Sanskrit, for simply changing the "a" at the end of some masculine principle or deity’s name to "ā" (like Shiva vs. Shivā) converts it to its feminine counterpart–changing the entire meaning and vibration altogether. If it were me, at some point, I would definitely want to set that person straight who keeps calling me feminine "Jane" if my name is actually masculine "John."
     
    To me, this video was more of a playful way for Nicolai to express the IMPORTANCE that in order to truly honor and access the language of Yoga, one MUST begin to be more conscious of proper pronunciation, use proper mouth position, and direction of breath ALL the time (that is the entire basis of the language). It's NOT like just having a different dialect or an accent when speaking a regular foreign language where someone may make more of an effort to properly pronounce things in the native country than in a casual conversation outside that country. The entire meaning and vibrational energy are changed in Sanskrit, for it is the precise science of sacred sound. Our teacher advises that the yoga students practice proper pronunciation of Sanskrit (to the best of their ability) ALL the time, not just in class or in an ashram, etc.
     
    Improper pronunciation in Sanskrit is NO DIFFERENT than someone laying in Savasana but calling it Down Dog. Furthermore, I think this is a good call for all of us (especially yoga instructors) to become more conscious of how we engage sound and especially the sacred language of yoga (especially when teaching)–it will prove to be a metaphor not only of  how we engage life, but reveal how it is that we engage the deepest parts of ourselves. BUT we don't need to forget that it IS a process because we are ALL still learning and are at different stages in our practice–that judgment of ourselves and others will not free us to experience yoga…May we be gentle with ourselves and others.  ALTHOUGH… I would hope that someone further along in their practice would clue me in that Savasana is Savasana ALL THE TIME if I was calling it by another name– that no matter what, Savasana will NEVER be downward facing dog. That's what teachers and masters are for.
     
    Thank you, Melissa for sharing this. And thank you Nicolai for honoring the essence of Sanskrit. Thank the rest of you for expressing your thoughts, both positive and negative, as well. We're all so fortunate to have a yoga community to be authentic where we are. How beautiful that we are all free to be so diverse in how we approach life.
     
    LOVE & BLESSINGS
     
    ps. there is a wonderful resource for yoga teachers that I highly recommend: Manorama's "Learn How to Pronounce Yoga Poses with Manorama" http://www.sanskritstudies.org/7Boutique/Boutique

  23. Sushila says:

    It is the nature of language to morph and change, like everything else in the manifest world. Meanings are much more important. Yoginglish is here to stay…for now.

  24. KLH says:

    I might appreciate this more if it were presented as a point of interest: did you know that some commonly used Sanskrit words are actually pronounced x,y, z? Instead, it comes off as rather pretentious, stating that these words "should" be pronounced differently. People use the words and relay important concepts through them…that is important. Unless you are a linguist, I do not see why you "should" pronounce them differently. Having said that, I like to hear what they sound like in their original spoken form.

  25. sandra says:

    he forgot "DanYooRasana"….

  26. janet says:

    Does it really matter that much?

  27. Rogelio Nunez says:

    You know, there is something to traditions, Yoga is ancient, Sanskrit is ancient, as mentioned above, the correct pronunciations has vibrations which impacts our energetic body….Some Yoga teachers do try and bring this forth into asana classes and since most of us were not born with sanskrit as first or 2nd language, it is helpful to get guidance from this. Think of correct pronunciation as doing a mudhra, if done correctly you get a certain effect, the same with Asana if done correctly you get the intended effect….cause and effect. Karma, rt. karma and wrong karma, over time if you practice correctly you create rt. karma, the opp. is obvious….make the link of Yoga practices, the 8 limbs spells it out…. If you don;t want to accept Yoga and its tradition, practice and teach something else…We westerners love to make things our own, label our own, brand it so why??? to commercialize, for our ego gratifications, to capitalize, for fame and glory….It takes work to learn something correctly, it;s easy to just do your own thing, what feels good, no discipline…..
    Ok I am done ranting now, ill get off my soap box…..

  28. People who live in different countries pronounce words differently just like people who live in the same country will pronounce words differently. I was taught that pronunciation used by most educated persons in a region is acceptable pronunciation.

  29. Lakshmi says:

    His pronunciation is pretty decent, which is refreshing! A lot of Western kirtan is just painful for the Indian ear. Much of it musically pleasant and you can often feel the devotion and ultimately that is most important, but it kind of just sounds like pretty gibberish a lot of the time.

  30. susana says:

    meh. I will believe this when a native sanskrit speaker pronounces the words.

  31. melissa says:

    thank you for saying so! :) I enjoyed hearing what his take on what's mispronounced. :) can't take ourselves too seriously but still…. to honor the language – it's good to know from a scholar's perspective.

  32. melissa says:

    agreed! always be authentic and keep it simple.
    I think, however, that like learning any language, it's helpful to understand and begin to stretch ourselves to self-study – and love how you're being true to yourself– but doesn't hurt to keep at it… even with your "American" accent. :)
    In joy!

  33. the thing is I have been "corrected" on pronunciation before and then I speak to a native speaker and even they have told me it depends on where you are from…so what is reallycorrect/

  34. melissa says:

    yes, that's true, north, south… depends on where you're from. But still, there is are some obvious mistakes that we make as westerners… I'm loving this dialog and how passionate everyone is about language! wow!

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