(Questions and Answers are from Bhavani’s workshop “A Simple How-To and Who's Who Introduction to Sanskrit Mantra,” part of the Feb 2012 Annual Yoga Hub Virtual Conference.)
Question: A little puzzled by the pronunciation guide at the beginning that you give, saying it's "Muhn-tra" rather than Man-tra. You mention it's a short "a" sound, which would indeed be the sound of the word Man, which is how this word is usually heard. You seem to be saying Muntra — which is a "u" sound, short "u" — not "a." Which is correct?
Answer: English is a very tricky language in terms of pronunciation. There are so many ways to pronounce the vowels. Luckily, Sanskrit is like the European languages so that whenever you see an "a" it's always the same. In Sanskrit, there is a short and long version of each vowel. The short "a" is pronounced like our "uh" so that the seed syllable "gam" in om gam ganapataye namaha is pronounced "gum" as in chewing gum. The long "a", which is denoted in transliteration either by "aa" or an "a" with a line over it is pronounced "ah" just like our sound "ah". I'm sure this convention in the transliteration has a lot to do with the fact that it was the Germans and British who first began the process on transliterating Sanskrit into the Roman alphabet. (See more on transliteration below.)