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Letters 1 Edit

The Devanagari Script Edit

Hindi has a long history and tonnes of cultural aspects attached to it. It has had more than one script (writing system) used for the written language. At the time of India's independence, article 343 of the Indian constitution stated that "the official language of the Union [of India] (since India was considered a union of various unrelated states at that time) should become Hindi in Devanagari script." This variety of Hindi is called Modern Standard Hindi, which you will learn through this course.

The Devanagari script is an abugida, i.e. it consists of syllables expressed as distinct units and has three main features:

  • Each syllable consists of a base consonant which is written fully.
  • The vowel sounds followed by the base consonants are expressed as vowel marks (which can be understood as diacritics).
  • Other vowel-less consonants (which are part of the same syllable) can be a part of the same unit or the one following it, which means that these units need not overlap the syllables they represent.

वर्णमाला (Hindi's The Alphabet) Edit

The order in which Hindi letters are memorised and generally presented is called the वर्णमाला (garland of letters). Both vowels and consonants are divided into groups, where each one is characterised by the placement of the tongue in the mouth. The groups are presented in an order where the tongue placement moves from the posterior to the anterior part of the buccal cavity.

First, let's learn all letters in their distinct forms. Hindi has 11 vowels. 9 of them are:

manner of articulation short long
guttaral अ a आ ā
palatal इ i ई ī
labial उ u ऊ ū
retroflex ऋ ṛ -
  • अ a - like the u in fun.
  • आ ā - like the a in father.
  • इ i - like the i in pit.
  • ई ī - like the ee in feet.
  • उ u - like the oo in book.
  • ऊ ū - like the ui in suit.
  • ऋ ṛ - this vowel does not have a wide usage in Hindi, and was more significant in Sanskrit - Hindi's parent language. Its correct pronunciation has not been retained by Hindi, and today it is pronounced like the ri in brick. (Sanskrit also had a long version of ऋ - the ॠ ṝ, which is a tale history seldom recites)
  • ए ē - This is something like the ea in break, albeit more uninterrupted, and is not followed by the short i sound as in English.
  • ऐ ai - Originally, it was supposed to be a diphthong: a short a followed by a short i. However, today it is mostly pronounced like the a in black with the mouth more closed than in English.

Hindi has 33 basic consonants. Some of the plosives (sounds which are produced when the tongue hits any location in the mouth and restricts any flow of air) are:

manner of articulation uv. ua. uv. a. v. ua. v. a. nasal
guttural क k ख kh ग g घ gh ङ ṅ (ng)

(uv. - unvoiced, v. - voiced, ua. - unaspirated, a. - aspirated)

  • The nasals ङ ṅ and ञ ñ are never written in Modern Standard Hindi. ण ṇ has limited usage, and न and म are the usual n and m respectively as in English.
  • Hindi has an additional set of consonants - the aspirated consonants. Generally, consonants in Hindi are unaspirated (you cannot feel a puff of air coming out of your mouth while pronouncing them), however, most (all plosives), have aspirated counterparts that can be hard to pronounce for learners (like bh, jh, etc.).

Letters 2 Edit

Hindi has 33 basic consonants. More of the plosives (sounds which are produced when the tongue hits any location in the mouth and restricts any flow of air) are:

m.o.a. uv. ua. uv. a. v. ua. v. a. nasal
gutteral क k ख kh ग g घ gh ङ ṅ (ng)
platal च c छ ch ज j झ jh ञ ñ
dental त t थ th द d ध dh न n

(m.o.a. - manner of articulation, uv. - unvoiced, v. - voiced, ua. - unaspirated, a. - aspirated)

Letters 3 Edit

More Vowels: Edit

manner of articulation long dipthong
palatogutteral ए ē ऐ ai
labiogutteral ओ ō औ au
  • ओ ō - This is something like the o in joke, albeit more uninterrupted, and is not followed by the short u as in English.
  • औ au - Originally, it was supposed to be a diphthong: a short a followed by a short u. However, today it is mostly pronounced like the o in block with the mouth more closed than in English.

Diacritics Edit

Vowels lend their sounds to consonants through vowel marks which are written around the base consonant. Taking क (k) as an example, vowel marks are added to consonants as follows:

Vowel Vowel Mark Compound
अ a क ka
आ ā का kā
इ i ि कि ki
ई ī की kī
उ u कु ku
ऊ ū कू kū
ऋ ṛ कृ kṛ
ए ē के kē
ऐ ai कै kai
ओ ō को kō
औ au कौ kau

IMPORTANT FEATURES OF DEVANAGARI

  • When there is no visible vowel mark, it is the basic a. All consonants inherit the a sound by default. E.g., ख (kha), ग (ga).
  • At the end of words, if a consonant has this inherent a sound, it is dropped. This is known as schwa syncope. E.g., पग (pag, not pa-ga), किताब (ki-tāb, not ki-tā-ba), कब (kab).
  • Schwa syncope sometimes also happens at the middle of words. This happens when the schwa (a) to be deleted follows a consonant that comes at the end of a syllable. E.g. लड़का (lad-kā, not la-da-kā).
  • The anunāsik ँ symbol nasalises vowels. For some vowel marks, viz. ि, ी, े, ै, ो, and ौ, the anusvār ं symbol is used instead. This is probably because it's inconvenient to write such elaborate symbols in small spaces.
  • To strip consonants off the schwa, a diacritic known as the हलंत halant ( ्) is used. E.g., क् (k).

Letters 4 Edit

Hindi has 33 basic consonants. The remaining plosives (sounds which are produced when the tongue hits any location in the mouth and restricts any flow of air) are:

m.o.a. uv. ua. uv. a. v. ua. v. a. nasal
guttural  k  kh  g  gh ṅ (ng)
platal  c ch  j  jh ñ
retroflex  ṭ  ṭh ḍh
dental  t  th  d dh n
labial  p  ph b  bh m

(m.o.a. - manner of articulation, uv. - unvoiced, v. - voiced, ua. - unaspirated, a. - aspirated)

Others: Edit

manner of articulation semi-vowels fricatives
guttural -  h
platal  y  ś
retroflex  r
dental l  s
labial v -

(semivowels allow the flow of some amount of air, fricatives force air out of a small space created in the mouth during articulation)

Additional Consonants:

  • ड़ - This is a trilled version of ड ḍ, somewhat like the tt of butter in American English, but retroflexed!
  • ढ़ - Trilled version of ढ ḍh.

Loan consonants:

  • ज़ z - English/Persian
  • फ़ f - English/Persian
  • क़ q - Persian. Almost like क k, pronounced with the epiglottis. (Arabic ق)
  • ग़ g - Persian. Almost like ग g, pronounced with the epiglottis. (Arabic غ)
  • Retroflexed and dental consonants might sound the same to non-native ears, but the former is typical of Indian languages and consists of hard-sounding consonants which are produced by curling and pushing the tip of the tongue back inside the mouth, while the latter are simple dental consonants found in Romance languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, etc.
  • To strip consonants off the schwa, a diacritic known as the हलंत halant ( ्) is used. E.g., क् (k).

Conjunct Consonants Edit

When two or more consonants, some of which do not have a vowel following them, are placed directly next to each other, the tongue requires instantaneously shifting its position. This is represented in Hindi through conjunct consonants. E.g. नमस्ते(namastē). This word can be broken down as: न (na) + म (ma) + स (sa) + ् (delete preceding a) + ते (tē), where the conjunct consonant is स्त sta (स + ् + त). Notice that because of the halant, the स (sa) gets modified, and only half of it is written, while the remaining part is attached to the following त (ta). Many such conjunct consonants can exist, and the letter modifications follow a general pattern:

  • Consonants that have a vertical line at the extreme right notice its disappearance. E.g., स्त sta (स् s + त ta), स्न sna (स् s + न na), न्य nya (न् n + य ya), ग्घ ggha (ग् g + घ gha), त्थ ttha (त् t + थ th), etc.
  • Consonants that have a vertical line, albeit restricted to the centre, require the curl at the right to extend to the following consonant. E.g., क्ख kkha (क् k + ख kha), फ्या phyā (फ् ph + या yā).
  • According to modern norms, all other kinds of consonants do not show a modification but follow a simple consonant + halant + consonant format. E.g., ट्क ṭka. Various other conjunct combinations exist, many of which are no longer used in official documents but continue to be used in some other places. At places where they are not used, the consonant + halant + consonant format is used.
  • Nasal consonants that are vowel-less before another consonant are represented by the anusvār ं symbol. E.g., संघ saṅgh (स sa + ङ् ṅ + घ gh[a]), पंच pañc (as in English punch) (प pa + ञ् ñ + च c[a]), खंड khaṇḍ (ख kha + ण् ṇ + ड ḍ[a]), बंद band (ब ba + न् n + द d[a]), नींबू nīmbū (नी nī + म् m + बू bū), which would historically be written as सङ्घ, पञ्च, खण्ड, बन्द, and नीम्बू respectively.
  • Some special characters exist for a few consonant combinations, viz. क्ष kṣa (क् k + ष ṣa), त्र tra (त् t + र ra), and ज्ञ jña (ज् j + ञ ña). ज्ञ, however, is pronounced exactly like ग्य gya.

The irregular र Edit

र follows different rules in conjunct combinations.

र् + X X + ् + र
E.g. पार्क pārk प्रदेश pra-dēś
break down पा pā + र् r + क k[a] प् p + र ra + दे ē + श ś[a]

The second case involves writing the र like a slash symbol below the vowel-less consonant. E.g. प्र pra, क्र kra, द्र dra, घ्र ghra. The first case involves writing the र् like a small C above the following consonant. E.g. र्प rpa, र्क rka, र्द rda, र्घ rgha.

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