By David Templin
The Devanagari Script (देवनागरी लिपि) is the most impressive writing system that I have ever studied. It impresses me for many reasons, for instance:
I also find Devanagari to be a very beautiful script.
Note that this article will discuss the Devanagari Script as it is adapted for the Hindi language.
In order to appreciate the significance of the ordering of letters in Devanagari, some background information is necessary.
Consonants can be classified according to the place within the mouth that they are articulated.
Consonants can also be classified according to their manner of articulation.
Now, consider the following chart of the first 25 consonants of the Devanagari script:
|Retroflex||ट||ठ||ड (ड़)||ढ (ढ़)||ण|
Next, consider the ordering of the same 25 consonants in the Devanagari script, from left to right:
क ख ग घ ङ च छ ज झ ञ ट ठ ड (ड़) ढ (ढ़) ण त थ द ध न प फ (फ़) ब भ म
Note that if you read the chart from left to right and top to bottom, it corresponds to the ordering of the letters in Devanagari! This is remarkable because this has been the ordering of the Devanagari script for centuries. This fact is a testament to the advanced state of the study of phonetics in ancient India.
The vowels in Hindi are likewise ordered scientifically.
The manner of articulation of vowels can be classified according to many categories, but we will discuss two particular categories:
Monophthongs are vowels pronounced as a single, pure sound, whereas diphthongs are vowels pronounced as two adjacent sounds glided together within the same syllable.
Now consider the vowels in their order within the Devanagari script:
अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ऋ ए ऐ ओ औ
Once again, note that the ordering corresponds to the ordering in the table, if the table is ordered from left to right and top to bottom.
The technical distinction between the vowel pairs in Hindi (such as इ ई) is the vowel length, although modern Hindi speakers tend to pronounce the vowels distinctly, regardless of the duration. इ is pronounced like the "i" in "bit" whereas ई is pronounced like the "ee" in "feet", and उ is pronounced like the "u" in "put" whereas ऊ is pronounced like the "oo" in "boot".
Also note that the complement of the letter ऋ is marked as "-" because it is not commonly employed in Hindi, but it is used in other applications of Devanagari, such as in Sanskrit.
The final consonants in the Devanagari script are organized into three categories: semivowels/approximants, sibilants, and a glottal.
Now, I'll discuss the application of Devanagari to Hindi.
Hindi is written using the Devanagari script.
Devanagari is also used to write other languages, such as Nepali and Marathi, and is the most common script used to write Sanskrit. Several other languages have scripts which are related to Devanagari, such as Bengali, Punjabi, and Gujarati.
The Devanagari script represents the sounds of the Hindi language with remarkable consistency. Whereas many letters of the English alphabet can be pronounced many different ways, the letters of the Devanagari script are pronounced consistently (with a few minor exceptions). Thus, Devanagari is relatively easy to learn.
Devanagari consists of 11 vowels and 33 consonants, and is written from left to right.
Devanagari is not actually an alphabet, but a so-called alphasyllabary. An alphasyllabary is a writing system which is primarily based on consonants, and in which vowel symbols are requisite yet secondary. As such, the fundamental genius of Devanagari is that every letter represents a consonant which is followed by an inherent schwa vowel, अ. For example, the letter स is read "sa". In order to suppress the inherent vowel, one of two methods is required: a diacritical mark called a halant, or a ligature, called a conjunct. In order to indicate a vowel other than the inherent vowel, diacritical marks called maatraas are used. For vowels independent of consonants, there exist full letters to transcribe vowels.
Hindi has 11 vowels. 10 vowels are transcribed in two distinct forms: the independent form, and the dependent (maatraa) form. The independent form is used when the vowel letter appears alone, at the beginning of a word, or immediately following another vowel letter. The dependent form is used when the vowel follows a consonant.
अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ऋ ए ऐ ओ औ
The following table lists the vowel in its independent form, and its description. The best way to learn the pronunciation is to learn from a native speaker.
|अ||as in "but", "again"|
|आ||as in father, far|
|इ||as in "fit", "hit"|
|ई||as in "feet", "heat"|
|उ||as in "put", "pull"|
|ऊ||as in "pool", "shoot"|
|ऋ||as is "rip", "rib" with the tongue curled back|
|ए||as in "ate", "day"|
|ऐ||as in "Khyber"|
|ओ||as in "go", "boat"|
|औ||as in "owl"|
When a vowel follows a consonant, it is written in its respective maatraa form, which is appended to the consonant. Matraa forms never appear at the beginning of a word or after another vowel. The first vowel, अ, has no particular maatraa form. Instead it is the default vowel. It is assumed to be present unless the maatraa form of another vowel is explicitly appended to a consonant. In Sanskrit, the vowel अ is pronounced at the end of a word. In Hindi, however, it is not pronounced, except at the end of single-letter words. The following table lists each vowel in its independent form, its corresponding dependent form, and how it would appear with the consonant क ("k").
As mentioned earlier, the distinction between the vowels इ and ई is the duration of the pronunciation of the vowel - the former is shorter, and the latter longer. However, in practice, the vowel इ is pronounced more like the English "i" as in the word "it", as described in the corresponding text. The same is so for the vowels उ and ऊ.
The schwa, अ, is normally not pronounced at the end of a word. Thus, कान is pronounced "kaan", not "kaana". An exception occurs when a word ends in a conjunct. In this case, the word may be pronounced with a slight final schwa, as in मित्र, literally "mitr", but often pronounced like "mitr(a)", with a soft final schwa.
Native English speakers should be careful not to pronounce the Hindi vowels that are monophthongs as diphthongs. For instance, ओ is a pure sound, not a glide like the English "o" as in the word "low". Many vowel letters in English can represent diphthongs. Thus, whereas English may represent a diphthong with the letter "i" as in the word "site", in Devanagari, this diphthong would be more precisely transcribed as two monopthongs, आ and इ: साइट
Sometimes, the inherent vowel is not pronounced, despite its implicit presence and the lack of any modifying diacritic. This phenomenon is called schwa syncope, or alternatively schwa deletion. For instance, consider the word नमकीन, literally "namakeen". The second inherent vowel is not pronounced, as if the word were written नम्कीन ("namkeen"). There is no rule which can predict this phenomenon with absolute accuracy, yet one generally useful heuristic is that the inherent vowel is deleted after a consonant which is between two vocalic consonants. Thus, the word देवनागरी itself is pronounced with the first schwa deleted, like "Devnagari", and not "Devanagari", even though it is still transliterated as "Devanagari".
Occasionally, the schwa will not be totally deleted, but will be very slightly pronounced.
The Hindi inherent vowel, अ, may be pronounced as [ɛ], a vowel which is similar to the English "e" as in the word "bed", but only in certain contexts, namely, when two अ vowels appear on both sides of the consonant ह, as in the verb पहनना ("to wear"). Both schwa vowels are often pronounced as [ɛ] in such circumstances. Thus, although the phrase पहन लो is literally "pahan lo", it is often pronounced "pehen lo". Occasionally, however, this phenomenon occurs when only one schwa vowel is beside the consonant ह, as in the word बहिन ("sister"). In this case, both vowels adjacent to ह are converted to [ɛ], and thus, although the word is literally "bahin", it is pronounced "behen".
All vowels in Hindi can be nasalized, except for ऋ. Nasalization is indicated by either the symbol " ं " or by the symbol " ँ ". The former symbol is called bindu ("dot"), and the latter symbol is called chandrabindu ("moon and dot"). The bindu is used when part or all of the vowel symbol extends above the horizontal line. The chandrabindu is used when no part of the vowel symbol extends above the horizontal line. The bindu is more common is modern written Hindi, and may even be used exclusively.
The following examples summarize the use of the bindu and chandrabindu:
अँ आँ इँ ईं उँ ऊँ एँ ऐं ओं औं
कँ काँ किं कीं कुँ कूँ कें कैं कों कौं
A special diacritic is sometimes used with the vowel आ to transcribe the English "o" vowel sound as in "college": कॉलेज
|ङ||n, as in "sing"|
Note that the velar nasal consonant does not appear as the first letter of any word.
|च||unaspirated "ch", as in "cheese"|
|ञ||n, as in "punch"|
|ट||like "t", but retroflex and unaspirated|
|ठ||like "t", but retroflex and aspirated|
|ड||like "d", but retroflex and unaspirated|
|ढ||like "d", but retroflex and aspirated|
|ण||like "n", but retroflex|
Hindi additionally employs two flap consonants: ड़ and ढ़. The symbols for these consonants are formed by placing a diacritical mark called a nuqta, which is a subscript dot, underneath the consonant symbols ड and ढ respectively.
ड़ is pronounced by flapping the tongue from the retroflex position forward, toward the alveolar ridge. ढ़ is pronounced similarly, except with aspiration.
English does have an alveolar flap consonant, as the "t" in the word "better", or the "d" as in "bedding" as in American English. The Hindi flaps are retroflex, however.
|ड़||like a flapped "d", flapping tongue from retroflex to alveolar ridge position|
|ढ़||like flapped "d", flapping tongue from retroflex to alveolar ridge position, and aspirated|
|त||like "t", but dental and unaspirated|
|थ||like "t", but dental and aspirated|
|द||like "d", but dental and unaspirated|
|ध||like "d", but dental and aspirated|
|न||like "n" in "name", but dental|
|प||like "p", but unaspirated|
|फ||like "p", but aspirated|
|ब||like "b", but unaspirated|
|भ||like "b", but aspirated|
|य||"y", as in "young"|
|र||like "r", but often rolled|
|ल||"l", as in "lip"|
|व||either "w", or "v"|
The Hindi "r" sound is typically a flap. However, some speakers may trill the "r" sound occasionally, or may even occasionally pronounce it closer to an unflapped approximant sound, as in the English "r" in "red".
|श||"sh", as in "shave"|
|ष||like "sh", but retroflex|
|स||"s", as in "save"|
|ह||like "h", but voiced|
A phoneme is an equivalent class of atomic, discrete sounds which can produce a difference in meaning when spoken, yet cannot produce a difference in meaning when substituted for one another. A "phone" is simply a distinct sound. For instance, in English the "p" in the word "spit" and in the word "pit" are pronounced distinctly: the former is unaspirated, the latter is aspirated. Thus, they are two distinct phones. However, they are both members of the same phoneme, since substituting one for the other can never produce a difference in meaning, even though substitution may be perceived as slightly awkward by native speakers. Two distinct phones which are both members of the same phoneme are called "allophones" (from Greek, "different sounds").
In Hindi, the sounds associated with the English letters "w" and "v" are allophones. Both are transcribed with one letter, व. Analogously to the English example above, these sounds are typically pronounced consistently in words, but they do not constitute meaningful differences in utterances. For example, the word वो is typically pronounced as "vo", whereas the suffix -वाला is typically pronounced "wala". Hindi speakers are not generally aware of this distinction, even though they pronounce the distinction fairly consistently, just as English speakers are not aware of the differences of aspiration in certain letters, yet pronounce aspiration consistently.
Thus, व may be pronounced as "w" or "v". Some speakers may even pronounce an intermediate sound.
Likewise, Hindi speakers do not generally maintain any strict distinction between the English "j" and "z" sounds either, but will typically pronounce words consistently. This situation is not quite the same as "w" and "v", since technically, the "z" sound can be represented distinctly from the "j" sound by placing a dot (nuqta) underneath the letter, and some speakers are aware of this distinction. For instance, the word जो is pronounced as "jo". There is some variation, however, in some words such as ज्यादा - some speakers pronounce this as "zyada", and some as "jyada".
In modern Hindi, both श and ष and pronounced the same. ष occurs mostly in Sankrit loanwords.
There is no equivalent of the English "t" or "d" in Hindi. These English sounds are pronounced with the tongue on the tip of the alveolar ridge, behind the top teeth. This place of articulation is between the Devanagari retroflex and dental positions, although the English pronunciation will sound much closer to the retroflex pronunciation to Hindi speakers. English loanwords containing "t" or "d" are therefore transcribed with retroflex approximations.
Devanagari has no capital letters.
र + उ = रु
र + ऊ = रू
There are 6 additional sounds used in Hindi which have no corresponding symbols in Devanagari. These sounds are represented by placing the nuqta underneath a symbol which is phonetically similar. These symbols represent sounds from other languages, such as Persian, Arabic, and English.
|क़||like "k", but pronounced in the back of the mouth|
|ख़||velar fricative, like "Bach" in German|
|ग़||velar sound, similar to ख़ but voiced|
|ज़||just as English "s", as in "is"|
|झ़||similar to the s in English "vision"|
|फ़||just as English "f"|
Only two of the borrowed sounds are typically pronounced distinctly from the non-nuqta forms, though: ज़़ and फ़
|Retroflex||ट||ठ||ड (ड़)||ढ (ढ़)||ण|
Since any consonant that is not explicitly followed by a vowel symbol is implicitly followed by the inherent vowel, अ, Devanagari provides two means of suppressing the inherent vowel:
Horizontal conjuncts are formed when the first letter of a conjunct contains a vertical line. The vertical line is deleted, then the modified consonant symbol is conjoined to the second consonant symbol. For example:
Note that in the last two examples, although neither क nor फ end in a vertical line, they still can be the first letter of a horizontal conjunct. The curve on the right side is shortened and adjoined to the following consonant.
Consonants that do not end with a vertical line often form vertical conjuncts with the following consonant. The first consonant is written on top of the second consonant. For example:
Certain conjuncts are special, and should be observed:
If a nasal consonant is the first member of a conjunct, it may be written either using a "regular" conjunct (e.g. न् + द = न्द, हिन्दी), or an "anusvar", which is a dot written above the horizontal line, to the right side of the preceding consonant or vowel. For instance, हिन्दी could be spelled हिंदी, and अण्डा could alternatively be spelled अंडा. Note that the anusvar always indicates a so-called "homorganic" nasal consonant - in other words, it is articulated in the same location in the mouth as the following consonant is articulated. Thus, the anusvar in हिंदी must represent न्, which is a dental nasal consonant, since द, the following letter, represents a dental consonant. Likewise, the anusvar in अंडा must represent the retroflex nasal consonant ण since the following consonant, ड, is a retroflex consonant.
Note that the anusvar is not the same as the bindu (or chandrabindu). The anusvar represents a consonant which is the first letter of a conjunct, whereas the bindu and chandrabindu represent the nasalization of a vowel. The bindu in हैं cannot be considered an anusvar, since there is no conjunct. The anusvar in हिंदी is not considered a bindu since it represents a consonant that is the first member of a conjunct.
As the first member of a conjunct, र appears like a small "hook" or "sickle" above and to the right of the following consonant:
As the second member of a conjunct, र is indicated by a diagonal line adjoined to the vertical line of the preceding consonant:
Four consonants, ट, ठ, ड, ढ, do not have any vertical line, so they indicate a following र with the symbol like an inverted "v", as follows:
Some conjuncts look quite different than their component consonants, and are not obvious. Most of these occur in words borrowed from Sanskrit:
The conjunct ज + ञ = ज्ञ is pronounced as ग्य ("gya") in Hindi. Conjuncts are treated as a single unit, and a maatraa is placed before the entire conjunct.
There are hundreds of conjuncts, but most conjuncts are easily discernable.
Hindi has a punctuation sign, the purn viraam, which is a vertical line that terminates a sentence. In modern typography, periods are often used in place of the purn viraam, and other punctuation, such as commas and question marks, is also borrowed from English.
Note this page is also available as a PDF in case you cannot see all the Devanagari letters correctly in your browser.
David is a software engineer who currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama. He studies linguistics and languages as a hobby and has a special interest in the Hindi language because his wife, Richa, is a native Hindi speaker.
The following references were used while preparing this article:
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