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How do you distinguish between श and ष?

I cannot get these right just from hearing them. They sound identical to me. What is the difference between श and ष?

July 19, 2018



Okay so first of all I'd say that Yes, they are technically different letters that make a bit different sounds.

ष is retroflex while श is palatal.

That being said, in modern spoken Hindi, the difference is close to none. In fact most native Hindi speakers pronounce them exactly the same.

So you should be fine if you didn't go into finer details and treated their pronunciations as the same.

However, If you still want to be pronouncing them EXACTLY how they are conventionally supposed to, a shortcut (which, by the way, is not at all official) would be to pronounce श as in "Shave" and ष as in "Sure" (assuming you have an American English accent)


Yeah, the audio for both sounds the same to me. Most native Hindi speakers actually pronounce both श and ष as just श nowadays. श is postalveolar (same as English sh) and ष is actually supposed to be retroflex. An easy way to pronounce ष is just to move your tongue more towards the back of your mouth.



So the exercise in the Letters 4 skill when we have to answer śa or ṣa (among four options) after hearing a sound which is the same for both should be changed to accept both answers (or only display one of the two).


I think we are all clear on several issues: that श and ष both have different places in the mouth where they are formed, that natives can hear a difference in-person, and finally that they have different uses when spelling words.

However, what I believe anitramwaju is trying to get at is the question of whether or not a native speaker could hear the difference on the Duolingo audio. If it is possible to hear the difference on THIS application (not elsewhere), then it is our responsibility as learners to more perfectly train our ears to hear these minimal pairs as-is.

If, however, a native speaker cannot hear the difference with these duo-specific recordings, it must be corrected so that either those two Devanagari letters are never compared to each other in a lesson, or the recordings are exaggerated ever-so-slightly in a way that a native speaker CAN distinguish the difference.


The audio for श and ष is identical as far as I can tell as well.

One of the exercises in Lesson 4 (I believe) lessons asks you to identify this audio, and gives both श and ष as options, but only accepts one as correct. Since the audio pronounces both identically, there's no way of knowing which of the two is correct.


श is pronounced just like ypu would in english: sha. ष is pronounced as a retroflex, so you used the underside blade of your tongue, flicking forward on the alveolar ridge. This occurs in many other sounds, so Ive been leaving this comment below, hope it helps.

have a few pronounciation tips I'd like to share that i think would be helpful: Hindi uses lots of sounds that are foreign to English. Take the sentence "मैं अच्छा हूँ" or "I am good." The first and last words, phonemically "main" and "hoon", end in nasal sounds. The symbols ँ and ं indicate a nasal sound. Listen closely to the recordings for how to correctly pronounce them! You can also check out the IPA chart link below for more sound bites. Be sure to commit to memory all the diacritical markings in devanagari. They usually change the vowel sound of a character, but not always! For example म (ma) can become मि (mi) or मी (mī) (which is short vowel vs long vowel) but can also become मृ (mr) or र्म (rma, a conjunct consonant) which is र् + म. I highly suggest checking out the link below to omniglot.com, where there is a full quick reference list of these characters that can help with the intricacies of devanagari. Be sure to look closely at the section labeled "common conjunct consonants". Thede are two characters that are joined together into one.

Whenever you see a word or letters transcripted into our latin alphabet, consonants that have a dot underneath are retroflex. A few hindi characters (devanagari) may sound extremely similar ie त,ट। थ,ठ। द,ड। and ध,ढ (ta, ṭa | tha, ṭha | da, ḍa | dha, ḍha respectively) however, they differ in their place of articulation (be it alveolar ridge or retroflex) and aspiration. While I could dive into an in depth explanation, others already have, so I will share links :)) some of these sites may not write a retroflex as ṭ or ḍ. When not written that way, you will find the IPA symbols ʈ and ɖ. They are the same sounds.

More on retroflex and t vs d: https://www.livinglanguage.com/blog/2014/02/19/pronunciation-tips-for-hindi-t-and-d/

Retroflex specific: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retroflex_consonant

Overall good hindi info along with a full chart of all DEVANAGARI CHARACTERS and their phonetic transcriptions: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/hindi.htm

A site where you can listen to every specific sound found in hindi, over and over till you understand it:


In lack of the tips before the course, this may be of help to some degree: https://en.m.wikibooks.org/wiki/Hindi/Introduction

Although I talked only about the t and d sounds, retroflexs occur in other hindi sounds such as ण (na) ष (sa) so keep your eyes peeled! If I made any errors please let me know (cause we're in this together and Im still learning too!) Good luck and have fun!


thanks alot very helpful


Thank you! I absolutely cannot hear any difference at all.


श is palatal (almost like sh) and ष retroflex, that is, pronounced with just the tip of the tongue curled up towards the hard palate.


Yes I know. But I can't hear any difference. Maybe it's me. Maybe there's a bug in the course. I don't know.

Can you hear the difference in the exercises of the Letters 4 skill?

(And actually, the English sh is palato-alveolar and not palatal like श.)


the audio sounds the same in both cases. maybe the tts cant distinguish the two


AFAIK both sounds have merged today, as a natural process of simplification.

Russian and other languages also distinguishes between two very similar sibilants: Ш and Щ.


Yes, so there is a bug.

They ask us after hearing a sound to choose between śa and ṣa (and two other possibilities) which according to SMKBhatt now sound the same. But only one is accepted as the good answer without any way to know which one. Both should be accepted.

As for Russian, I know the difference between ш and щ (or in Polish between sz and ś). I have difficulties to distinguish them when someone is speaking. But if I hear them one after the other I can clearly hear the difference (and I think I pronounce them more or less correctly).


I was just going to the forum to ask the same question ;-)

No matter how hard I try, I can't hear any difference between श and ष (śa and ṣa).

Is it because my ears are not used to hear that kind of subtle sound differences? Or is there a problem with the audio and the two recordings are actually the same?


Both...yes there is a problem with the recording :) but also back when you were 1 y/o and just learning english, you brain was not exposed to these sounds, so as an adult now, you wont naturally have the sound distinction to distinguish them super easily. You probably will hear enough of a difference with good recordings, but the more you practice them, the more clear the difference will become and youll be able to tell those sounds apart as easily as you can with क and म


Both pronounces same..But both are used in different words


Does the audio Duolingo is using distinguish them at all? I can easily hear the difference between similar sounds in other languages, like ш and щ in Russian, or "sh" and "x" in Mandarin Chinese, but these sound indistinguishable to me.

I'd be curious to hear from a native Hindi speaker who distinguishes these two sounds themselves...about whether or not the Duolingo system is distinguishing them. If so, it's so subtle I cannot hear the difference.


I've studied Sanskrit which makes the same distinction between voiceless alveolar and retroflex fricative, and can easily hear the difference between the two in Sanskrit. The audio sounds identical to me.


I 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 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 of them). It's just a matter of getting used to and you'll have it down in no time.


I live in India and studied Hindi in school for about 12 years (and I usually topped my Hindi classes :) ), and I don't think I ever knew (or cared much about) what the difference between these two is.

There's certainly no noticeable (if any at all), difference in pronunciation. When you spell words, they are not interchangeable. With lots of practice reading and writing, you learn which of the two is used to spell a word - not that it makes any difference to pronunciation. Perhaps linguists have a different (and more correct) opinion, but in daily use and even in central education board's examinations, I've not come across it.


Exactly! There is no sound difference between these two letters. They both are pronounced like श.


I am a native. They both are the same sounds. They used to be different sounds but now no native differentiate between these sounds. श and ष both are pronounced as श.

Admins and Moderators, basically, they are teaching you a version of Hindi people usually do not use in daily life and the standard version which is outdate in a sense. No native (whom you can encounter in public) would ever differentiate between these two sounds. -.-

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