Tips & Notes – Letters
Hindi has a long and interesting history. The immense evolution of North Indian culture can easily be seen in how the language has developed. 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 individual ‘units’ that represent a single vowel sound along with a few supporting consonant sounds.
Each unit consists of a base consonant which is written fully.
The vowel sound followed by the base consonant is expressed as a vowel mark (which can be understood as a diacritic, somewhat like the accents in European languages).
वर्णमाला varṇamālā (Hindi's The Alphabet)
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:
|manner of articulation||short||long|
|guttural||अ a||आ ā|
|palatal||इ i||ई ī|
|labial||उ u||ऊ ū|
|manner of articulation||long||dipthong|
|palatoguttural||ए ē||ऐ ai|
|labioguttural||ओ ō||औ au|
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.
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.
Hindi has 33 basic consonants:
plosives (sounds which are produced when the tongue hits any location in the mouth and restricts all the airflow):
|manner of articulation||uv. ua.||uv. a.||v. ua.||v. a.||nasal|
|guttural||क k||ख kh||ग g||घ gh||ङ ṅ (ng)|
|palatal||च c||छ ch||ज j||झ jh||ञ ñ|
|retroflex||ट ṭ||ठ ṭh||ड ḍ||ढ ḍh||ण ṇ|
|dental||त t||थ th||द d||ध dh||न n|
|labial||प p||फ ph||ब b||भ bh||म m|
(uv. - unvoiced, v. - voiced, ua. - unaspirated, a. - aspirated)
|manner of articulation||semi-vowels||fricatives|
|palatal||य y||श ś|
|retroflex||र r||ष ṣ|
|dental||ल l||स s|
(semivowels allow the flow of some amount of air, fricatives force air out of a small space created in the mouth during articulation)
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.
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.
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 two sets of similar sounding consonants - the unaspirated and the aspirated consonants. Aspiration refers to the quality of certain sounds which make you feel a puff of air coming out of your mouth while pronouncing them. When you say can, you feel the puff of air while pronouncing the c sound. On the other hand, you don’t feel it while pronouncing the k sound in park. So, the first /k/ sound is represented in Hindi through the aspirated ख (kh), whereas as the second, through the unaspirated क (k).
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:
|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, the unit so formed has the basic a sound. 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. When this case of the schwa syncope happens needs to be memorised. E.g. लड़का (lad-kā, not la-da-kā).
The anunāsik ँ symbol nasalises vowels. However, for most 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).
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: र follows different rules in conjunct combinations.
|र् + X||X + ् + र|
|E.g.||पार्क pārk (park)||प्रदेश pra-dēś (state)|
|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.
In addition to this, ru and rū have irregular depictions:
(notice the vowel mark positioned on the right, instead of the bottom, as in पु pu and पू pū)
Pronunciation Irregularities with ह
ह h, often changes how surrounding vowels are pronounced in a word. The most common format is the [a + ह ha] format, which instead of being pronounced like (XahaX), is rather pronounced like (XeheX). E.g. बहन (behen), where the e is like that in pet.
Another peculiarity is the word बहुत (meaning very). It is written as bahut, but pronounced like bohot, where the o is like that in pot.
And of course, यह and वह are pronounced as ye and vo, instead of yah and vah. This particular exception has historical significance. Hindustani (an umbrella term for Hindi and Urdu) was once more prevalently written using the Arabic (rather, Persian) script, which is a different writing system altogether. In it, a ہ h causes the surrounding vowels to behave differently. When people began writing Hindi using Devanagari, which is now the official form for writing it, the h stuck around along with a misleading spelling. All pronunciation exceptions in Hindi are because of this reason.
That is some of the basics of a whole new writing system that you just learnt! :D
This is really useful - it has a couple of things missing, अं & अः that are usually taught with the vowels the former is pronounced how it looks, अ + ं but you missed the ः diacritic completely अः is pronounced "ah" ः adds an 'h' sound. Another diacritic that's becoming more prevalent is ॅ it's only used used in English loanwords for transliteration, but English words, eg डॉक्टर (doctor), are now so common it's becoming essential to understand it, here's an explanation better than I can give: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=J4CAV2plr9wC&pg=PT323&lpg=PT323&dq=ॅ+sound&source=bl&ots=4RrDChi-4N&sig=OgtBW-77NZpvXOT1AUbJ7KsBrwA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwius-e47NHdAhVOC-wKHbV_AAUQ6AEwDnoECAIQAQ#v=onepage&q=ॅ%20sound&f=false
This is helpful, thank you! Might be worth making this topic sticky so more people see it
I am a little confused about "यह and वह are pronounced as ye and vo, instead of yah and vah." In the duolingo courses, it sounds like यह and वह are pronounced as yah and vah. Are they pronounced as ye and voh in any particular context that I am missing?
Sorry for a crazy basic question but this is the first time I have properly attempted to learn a language with a very different alphabet...
The letters that I would recognise as standard western script (a, e etc) that you have next to the Devanagari script do not have the same sounds that I would associate this with (i.e. "a - like the u in fun."; I am expecting this to be a as in apple) Is this how you write these sounds in Hindi if you wish to use a western script or is this some sort of international phonic alphabet and does anyone have any additional reference if so?
To be honest I'm finding the western letters almost a hindrance as I see them and find I already associate them with another sound; I don't mean to be critical as I appreciate how hard it must be to write a course like this but any advice anyone can offer would be awesome.
I feel the same way, but that's because my 'o' in hot, is very different from the general American 'o' in hot (or Texan 'o', or Scottish 'o' or whatever). The romanisation style that they use on Duolingo is, I believe, the official style used by the Indian government. It's distracting, but we just have to get used to it - if you read the lightbulbs or look around online you can find a variety of pronunciation guides. It's not really useful to think of the romanised script as 'western script'. Each language uses the script to suit its own needs and letters like 'a' have no intrinsic sound value (look at how many different pronunciations of 'a' there are in English (Apple / fAr / Ate / cAke / mAteriAl), so we just have to make new memory connections to letter combinations. I try to think of Hindi 'ai' sounding like the 'ai' in 'air' rather than the 'ai' in 'pain'. Hope this helps a bit.