Hindi Lessons/Lesson 0

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Hindi is written in a script called Devanagari, which is highly phonetic. Once it is learned, Hindi becomes an easy language to read. Each character is pronounced the same way it appears each time, with very few exceptions. Its primary difficulties are that 1) there are some letters written down before another character but pronounced after it, and 2) some letters are formed from the combination of two others.

We'll start with a few straightforward consonants - h, n, d, m, r, k. For now we'll consider them out of "alphabetical" order just to get an idea how they work. They'll be presented in order later.

This is the letter for the sound H as in "Hindi," pronounced just as in English. Note that every Hindi consonant "inherits" the schwa vowel /ə/ with it unless it is otherwise marked (the schwa sound is the initial a in about or the vowel sound in the). However, the schwa is not typically pronounced when at the end of a word. The character ह "h" is read with the schwa as "ha."

This is "na," similar to the English "n."

Let's join the two together (by the only two possible ways) and pronounce them.

हन

At first sight, this looks like "hn." But with every consonant except the last comes the schwa, so we read that as "han." In the ancient language Sanskrit that Hindi descends from that final "a" was pronounced. A contemporary Hindi speaker would read "Siddharta Gautama Buddha" as "Siddharth Gautam Buddh".

नह

That would of course be "nuh".

That's "d" as in "Hindi", pronounced with the tongue a little flatter against the back of the teeth. Consonants pronounced this way are known as dental consonants. There is another d in Hindi, known as retroflex, and made with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth.

M as in "magnet", so same as English m. If we join two m's we'll have a word, which will be pronounced in Hindi exactly the same way as the English "mum": मम.

R as in "roll."

K as in "keen."

In Hindi each vowel is written in two ways: as a vowel mark called a matra, and as a detached vowel letter. Matras are seen more often than detached vowels. Detached vowels appear at the start of a word, or when one vowel follows another. In all other cases the vowel marks are used.

Let's start with the vowel marks:

(I hope you remember, that every consonant comes with an "a" unless otherwise marked, so there is no matra for that sound)

ā The vowel "ā" - a straight vertical line is both its matra and its vowel mark. It sounds similar to the a in father. The dashed little circle to its left isn't part of the language--it just shows you the place of where the preceding consonant would be. Here is a consonant with the ā matra: हा - "haa".
ि i The short "i", pronounced as the i in English "hit" or as a shortened version of the vowel in see. The most important thing about it, you should certainly know, is that it's written before a consonant, but read after it! Thus हि is pronounced "he."
ī The long version of the "i" (ee), pronounced as the English "ee" in "see". It's written after the consonant. With a character it looks like: ही - "hee".
o O as in "domain". With ह it looks like: हो - "hoe".
au au may be pronounced a lot like an English "o", though some dialects pronounce it as a diphthong. With ह it looks like: हौ - "how".
u That's the short u, as in "look": हु - "hu".
ū That's the long u as in "coooool": हू - "hoo".
e This e is pronounced as in the e in grey. Together with ह this would be: हे.
ai That's also an e. It's e, but a bit closed sound and some speakers pronounce it as a dipthong. है

An important thing, before we continue: A dot over a vowel nasalizes it, forcing some of the expired air through the nasal cavity. When pronounced, a nasalized vowel is pronounced by forcing some of the expelled air through the nose, producing a slight n or ng sound:

ं The anusvara dot, nasalizing a vowel. For example if we have dot over no, we'll pronounce that as "no~" (sometimes written as "non") - exactly the same as the French word for "no." नो -> नों (no -> no~). In the lessons I will transcribe the nasalized letter as ~.

These are all the basic vowel marks, allowing us to write some words, using the letters learned so far:

हिंदी - "Hindi." Let's have a closer look. First we see that the word starts with "i", but since it is the short i matra, it is written before but pronounced after the next consonant, which is "h," So far we have "hi". Next we see the dot, nasalizing the vowel to "hi~" (hin). Next two letters: a dental d and the long "i." This word can also be written with the na character written explicitly (in shortened form in this case) as: हिन्दी.

Some more words with what we know so far:

है - "hai" or "hay" (without the "i" sound in "hei") means "is."

हैं - "hai~" (hain) means "are."

मैं - "mai~" (main) means "I."

Next come the detached forms of the vowels:

Recall that these are used after another vowel or at the beginning of a word which starts with a vowel. Their pronunciation is exactly the same pronunciation as in their vowel mark form:

अ a That's the sound which is equivalent of the "inherited a" I told you about - the one which follows every consonant, if there is no other following vowel. आ ā Equivalent of ा. इ i Same as the short i vowel mark. ई ī Same as the long i vowel mark. ओ o Same as the O vowel mark. औ au Same as AU vowel mark. उ u Same as short u vowel mark. ऊ ū Same as long u vowel mark.

ए e Same as e vowel mark. ऐ ai Same as ai vowel mark.

Some examples:

एक - "ek" = one

उन्नीस - "unnīs" = nineteen

आप - "aap" = you

उनका - "unka" = their

अब - "ab" = now

आंख - "aankh" = eye

अच्छा - "acchā" = good

और - "aur" = and

भाई - "bhai" = brother

Don't bother about the letters you don't know, we'll learn them shortly. The more important thing is that you should recognize and see the detached vowels. Now I'll continue with a comparatively full list of Hindi consonants. Learning them will enable you to read many words in Hindi. Of course there are also combinations of characters to learn, which will be the final step. The consonants are now shown in groups in their traditional order representing their pronunciation classes.

Gutturals (sound is made from the back of throat)

  • क ख ग घ ङ
  • k kh g gh ng

Palatals (sound is made by the tongue touching the hard palate)

  • च छ ज झ ञ
  • c ch j jh ñ

Cerebrals (sound is made by rolling the tongue)

  • ट ठ ड ढ ण
  • T Th D Dh N

Dentals (sound is made by the tongue touching the teeth)

  • त थ द ध न
  • t th d dh n

Labials (sound is made with lips closed or almost closed)

  • प फ ब भ म
  • p ph b bh m

Semi vowels (pronounced with lips and throat open)

  • य र ल व
  • y r l v/w

Sibilants and aspirants

  • श ष स ह ज़
  • sh ssh s h z

Compound and others

  • क्ष त्र ज्ञ श्र ऋ
  • ksh tr gy shr ri

Double letters (formed only from one consonant, but doubled..., actually easy to spot) (* Note that on some browsers you won't see the letters properly and instead of seeing one letter under another, you'll see one letter left to another with the first letter having under it the special mark, called "virama" to make it semi-consonant.) क्क ट्ट ठ्ठ त्त न्न ड्ड द्द KK TT TTH T'T' NN (*Note the similarity with TR) DD D'D'

Now, just one thing before we end the lesson, and it is very important thing: half consonants. I told you that every consonant comes with the vowel "a" with it. So when you see "sm" you should read this as "sam". But what if you want to say something that begins with "sm", not "sam". When one wants to mute the inherited a-vowel, there is a special mark called "virama". It's put below the letter and if you see a letter with such mark you don't have to pronounce "A" after it. Let us see how that virama-thing looks like:

टम = T + m = Tam ट्म = T + virama + M = Tm

You see the small mark under the T? I bet you do! Well, that's the virama, it mutes the a, so we pronounce "Tm", not "Tam". However as much as useful it may be, it's not used that much in handwriting because almost all consonants in Hindi have their "half consonant" equivalent, so it's not necessary to write the virama, but instead of this one has to write the corresponding half consonant. Half consonant are extremely easy to notice, since they look like the left half of a consonant. Here is an example:

सक = s + k = sak स्क = Half s + k = sk

Some half letters do combine with the next consonant and change shape. I'll give you some of those which you will encounter most often:

Half letter + n: (again: on some browsers you won't see the proper combinations, but consonant + virama + n)

ब् + न = ब्न
ह् + न = ह्न
ग् + न = ग्न
द् + न = द्न
प् + न = प्न
र् + न = र्न * that needs an extended explanation, see below
क् + न = क्न
त् + न = त्न
म् + न = म्न
व् + न = व्न
स् + न = स्न

Half letter + R:

ब् + र = ब्र
ह् + र = ह्र
ग् + र = ग्र
द् + र = द्र
ज् + र = ज्र
ड् + र = ड्र
प् + र = प्र
र् + र = र्र * that needs an extended explanation, see below
क् + र = क्र
त् + र = त्र
च् + र = च्र
ट् + र = ट्र
म् + र = म्र
न् + र = न्र
व् + र = व्र
ल् + र = ल्र
स् + र = स्र
य् + र = य्र

Note how similar the "half letter + n" and "half letter + r" are. There is only one little difference, something like the little hook on the N version.

Half r + consonant:

The half R, followed of course by consonant, is showed by a mark over the second consonants. This mark looks the same as the mark which differentiate the short i detached vowel from the long detached vowel ī. Remember if you see that mark read it as R, but before the consonant it modifies. Some examples:

र्ह, र्स, र्म, र्न, र्ज, र्द, र्ट, र्त

That letters should be read, according to their order: rh, rs, rm, rn, rj, rd, rT, rt

So, that's it. You've learned as much as you'll need to know to be able to read most Hindi texts. For example, you can test yourself by reading (although not understanding) the Hindi version of the web-site of BBC, there you can find some names of countries or famous people, written in Devanagari. That's what I did to show you some examples:

  • पाकिस्तान = Pakistan
  • ताजमहल = Taj Mahal
  • केनेडी = Kennedy
  • बग़दाद = Baghdad
  • क्रिकेट = Cricket
  • वेबगाइड = Webguide
  • इंटरनेट = Internet
  • माइक्रोसॉफ़्ट = Microsoft
  • इराक़ = Iraq
  • सद्दाम हुसैन = Saddam Hussein
  • ग़ज़ा = Gaza
  • इसराइल = Israel
  • इंडोनेशिया = Indonesia
  • मेडागास्कर = Madagascar
  • श्रीलंका = Sri Lanka
  • ईरान = Iran
  • कॉलिन पॉवेल = Colin Powell
  • अल्जीरिया = Algeria
  • बुश = Bush (yeah, the former president of the USA)
  • अमरीका = America
  • यूरोप = Europe
  • तुर्की = Turkey
  • यूरो = Euro
  • कोरिया = Korea