Hindi Phonetics, Alphabet And Orthography (Part 1)

By Thomas Keyes
Oct. 27, 2009

The Hindi language has arisen over the past 1000 years as the descendant of Prakrit rather than Sanskrit, as is often supposed. Prakrit was the popular speech of that era, whereas as Sanskrit was the cultivated language of India's elite.

Comparing the vocabulary of Hindi with that of Sanskrit, one finds surprisingly little in common, much less say than the amount that Latin and Spanish have in common. However, Hindi does use the Sanskrit alphabet, with very few or no variations, and this may be what has created the illusion that Hindi is just a latter-day Sanskrit.

Hindi has borrowed quite a few words from Sanskrit however, but these are learned borrowings of more recent vintage, rather than common, everyday words that would point to a linear kinship. Hindi has also borrowed hundreds, if not thousands, of words from Arabic, Persian and English.

Anyway, the subject of my article is Hindi phonetics, alphabet and orthography. The Hindi alphabet is a primitive, somewhat awkward affair, but Hindi writing is far more phonetic than English writing, though there are some dubious points.

English's threefold sets of plosives and nasals (p,b,m; t,d,n; k,g,ng) have much more elaborate counterparts in Hindi. In English, p, t, and k are usually aspirated, that is, accompanied by h, so that we might more correctly write ph, th and kh. But it is also possible to pronounce them without aspiration, in which case, we would simply write p, t and k. Contrariwise, in English, b, d and g are usually unaspirated, so we would simply continue to write b, d and g. But an aspirated set is also possible, and it exists in Hindi, and for it, we may write bh, dh and gh. Moreover, there is a fourth set, called retroflex consonants, formed by placing the tongue on the hard palate instead of the teeth or the alveolar ridge, where it is placed for t, d and n. For these we may write T, D and N, and the first two may be aspirated Th and Dh. Note that the nasal in each case is articulated in the same place as the plosives, which produces some consonants not existing in English. Finally, there are affricate consonants like j in judge and ch in church. In one of the methods of transliteration one encounters, they are written j and ch, and their aspirated counterparts as jh and chh. So we have this schema for Hindi's plosives and nasals:

Velar: k, kh, g, gh, ng (ng as in sing)
Palatal: ch, chh, j, jh, nj (nj like n tilde)
Retroflex: T, Th, D, Dh, N
Dental: t, th, d, dh, n
Bilabial: p, ph, b, bh, m

Hindi also has flaps, like r in Spanish mira, one unaspirated and one aspirated, which are represented by placing dots under or before the D and Dh. So we might transcribe them as .D and .Dh. These dots are not usually omitted.

In addition to these, Hindi has y, r (trilled), l, v, sh (palatal), shh (retroflex), s and h. Unlike English, Hindi has voiced h, so that the relation between English h and Hindi h is the same as the relation between s and z. Hindi v tends to sound like w.

Some consonants appearing in words of foreign provenance are represented by similar consonants in Hindi, dotted under or before, but these dots are usually omitted:

.k (Arabic qaf)
.kh (Arabic kha, Spanish j, German ch)
.gh (Arabic ghain, Greek gamma)
.j (z or zh)
.ph (f)

These consonants may be viewed on the following page.


This page includes a couple of composite consonants, called ligatures or conjuncts, that should not be considered parts of the alphabet (ksh, tr, jnj). There are dozens of conjuncts, but this is an entirely different subject.

Furthermore, the page contains a few dot consonants that I have not seen so far: .n, .r, .L, .y. If I haven't seen them in four months of reading Hindi, I doubt that I will see them anytime soon.


About the author Thomas Keyes: I have written two books: A SOJOURN IN ASIA (non-fiction) and A TALE OF UNG (fiction), neither published so far.

I have studied languages for years and traveled extensively on five continents.

Visit my website here.

Email: udikeyes@yahoo.com

Comment on this article here!


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