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Hindi abugida in action!

Week 26, Episode 52

You know this feeling: you look at some text in Hindi and it makes no sense—say whaaat? No wonder, if you don't know Devanagari—the script in which the Hindi language is written. At first, it seems as if learning these symbols is an impossible task, but once you've got yourself to do it step by step, suddenly everything appears so logical and clear!

The word Devanagari comes from देव (deva, deity) + नागरी (nāgārī, city) = "of the city of the gods", implying that it is both religious as well as urbane or sophisticated.

Ah, what a beautiful name the Hindi alphabet has—varnmāla, literally "garland of letters"! And this garland has almost 4 times (!) more letters than the alphabetical lei of Hawaiian, our previous language on Langventure,—44 letters, 33 of which are consonants and 11 are vowels.

What makes Hindi so different from English is that a word is not just a sequence of consonants and vowels. Consonant-vowel sequences are written as a unit: each unit is based on a consonant letter, and vowel notation is secondary. This is called abugida (I know, sounds almost like the brand of ice-cream).

You think you saw it already in Hebrew, Arabic, or Persian? Nope, that was abjad where each symbol stands for a consonant, leaving the reader to supply the appropriate vowel. Abugida is different, as the marking of the vowels cannot be ommited for the word won't be clear, unlike in abjad.

Examples? Here, check out how the letter प (pa) gets additional little symbols and different combinations of sounds occur:

The letters in transcription with a dash over them represent long sounds,
a dot above a hindi letter represents nasalization of the sound.

Notice that vowel sounds in Hindi can be short, long or nasal. As for consonant sounds, they may be aspirated, unaspirated, and retroflex. Aspiration means "with a puff of air", like the difference between the sound of the letter "p" in English words "pin" (aspirated) and "spit" (unaspirated), just make more of a puff for Hindi letters. Hindi retroflex consonants should be pronounced with the tongue tip curled back.

When several consonant sounds go one after another, so called conjuncts, or ligatures, appear. Instead of complete symbols, in this case only parts of the letters included in the cluster of consonants are left out: for example, when the letter स (sa) meets the letter त (ta), they emerge and entwine transforming into स्त (sta). Like in नमस्ते (namaste)—literally, "bowing to you" used as "Hello" or "Goodbye."

Only the last letter in the cluster gets to save its vertical line in a ligature. Do you see the part of स (sa)?

When reading this word, नमस्ते (namaste), pay attention to the trick: this is न (na), this is म (ma), and you recognize स्त (sta) which turns into स्ते (ste) thanks to the mark above the line.

Each consonant in Hindi, when pronounced, by default has this a sound: न (na), म (ma), स (sa), त (ta), etc. It sounds tensed, something between ah and eh, like a slight sound you make between p and l when you say "people".

All in all, reading Hindi is quite easy for words are written as they are pronounced because every character has a different sound. As for word stress, it is not that crucial, but if you're intrested, there is a rule for it.

I can probably go on and on about Hindi letters, but let's take a quick look at its grammar.

  • There are no articles in Hindi.
  • All nouns have gender (feminine or masculine) and 3 cases that change their endings.
  • Nouns and adjectives agree in gender and case, so it is important to know which gender a noun has.
  • The range of tenses in Hindi is curious:

The Doubtful tense is used for actions which occurence (in the past, present or future) is not certain. The Habitual tense indicates regular occurrence of an action in the past, whereas the Indefinite tense describes an action that takes place in the present, happened in the past, or will happen in the future.

Yeah, grammar is always more complicated than letters and sounds :)

But the point is that there is logic even behind the symbols you struggle to understand at first. As I always remind myself in this kind of situations: language designed by humans, thus any human can acquire it :)

Coming next the key to worldwide confusion about Hindi and Hindustani!

फिर मिलेंगे! (P-hee-r mee-leh-geh!) See you soon!

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