Schwa in Hindi

Do you notice anything peculiar about the pronunciations of the following two words (written in Hindi)?

(1) नमक
(2) नमकीन

A native Hindi speaker would have no trouble distinguishing between the pronunciations of these two words: namak and nam.keen respectively. But a non-native speaker may find it unusual that although the letter म is written exactly in the  same way, it is rendered slightly differently in both words.

Image Courtesy: WikipediaThis incongruity arises from a limitation of the Devanagari script, and also from the inconsistency in the ‘schwa deletion’ rule in Hindi. (In case you are wondering, schwa is a toneless neutral vowel sound used in some languages. It’s very common in English: for example, the ‘e’ in ‘uncle’ is a schwa. Also, the second ‘o’ in ‘Oregon’ is a schwa, as pointed out by this comic.)

In Hindi language, the schwa is implicit in each consonant, and it’s almost always deleted at the end of words. For example, कर is pronounced as kar, not kara. The schwa is deleted from the second consonant र. (Notice that करन is pronounced as karan. The implicit schwa is kept intact for र here. But not for न since it is the last consonant in the word.)

We can observe the inconsistency in this ‘schwa deletion’ rule in the two words mentioned earlier. The schwa for the letter म is present in नमक but not in नमकीन. There are numerous other examples: like सपना is pronounced as not sapana, and गुजरात is guj.rat not gujarat.

Hindi literature fails as a reliable indicator of the actual pronunciation because it is written in the Devanagari script, a syllabic writing system. In a syllabic writing system, a grapheme [such as क] represents a syllable whereas in an alphabetic writing system [such as Roman], a symbol represents one sound. Compare, for example the Roman grapheme k and its Devanagari equivalent grapheme क. The Roman symbol represents only one sound whereas the Devanagari symbol represents two. The phonetic value of क is k + a, i.e., the vowel a (called schwa and symbolized phonetically as [ə]) is inherently present in the Devanagari consonant symbol. Although in actual Hindi the inherent vowel a is dropped under some conditions; the Devanagari writing system fails to mark its deletion […]


Sources: The excerpt is from A History of the Hindi Grammatical Tradition by T K Bhatia (available here).

Also, here’s an interesting white paper written by M Choudhury and A Basu that “describes the phenomenon of schwa deletion in Hindi and proposes a rule-based algorithm for solving the problem, which is required for a concatenative Text-to-Speech (TTS) system for Hindi”.

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia


5 responses to “Schwa in Hindi

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Schwa in Hindi « A Blank Slate --

  2. Most of the languages evolved from Sanskrit have shred the vowel cancellation marker. Tamil (it’s relation to Sanskrit can be debatable. I am of the opinion that Tamil and Sanskrit may be sisters or mother-daughter) still has the vowel cancellation marker in use.

    • I actually tried to learn Tamil several years ago (using a ‘Learn Tamil Through Hindi’ handbook and some help from a friend of mine) but I didn’t get as far as ‘vowel cancellation marker’. 🙂 I heard that Telugu also still uses the vowel cancellation marker…

    • Smeet

      The south indian languages (Dravidian languages which are COMPLETELY different from Sanskrit use their schwa deletion mark whenever it is needed. करन written in the Tamil script would be pronounced karana, just the same way it is pronounced Rama, Lakshmana, Rakshasa, etc. But for the Indo-Aryan languages (the north indian ones), the schwa is deleted quite often in medial or final position, except in Nepali, which still uses the halant for proper pronunciation.

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