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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sounds of Hindi

Quite a while ago now Katie asked me in the comments about the pronunciation of the Indian words I use. I call them Indian because some are Hindi and some are Sanskrit. They are closely related, but not at all the same. India has many, many, many languages as well as many dialects. Some use the devanagari script of Sanskrit and others use completely different scripts and some use a variation of devanagari.

Sanskrit is not my specialty. I learned the alphabet and some prayers when I was growing up and I took one semester of it in college, which I barely got through. The grammar in Sanskrit is very intense. If you're familiar with Latin, it's much more complicated, with more declensions, etc. It also has something called sandhi, where words run into each other. It's sort-of like a contraction in English, how you can put "It" and "Is" next to each other and turn them into "It's." In Sanskrit, almost all the words run together in this way and there are rules about how they combine, depending on the last letter of the first word and the first letter of the second word. My mom is currently taking a Spoken Sanskrit class and I can't even imagine how that works.

Hindi, being a modern and still living language, is about the same complication level as English. No sandhi, but it does have gendered nouns and case endings on words. Like the vast majority of languages in the world, it is not dependent on word order and it uses a sentence construction with the verb at the end of the sentence.

Hindi (and Sanskrit) have sounds that do not exist in English. I studied linguistics in college, particularly the development of language in children and something interesting I learned was about how we make distinctions between sounds. If you sound an "ah" out loud and then continue to sound as you shift it to an "ooo," there are a near infinite number of sounds in between. Your brain decides where to draw the line, where to consider something the same sound and where to transfer the meaning to a new sound. It will sound to us like there is a sudden shift between about four or five sounds in that sequence.

A famous example is Japanese people learning English. In their language there is no distinction between an "l" sound and an "r" sound. Our brains learn how to draw these dividing lines by the time we are one year old. By that time, we know the sounds of our language and it becomes increasingly difficult to hear distinctions that other languages draw. So, as distinct as "l" and "r" sound to an English speaker, they will be completely unable to hear the difference between a dental "tha" and a retroflex "tha" (and I have to show them with the same characters because the Roman alphabet does not make that distinction. This has to do with where the tongue is in the mouth when the letter is sounded).

In Hindi there are four different "n" sounds, four different "t" sounds, and (I think) five different "d" sounds. They also distinguish between an aspirated and un-aspirated sound. This is called the "puff of air." It is extremely hard for English speakers to hear the difference because it is not a morphemic difference to us. What that means is that if you say the word "kite" with no extra air on the "k" or if you say it with a puff of air on the "k" (which we almost always do, our language being very lazy in terms of sound production), they are the same word, there is no meaning difference. However, in Hindi, that word might mean two totally different things.

My online Skype teacher was trying to get me to say a word with an un-aspirated "p" in the beginning. Every time I tried, she kept telling me I was aspirating it, but I couldn't tell how not to. The reason is, in English every word that starts with "p" gets aspirated, but words that end in "p" do not. If you say the word "pull" and the word "stop," can you hear that there is a difference between the "p"s?

That is probably going to take me a long time. I have to really practice to make my mouth more acrobatic. I am starting to be able to hear the different sounds when pronounced by others, though not always. Producing them myself is proving extremely difficult.

There are characters in Hindi that don't exist in Sanskrit, because there are new sounds that Hindi has incorporated based on borrowed words from Arabic and English. It's easy, as monolingual English speakers, to think that all languages are taking so many words from English, it must be the best language. It is not actually like that at all.

First, because different languages have been favored at different points in history and during that period, that language gets incorporated into lots of other languages. Also, because all languages borrow words from lots of others. There are words in the English language that came originally from Sanskrit (yes, the language trees are related). There are also French words and German words. For example, think of the word "fiancee." To us native English speakers, that is an English word. That's exactly how a word like "komputr" in Hindi is a Hindi word, though the sounds come from English.

When my cousin first went to live in India, she started learning Hindi (and Kannada) from the household servants. One girl help up a plate and told her, "In Hindi we call this 'plate.'" She did not know it was called the same in English! I don't know off hand which words in English started in Indian languages, but I'll keep my eye out for some. (UPDATE, Basu pointed out two great examples: Jungle and Pajama. Those are both Hindi words that have been taken into English)

There is a movement now to incorporate more Sanskrit derivative words into Hindi. Also, I think the classes springing up in temples around the country for Spoken Sanskrit are a similar phenomenon. It appears to be a rebellion against Arabic (and therefore, Muslim) words in Hindi. I think that tinkering with a language is very unnatural and will probably not stick. How words get created is a very organic process. I also hate to see the world dividing along religious lines like that. But anyway, that is off topic.

I want to show those of you who are not familiar with Indian languages what Hindi looks like. We'll see if the characters come out in a way that you can see them:

मेरा नाम आम्बा है (This says "My name is Aamba). The script is so beautiful that I can't imagine why anyone would want to write out Hindi words in Roman characters. (I also find it extremely difficult to read Hindi words written in Roman characters because there are so many sounds that English doesn't have, they get represented in different ways in different places).

In religious circles people will often say that the line that runs across the tops of the letters represents God, always present in all things (this, however, does not explain why some letters have a gap: धू थ ). Every character has an automatic "ah" attached to it, unless it comes at the end of a word. There are little markers that indicate when it changes to another vowel, and if two consonants are next to each other, part of the first one is removed and squashed into the second one. It is a very phonetic language, and unlike English, every character makes only one sound. Thus, once you learn the alphabet, you can pronounce any Hindi (or Sanskrit) word even if you don't know what it means.

When I was growing up, there were several Sanskrit words that were just a part of my everyday English vocabulary in the same way that "karma" is a part of many people's English vocabularies.

If you want to try to pronounce a Hindi or Sanskrit word, it's a good idea to err on the side of long "a"s. "Ahh" is a very common sound. In order to get the emphasis and the rhythm, you would really have to listen to speakers. If you try Bollywood movies, you'll hear how the language sounds. If you are unfamiliar with Bollywood movies, I recommend Swades as a good one to start with (that is, surprisingly, actually pronounces "Swa-desh").

I recently got some flashcards (Tuttle's Hindi in a Flash) and on them each word has related words and phrases, including expressions. I am delighted to be learning some idioms and expressions. An example of how different languages look at the world in different ways is that in Hindi you drink soup and you drink cigarettes. Interesting, eh?

I love language, clearly. I love how language shapes the way we think and how we see the world. The journey of expanding my brain with a second language has been amazing. This June some time I'm going to do a post on what I've learned in one year, since that's when I bought Rosetta Stone and started that journey. I had better stop now, since this post is already extremely long!

Someone just sent me this video on writing devanagari letters:


  1. Absolutely fascinating.. thanks for sharing all of that! I love watching Bollywood movies because the language absolutely fascinates me, and I agree that its a great way to start learning or understanding a bit of the language.
    My real name has a bunch of a's and I have to constantly correct people's pronunciation because of the difference between long and short 'a' sounds.

  2. aamba,

    my mother tongue is not hindi but i think there are enough sandhis in hindi too.

    my own language - bengali is grammatically similar to hindi and has loads of sandhi. bengali and hindi also share a lot of common words which includes sandhi .

    for example
    viswanath (lord of the world ; shiva) = viswa + nath or
    juktorashtra (united states) = jukto + rashtra . etc.

    examples of hindi/indian words in english are many though may not be all in use . some examples that come to mind off hand are jungle, pajama, bunglow, loot, thug, shampoo .

    all the indian scripts are derived from brahmi though not all indians languages belong to the same family . so technically some scripts are not variations of devnagari though they may be very similar in looks.

    i guess you know that and just simplifying things here.

    i am also planning for a long time to learn hindi formally. i had only one year in school. now though i have a working knowledge - it is all full of mistakes.

    - basu

  3. funnily enough same words are often pronounced very differently in different indian languages too.


  4. Language is a fascinating way to connect to a culture. I appreciate that you're trying to learn Sanskrit/Hindi. I had Hindi as my fourth and Sanskrit as my fifth language in school..believe me Sanskrit was an astoundingly tough language to learn (with all those complicated sentence constructions) but has a very beautiful lilt around it:)


  5. I'm not sure I'll ever be ready to tackle Sanskrit. I tried a while back, but I've kind of left that to my parents. As much as I would love to understand the scripture, having a language I can speak with people is the most important thing to me!

    Good call on "Jungle." I just learned that one recently!

    Now Basu says there is sandhi in Hindi and I'm terrified! I hate sandhi :) I haven't seen it yet. I know that when learning Sanskrit, I was not able to read anything without sandhi on every single word. Maybe I'm learning a simplified Hindi?

  6. possibly you are using sandhi without realizing it.
    because even simple and common words may be sandhis for example
    vidyalaya (school) = vidya (education) + alaya (abode)
    swadesh = swa (my) + desh (land)
    chinmaya = chit + maya
    namaste = namah + te


  7. Interesting post. I am fascinated with languages. I am fluent in quite a few as I grew up in different places in India. I had a thing for learning Russian at one point and, like you, went for Rosetta Stone. It was fun learning!

    Anyway, about the comment, "In Hindi we call this 'plate'": The girl probably didn't know. The word is "thaali". It is not an uncommon word but I guess everybody knows what a plate means.

    Although we have that many 'd' sounds, I have heard from my American friends that the 'd' Indians use in English comes closer to sounding as 't' (as they hear it) although not fully. Of course, we all know about the 'v' and 'w' sounds that Indians tend to interchange without even being aware of it! :) It took me conscious effort to get that straightened out. I remember the confusion caused in a diner when I ordered a vestern wegetable omlette years ago :)

  8. I think the plate thing is a regional variation. Also it might be a distinction between a western style plate and a thaali, because they are different.

    There is also one of the "d" sounds that sounds like an "r" to English speakers! So difficult :)

    I think some of the "sandhi" words are what I think of as compound words in English, which is a little different. A contraction pushes two words together and removes pieces of them, but a compound is two words put together that comes to have its own meaning. So "abode of education" turns into a word in its own right. I think that's slightly different.

  9. I really haven't got far on Hindi, I must try again. A tip someone gave me on the aspirated and non aspirated "p" is to say "pin" and "spin". Most English speakers pronounce the "p" in "pin" as aspirated and that in "spin" as non-aspirated. You can then try to pronounce "spin" without the "s" and it feels quite different to "spin", though hearing the difference is quite tough for English speakers.

  10. Good tip! I've been saying the word "stop" and then having my mouth remember how I did the "p." However, so far every unaspirated starting "p" I say is very loud and distinct and sounds rather odd. Still working on that.

    If you want to get into Hindi learning, you might find my first post on Hindi helpful, because I listed every book or program or anything I found to learn Hindi!

  11. On the Aspirated and non-aspirated 'P',may be this would help;
    For non-aspirated 'p': Keep lips together but not pressed tight ,while with the aspirated 'p',press your lips together real tight.
    Similarly for the other aspirated letters like kha etc-just press the tongue against the appropriate part inside the mouth [eg. for chcha -against the palate just behind the teeth] Hope this helps.As a non Hindi speaker this helped me.It is similar for Sanskrit[the pronounciation of the consonants,though the vowels have s slightly different accents.] it was interesting to read your blog.

  12. आपका नाम अंबा है, And yes there are Sandhis in Hindi, though less frequent than Sanksrit.

  13. *shudder* So glad I haven't run into sandhi yet!

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