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Devanagari and Hindi Pronunciation

Hindi is written in a script called Devanagari. This beautiful script is actually much easier to learn than you might think, and once you learn it, you can pronounce any Hindi word you see. That is because with few exceptions, Hindi, unlike English, is phonetic. But before introducing individual letters and their pronunciation, it’s important to take note of a few concepts about Hindi and Devanagari.

First, Devanagari is, in technical terms, a syllabary rather than an alphabet. This means that each Devanagari letter represents a syllable, most of which consist of a consonant followed by a vowel, something like “duh” or “guh.” In fact, the vowel sound in these examples—which is similar to the sound at the ends of the words soda or yoga—is inherently pronounced along with each Devanagari consonant. It’s as if whenever you see “d” or “g” you automatically pronounce “duh” or “guh,” respectively. But Hindi has other vowels, and they’re written either as hooks or similar marks above or below the consonant, or as separate letters, either before or after the consonant. The following are a few simple examples that demonstrate this:

This is the basic letter pronounced like the “k” in “kite.” But it also has the inherent vowel, so it’s pronounced “kuh.” In the standard transliteration used for Hindi, it’s written ka. Make sure you pronounce this a like the “a” in “soda” or “yoga,” and not like the vowels in “cat” or “hot.”
के This is the letter “k” with the short vowel “eh,” as in “bet.” Notice that it’s a kind of slash or hook above the letter. So this is pronounced ke.
की Here we have “k” with the vowel “ee,” as in “see.” This is pronounced like “key,” and in transliteration it’s kī. Notice that ī comes after its host consonant.
कि And here we have an example of a vowel that comes before its host consonant. It’s the shorter “ih,” as in “his.” So this is pronounced ki.

Vowels in Hindi can also occur independently of a consonant, for example, if a word begins with a vowel or when a vowel comes after another vowel. Therefore, Hindi has two forms of each vowel. Here are examples of the four vowels you just saw, this time at the beginning of the words, so in independent forms:

अक ak ईक īk
एक ek इक ik

And here are two examples of a vowel coming after another vowel. Notice that the first vowel is written above the host consonant, and the second vowel takes its independent form.

केआ keā केऊ keū

Again, remember that अक ak is pronounced like the last part of “stuck” and not “stack.” Also notice that the independent forms of vowels don’t necessarily look like the hosted forms. You just have to memorize them. But if it’s any consolation, there is no distinction in Devanagari between upper- and lowercase letters, so you only need to learn one form of the consonants. Finally, you can see that most Devanagari letters are formed with a headstroke—a horizontal line—and that the rest of the letter appears to dangle beneath it. A few of the independent vowels break this line, such as अक ak, and many of the hosted vowels are written above it, as in the case of ईक īk. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Now let’s look at two very important features of Hindi pronunciation. If you’ve ever heard an Indian person speaking English, you may have noticed a unique quality of their consonants. For example, a “t” or a “d” may sound as if it’s pronounced with the tongue further back in the mouth, almost curled backward. This is because Hindi distinguishes between dental consonants—ones that are pronounced with the tongue placed against the teeth—and retroflex consonants—ones that are pronounced with the tongue curled up against the roof of the mouth. So, there are separate Devanagari letters for dental t and retroflex . Note the small dot in transliteration; this is how retroflex consonants are marked.

Hindi also distinguishes between aspirated and nonaspirated consonants. Aspirated consonants are pronounced with a puff of air, and nonaspirated consonants are pronounced almost as if the breath is being held. We have an approximation of this in English. Say the words “pool” and “spool” aloud, while holding a finger right in front of your mouth. In “pool,” there is a little puff of air with the “p” that you can feel quite noticeably on your finger. That’s the aspiration. But in “spool,” the “p” has a different quality—you can hardly feel any air on your finger when you say it. In English, this quality is just something that happens because of neighboring sounds. English speakers hardly notice it and certainly don’t distinguish words by whether a sound is aspirated or not. But in Hindi this distinction is the basis for two entirely different consonants, and words differ just based on whether a particular consonant is aspirated or not. In transliteration the aspirated consonants are written with an h. But don’t pronounce it as a separate letter. It’s just there to mark the aspirated consonants, like the dot does in retroflex consonants.

With these distinctions, you have four forms of “t” in Hindi: t, , th, and ṭh.

t dental, nonaspirated th dental, aspirated
retroflex, nonaspirated ṭh retroflex, aspirated

The challenge for English speakers is that our consonants tend to be “mushy” mixtures of these fine distinctions, halfway between aspirated and nonaspirated, and halfway between dental and retroflex. But don’t worry; with a little practice, it’s not that difficult. We’ll get into the quality of each consonant in more detail in a moment. First, let’s start with the vowels.

Vowels

Hindi has eleven vowel sounds. Remember that there are two forms of each vowel in Devanagari—an independent form, which you use if a word starts with a vowel, and a hosted form, which you write above, below, before, or after the host consonant. You’ll see each vowel in both forms, independent, and then hosted on the letter , or k.



a, ka. This is the neutral vowel in the English words soda, photography, or parameter. Remember that every Devanagari letter that isn’t marked with a vowel is pronounced with this “inherent” vowel. The exception is the final consonant of a word; that’s usually pronounced without the inherent vowel.


का
ā, kā. This is a longer vowel, like in the English car or dark.

ि
कि
i, ki. This vowel is like the short “ih” in his or pit.


की
ī, kī. This is the longer “ee” sound of see or dream. But be careful to make it a crisp sound, not drawn out like the English “ee-yuh.”


कु
u, ku. This vowel is like the “uh” of pull or foot.


कू
ū, kū. This is the longer “oo” of pool or fool. But don’t draw it out with the “w” sound heard in English.


कृ
, kṛ. This is an “r,” but it’s a vowel rather than a consonant. It’s similar to the “rih” of written or riddle.


के
e, ke. This is a very short, crisp and pure sound, like a clipped “ay” of same or lake. If you pronounce the English words very slowly, you’ll hear that there’s a lot of “ee” in that “ay.” Try to cut the sound off before you get to the “ee,” and you’ll have the Hindi sound. If you speak French or Spanish, it’s like parlé or sabe.


कै
ai, kai. This is like the short “eh” of English get or carry.


को
o, ko. This is another short, crisp and pure sound, similar to the beginning of the “oh” of sofa or hotel. But again, say those words slowly, and you’ll hear a lot of “oo” and “w” in English. Cut those parts out, and you’ll have the Hindi. If you speak French or Spanish, it’s like the sound in hôtel or pone.


कौ
au, kau. This is either the sound in auto or gown.

Nasalized Vowels

Any vowel, with the exception of , can be nasalized. That means that a good part of the airflow passes through the nose. You may not realize it, but English has plenty of nasal vowels. Any time a vowel comes before –m, –n, or –ng in the same syllable, it’s nasalized. Say “dope” and “don’t,” and pay close attention to the vowel. It’s nasalized in “don’t.” In Hindi, a nasal vowel is marked by a kind of half-moon on its side with a dot over it, placed above the vowel. If part of the vowel itself is written above the headstroke, then just the dot is used. Notice that in transliteration, nasalization is marked by the tilde:

कूँ kū̃, काँ kā̃, कों kō̃.

Let’s look at nasalization of the vowels and nasalization on the consonant .

अ, अं*
a, ã
क, कं
ka,
आ, आं
ā, ā̃
का, कां
kā, kā̃
इ, इं
i, ĩ
कि, किं
ki,
ई, ईं
ī, ī̃
की, कीं
kī, kī̃
उ, उं
u, ũ
कु, कुं
ku,
ऊ, ऊं
ū, ū̃
कू, कूं
kū, kū̃
ऋ,ऋं
ṛ, ṛī̃
कृ, कृं
kṛ, kṛī̃
ए, एं
e,
के, कें
ke, kẽ
ऐ, ऐं
ai,
कै, कैं
kai, kaĩ
ओ, ओं
o, õ
को, कों
ko,
औ, औं
au,
कौ, कौं
kau, kaũ

*In this table, only the dots are used above the nasal vowels. You’ll see the full appearance of nasal vowels—with the half moon and dot—later in this book.

Now let’s look at some words that use the vowels you’ve just learned, along with the consonant ka to illustrate the hosted vowels:

आओ
āo
come
एक
ek
one (number)
कोई
koī
someone
काई
kāī
moss
काका
kākā
uncle
केक
kek
cake
कुक
kuk
cook (n.)
अंक
ãnk
number

Note that केक kek (cake) and कुक kuk (cook) have been incorporated into the language in their original forms. Hindi, like most languages, has many such loanwords that it has borrowed from other languages, including English.