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How to Learn to Speak Hindi: Learning the Devanagari Script

By Yann, published on 14/09/2018 We Love Prof - IN > Languages > Hindi > A Guide to the Hindi Alphabet

So you have decided to take the plunge and learn Hindi. You are eager to discover Indian culture and ready to immerse yourself in this Indo-European language.

But of course, you can learn to speak Hindi – but you also need to learn to read and write it.

So come and discover the Hindi alphabet with us!

How Do You Write in Hindi?

Hindi is written using an alphabet called Devanagari. It is only one of many scripts in India.

Many of the Indian languages have their own script. While Hindi is an official language of India, so are many others – the government of India has issued a list of several dozen recognised languages, many of which have their own writing system.

So if you decide to learn Punjabi, you could be writing in either Shahmukhi or Gurmukhi. Gujarati has its own script, as does Telugu, Kannada, Sinhalese (Sinhala), Tamil, Odia. Nepali also has its own alphabet, though it can be written in Devanagari.

Bengali and Assamese, though separate scripts, are very similar to Devanagari, being all of them derived from Brahmic scripts.

The Devanagari script is used for the Hindi language, but also more than 120 others. A few of the Indian languages that use Devanagari are:

  • Hindi
  • Bhojpuri
  • Bodo
  • Chhattisgarhi
  • Dogri
  • Haryanvi
  • Kashmiri
  • Konkani
  • Marathi
  • Maithili
  • Nepali
  • Newar
  • Pali
  • Rajasthani
  • Sanskrit
  • Santali
  • Sindhi

How do you write Urdu?

The version of Hindi spoken as the official language of Pakistan, Urdu, is written with a variation on a Persian calligraphy script called Nasta’liq. This script, derived from Arabic, is written from right to left. The letters have a slightly different form depending on whether they are at the beginning, middle or end of a word.

Nasta'liq is used to write Urdu. An example of Urdu written with Nasta’liq. Photo by Syed Wamiq Ahmed Hashmi on Wikipedia

History of the Devanagari Script

The word “Devanagari” comes from the word “Nagari” (older versions of the script go by that name) which means “city”, and “deva” meaning “holy, heavenly”.

It is a Brahmic script – a family including several of the Indian scripts, as well as alphabets from Nepal, Tibet and South-East Asia.

Brahmic Scripts

The origins of the Brahmic scripts is still debated. Some believe they may derive from Aramaic, others from Phoenician, still others postulate an indigenous origin from this Indic script.

The earliest-known examples of a Brahmic inscription are Prakrit texts dating to the 3rd to 1st century BC. Brahmic scripts were first used to write Sanskrit in the 1st century BC. Examples of Brahmi can be found throughout northern and central India.

The Gupta script

The Gupta Brahmi Script is first attested around the 1st century AD, mostly on pillars of iron or stone, and on coins minted by the Gupta Empire of India.

It was further developed into the Nagari, Sharada and Siddham scripts.

The Nagari Script

By the 7th century AD, Nagari was in common use to write Prakrit and Sanskrit; by the end of the first millennium AD, it had evolved into Devanagari and Nandinagari (one of the Hindi alphabets used in central and south India, and that has also been used for Sanskrit.)

Basics of the Hindi Alphabet

Hindi is an alphabet writing based on the abugida system in which consonants are the main element, with vowel notation being secondary.

While in the English alphabet (derived from Latin), vowels and consonants have an equal importance, the Hindi alphabet writing uses modifications of the consonants to indicate vowel sounds.

There are separate vowel letters, but they are only used if the vowel:

  • stands on its own or
  • is at the beginning of the word.

Otherwise, vowels are indicated with a diacritic modification to the basic consonant.

Hindi transliteration

Transliteration is a means of bringing a language with another system of writing into the Latin script.

While there is an internationally recognised standard for transliterating Sanskrit, there is no true standard to approximate how Hindi is pronounced.

This is why it is so important to know the Hindi letters when learning Hindi.

If you can, it is useful to learn the international phonetic alphabet. If you click on one of the symbols on this site, you can hear it spoken, making it easier to learn the consonants and vowels with the right pronunciation.

The Hindi Vowels

Each of the Hindi vowels exists as a standalone letter. However, they are only used to write Hindi words if the vowel:

  1. stands alone (as the name suggests)
  2. is at the beginning of a word.

There is generally a long and a short version of each of the vowels – a difference that becomes important once you start to pronounce Hindi. The long versions generally take the symbols for the shorter version but add on to it with one or more extra strokes.

Here are the vowels in their independent form (in the Chandas font):

Devanagari script vowels. The Devanagari vowels (in black) paired in short and long. Image by Christopher J. Fynn on Wikipedia

The vowels (in black) are, from left to right:

  • a and ā
  • i and ī
  • u and ū
  • /r̥ and /r̥̄
  • /l̥ and /l̥̄
  • e/ē and ai
  • o/ō and au

The Hindi Consonants

Each Hindi consonant, in its independent form, automatically comes with the short version of the vowel “a” attached to it. Here is a list of Hindi consonants:

Consonants of the Hindi script. The Devanagari consonants in the Chandas font. Image by Christopher J. Fynn on Wikipedia

From left to right:

  • ka
  • kha
  • qa
  • gha
  • na
  • ca
  • cha
  • ja
  • jha
  • ña
  • ṭa
  • ṭha
  • ḍa
  • ḍha
  • ṅa
  • ta
  • tha
  • da
  • dha
  • na
  • pa
  • pha
  • ba
  • bha
  • ma
  • ya
  • ra
  • la
  • lha
  • va
  • śa
  • ṣa
  • sa
  • ha

You can hear them pronounced here.

If, however, a vowel other than the short “a” follows the consonant in Hindi nouns or adjectives or verbs, then a so-called diacritic is added to the consonant sign, modifying it slightly.

Here is how the consonant ka is modified depending on which vowel succeeds it:

Ka in Hindi script with diacritic marks. The Devanagari consonant Ka with diacritics. Image by I, BernardM on Wikimedia Commons

From left to right:

  • ka
  • ki
  • ku
  • kṛ
  • kṝ
  • ē
  • kai
  • kau

The top line

A characteristic of Hindi writing is the horizontal line along the top of the words. When writing by hand it is often left out or written last, but it’s always present in print form. When writing down your Hindi vocabulary in your notebook or flashcards, you should try and include it so you can recognise the words better when you see them printed in a sentence.

Ligatures

Certain consonant clusters that appear often are grouped together into ligatures – think of how English has æ as a ligature of a and e in certain words. Often, the vowels between these consonants are suppressed, so that only the consonants appear in the ligature.

Common ligatures in the Hindi script A list of some of the most common ligatures in the Devanagari script. Public Domain, on Wikimedia Commons

This article shows some of the most common ligatures.

Hindi Numbers

Hindi writes its numbers much the way we do, with single numerals from one to nine, and then the decimal in the first position and the numeral in second.

Devanagari numerals The Devanagari numbers from one to nine (plus zero!) Photo credit: HaveIgotastory4u on Visual hunt

Learning to Write the Hindi Letters

It’s not always easy to learn a new script. Remember when you first had to learn the Latin alphabet? Fortunately, your coordination will have improved since then! Still, your brain will need to get used to forming these new characters, but it will take a little while before each letter is perfect.

Wikipedia Commons has a wonderful series of gifs to teach you the stroke order for making Hindi letters as a little animation.

To practice writing Devanagari, why not take a page out of your early school days? Get a lined notebook of the kind used by children to practise the alphabet, or for learning calligraphy. Then repeat each letter for several lines – first alone, and then with its diacritic marks.

Practise the Devanagari script. Lined paper for practising calligraphy is also good for practising your Devanagari letters! Photo credit: pixelfrenzy on Visualhunt.com

The more you practise, the nicer your Hindi handwriting will be!

Hindi On Your Electronic Devices

If you want to write Hindi on your electronic devices, you will need to install a Hindi font. Unfortunately, none of the available fonts supports all the common ligatures, which is unfortunate when trying to learn and apply the finer points of the Hindi writing system.

Hindi fonts for your computer

Many computer Devanagari fonts try to imitate Hindi calligraphy and can be rather beautiful. This site offers a list of Hindi fonts grouped into several categories including professional, handwriting and decorative. Pick one you like and download away!

Do try and find a True Type (the icon will have TT on it) or Unicode font to ensure that it appears the way it does on the screen when you print.

Hindi fonts for your smartphone

Most smartphone operating systems come with some form of Hindi keyboard (some even support other Indian alphabets). Go to your system settings and simply change the keyboard setting.

However, this is only practical if you only want to type in Hindi. As soon as you will be switching between Hindi and English regularly, it gets annoying. This is why many Hindi prefer to write in transliteration when writing on social media such as WhatsApp and Twitter.

However, in 2016 Google released the Indic Keyboard for Android devices that allows you to switch easily between various different Indian alphabets and English.

On iPhones, you can simply add a new keyboard and switch by pressing down the “globe” icon on your current keyboard.

Do you need to get a Hindi keyboard?

To write the Devanagari script, you can simply change the keyboard options on your computer and type with your normal keyboard. Here is the usual layout (called InScript) on a normal QWERTY keyboard:

A Devanagari keyboard. An InScript keyboard for writing Hindi. Image by Suresh Kumar Shukla on Wikimedia Commons.

However, if you don’t want to learn the layout by heart, you might want to invest in an InScript keyboard for when you have to do a lot of typing in Hindi.

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