August 27, 2010 | Hindi

The Itinerant Hindi Vowel

Vowels in Hindi are mischievous little creatures.

Sometimes on this language journey I come across things that just make me say, what the hell?! Hindi vowels are among those things.

Below are some highlights of the Hindi vowel situation.

First, Hindi has two forms for each of its numerous vowel sounds. Since in English we have capital and lower-case, print and cursive forms, I can’t really complain about that. But the system is kind of hard on the brain nonetheless. At least my brain.

Independent and Dependent Forms of a Hindi Vowel

Independent and Dependent Forms of a Hindi Vowel

The first type of Hindi vowel form is the independent one, which you would use at the beginning of a syllable. If the vowel is not at the beginning of a syllable, though, you use the second type of vowel form, referred to as a vowel sign, which you place on or near a neighboring consonant.

And the independent vowels look quite different from the signs. For example, to represent the sound a as in “father,” you would use the top symbol shown here if the sound appeared at the beginning of a syllable. In other words, that “3” look-alike surgically attached to something strongly resembling pi (as in 3.14 of math-formula fame). This is the independent form of that particular vowel. But in the Hindi word for “seven” (pronounced saht), shown right below that, the a sound is represented by a simple vertical line, trapped between the consonant equivalents of our s and t.

Inherent Vowels, Lurking Amid Consonants

Inherent Vowels, Lurking Amid Consonants

A second weird thing: Hindi vowels often tag along invisibly with consonant symbols. They lurk! That’s because Hindi is technically a syllabary rather than an alphabet, with consonant “letters” representing syllables rather than single sounds. These consonants include what is known as an inherent vowel, a sound kind of like the in around. So what you might first think of as the letter b is really ba, the letter r is really ra, and so on.

Unless, that is, the inherent vowel is overridden by some other vowel sign (which happens constantly), or unless the syllable appears at the end of a word, in which case the a sound often (usually?) disappears so that only the consonant piece remains.

Confused? Me, too. And I have had the benefit of several weeks’ worth of grappling with this stuff. 

Like Some New Yorkers, One Hindi Vowel Cuts Ahead in Line

Like Some New Yorkers, One Hindi Vowel Cuts Ahead in Line

A third and final vowel oddity: most vowel symbols appear above, below, or after the consonant they follow in pronunciation. However, there is one iconoclastic symbol—the equivalent of a short i sound in English—that goes before the consonant.

The result: the Hindi word for “book” (pronounced kiTAB) is written i-k-t-a-b. So the a is where you would expect it to be, and the i is not.

Why? I have no idea. There is presumably a reason. I just don’t happen to know it.

I do know that I am learning words where some vowels are invisible, some are independent forms, some are merely vowel signs, some trail after their consonants, some hang out below their consonants, some float above their consonants, some are touching their consonants, some are merely loitering near their consonants—and then there is this one little vowel that is so impatient it can’t even wait for its consonant and consistently jumps ahead of it in line.

Life, and language: full of surprises.

Post a Comment