Hindi: देखो!

Ah, India. Just the thought of it makes me want to take a trip there.

We’ve hit a language spoken in one of the world’s oldest countries with a culture, history and influence that spans many miles and thousands of years. Whew, that’s a lot of pressure! But I’ll try my best.

Hindi is spoken by nearly 500 million people and, depending on who you ask, is either the second, third or fourth most spoken language on the planet. But the language didn’t really appear until after the 900s (in the form of dialects), evolving from Sanskrit. Sanskrit has a direct connection to India’s history, as the language was used for a millennium. The Vedas, religious texts in Hinduism, contain the oldest form of Sanskrit, also known as Vedic Sanskrit. The Rigveda form of Sanskrit would be used for a very, very long time, as it survived through sacred oral history and emphasis on correct enunciation. Pānini, an ancient grammarian, laid out Sanskrit’s rules around 4 BC, which changed the form somewhat.

During the 6th century BC, Gautama Buddha was born, which would have a major impact on India’s culture, ending the Vedic period. Mahavira, also alive at the time, would would help spread Jainism, another major religion in India. Around this time, the country would be divided into 16 different states, called Mahajanapadas, and would coalesce into four major ones. Persian and Greek invasions would take place next, creating a multicultural region in northern India and a primary influence on Mahayana Buddhism.

Later, parts of India would be under the control of dynasties, most notably the Mauryan all over and Satavahana in the south and central part of India. The northern part would be taken over by Greek rulers for two centuries. One of the most powerful rulers in the 4th century BC, Emperor Ashoka, has a pillar dedicated to him on India’s flag.

The Gupta dynasty, known as the start Hindu’s golden age, took place in the 300s and ended around the 5th century. The unification of the north by the Guptas would be undone by the invasion of Huns until King Harsha reunited India around the 600s. After his death, the Pratihara, Rashtrakutas and Pala dynasties would fight for control of the region for 200 years. The Rajputs would rule the northern parts of India, the Shahi dynasty would get modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan from the 600s-1000 and India would be divided up between other dynasties until the 1200s. (Isn’t this confusing?) During this time Nagari, a precursor to Devanagari (also known as Hindi’s alphabet) emerged.

Islam had been spreading to India at this point. Mohammed of Ghori from Afghanistan, would establish rule in Northern India and become the first Sultan of Delhi, ruling until the 1300s. India would continue to be ruled by Muslims during the Mughal Era, which began in 1526 and would last until the 1800s. (The Taj Mahal was built during the Mughal Era.) Beyond the cultural ramifications, Islam would bring a host of Persian and Arabic words to Hindi.

Europeans came to India around the 1500s. The British would most notably exert its influence over the region before adding India to its own empire, governing most of the country for nearly 100 years. India gained independence in 1947 through non-violent efforts by Mahatma Ghandi and was partitioned into its current state and Pakistan, but not before thousands would die in riots before the division. Since then, India has battled ongoing problems of poverty, caste rule and conflict with Pakistan to become an economic powerhouse and leader the sciences. You probably also know that it’s the second most populated country in the world too.


Hindi uses Devanagari, a system of characters read left to right. Despite some exceptions, each letter has one sound.

Vowels can appear independent or as diacritics over, below, before or after consonants. Here are the independent forms (thanks to Rajan at YouTube):

Short Vowels:
a – अ (schwa sound);
e – ए (a as in share)
i – इ (i as in tin)
o – ओ (o as in sore)
u – उ (u as in put)
ri – ऋ (a quick “re” sound; not common)

Long Vowels:
ā – आ (a as in father)
ai – ऐ (a as in fan)
ī – ई (e as in bee)
au – औ (o as in go)
ū – ऊ (oo as in boo)
rī – ॠ (a longer “ri” sound; not common)

Here are what the vowels look like as diacritics (marks over the consonants). We’ll use the consonant प or pa to show what they look like:

Short Vowels:
a – प
e – पे
i – पि
o – पो
u – पु
ri – पृ

Long Vowels:
ā – पा
ai – पै
ī – पी
au – पौ
ū – पू
rī – पॄ

The short and long upside down i (ऌ/ॡ independent; पॢ/पॣ diacritic with प) is also a sound, but apparently it’s not very common. There’s also the nasal अं (which sounds like “ung” in rung) and अः (which sound like a breathy “uh”). They’re not technically vowels, but they’re not considered consonants either. In a lot of cases, a single dot is used to show nasalization.

And now, the consonants. As explained from Ancient Scripts, syllables with dots underneath them are retroflexes, which means they kind of sound like an unpronounced r comes before them (roll the tongue back before saying it). Anytime an h follows a consonant, it just adds a puff of breath (the linguistic term is aspiration). Unless noted otherwise, the sounds are sort of similar to English:

ka – क (sounds like an English K)
ca – च (sounds like cz in czar)
ṭa – ट
ta – त
pa – प
kha – ख
cha – छ
ṭha – ठ
tha – थ
pha – फ
ga – ग
ja – ज
ḍa – ड
da – द
ba – ब
gha – घ
jha – झ
ḍha – ढ
dha – ध
bha – भ
ṅa – ङ
ña – ञ – (ny as in canyon)
ṇa – ण
na – न
ma – म
ya – य
ra – र
la – ल
va – व
śa – श (sh as in shy)
ṣa – ष
sa – स
ha – ह

All consonants usually end with a schwa sound. So when words end with the diacritic virama (a diagonal slash) underneath a consonant, it means that there is no final vowel at the end of the word.

Hindi also uses consonant clusters and it works exactly how it sounds. Halves of consonants are sliced off and combined with others to form new ones. Because there are so many, Omniglot has provided a complete chart of consonant clusters here.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Devanagari has left my mind numb. I spent most of my time reading about it alone and I still can’t understand it. This is probably the most difficult writing system I’ve encountered in the project and I think it would be a huge stumbling block for English speakers. Even the numerals are different.

Spoken Hindi, on the other hand, sounds kind of melodic and rapid. Indian cinema might have an influence on this. I certainly hope to become familiar with Hindi, as I love Bollywood movies.

Rajan2 from YouTube (whose videos have been incredibly helpful for me throughout this post – thank you!) teaches us Hindi from the title song in the hit Bollywood movie “Kal Ho Na Ho.”

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