Devanagari is an alphasyllabary script, meaning consonant-vowel sequences are written as one unit as opposed to individual units. In the previous lesson, we discussed how consonants behave and how they can be used to build ligatures. In this lesson, we will look how we can make the consonant or the ligature carry a vowel to form a syllable.
If you look at a sample text:
सानो छ खेत, सानो छ बारी, सानै छ जहान
You will notice that along with all the consonants and vowels, there are these funny dashes and curves that accompany it. Those marks are called diacritics, marks which modify a letter to alter the way it sounds. In Devanagari, vowel diacritics are employed, with each vowel having a unique diacritical mark. These diacritics can go above, below, before or after the character.
An important thing to remember is that a character or a ligature can only carry one vowel diacritic. You cannot add diacritics to independent vowel sounds as well.
THE KILLER STROKE
The most important diacritic must be the हलन्त (halanta), which we will discuss first. In essence, it cancels any vowel sound a syllable carries. As such, the vowel diacritic vanishes and is represented with a short left-facing dash under the character. The हलन्त (halanta) looks like this: ्.
It is sometimes called the ‘killer stroke’, since it ‘kills’ any vowel sound attached to the character. For example, ‘न’ is pronounced as ‘na’ but with a हलन्त (halanta), it will become a bare consonant i.e. न् (n).
When we modify the consonant by adding a vowel sound to it, the killer stroke will disappear. In its stead, there will be a vowel diacritic. Now, let’s explore the diacritic of each vowel.
Note that the dotted circle below indicates where the character will go. I need to emphasise an important caveat here; the last two diacritics are consonant diacritics (more on this later):
This is not literal mathematics, but rather a display on how the diacritics add to the consonant (or ligature). Let’s explore the more simple case now.
Let’s say you want to make the sound ‘ni’. How do you do it? In English, you might do it as:
n + i = ni
In Devanagari, you take the corresponding diacritic to the vowel (in this case, ‘ ि ’ for ‘i’) then add it to the consonant (in this case, ‘न्’ for ‘n’). As said before, the killer stroke vanishes:
न् (n) + ि (i-diacritic) = नि (ni)
The process is very simple and straightforward. Let’s try a few more examples:
प् (p) + ो (o-diacritic) = पो (po)
ज् (j) + ु (u-diacritic) = जु (ju)
म् (m) + क् (k) + े (e-diacritic) = म्के (mke)
An important thing to know is that the ‘a’ sound has no diacritic, so you simply remove the हलन्त (halanta) only. Below, you can see the diacritics as they appear in Unicode:
Here is an image showing the compounding done on प (pa):
THE CONSONANT DIACRITIC
Remember how I told you that the last two diacritics on the diacritic chart are not vowel diacritics but rather consonant diacritics. For some reason, they are traditionally included in the vowel section and sung! However, we have to make understand why this is vitally important to know. This is why I refer to अं (ṃ) as ‘ ṃ’ and not ‘aṃ’.
Unlike vowel diacritics, consonant diacritics are unable to remove the killer stroke from the character. This is because they simply change how the character is articulated. The ‘ṃ’ simply adds a slight nasalisation while the other adds a short burst of air. As such, another vowel diacritic needs to be added (before the nasaliser) to produce any syllable:
घ् (gh) + ं (ṃ-diacritic) = घ्ं (ghṃ)
घ् (gh) + ा (ā-diacritic) + ं (ṃ-diacritic) = घां (ghāṃ)
There are two more important consonant diacritics. The letters अँ (m̐) and ऋ (ṛi) form diacritics that are important as well. The former is called ‘candrabindu’ and it nasalises the syllable, while the latter adds a distinct ‘ṛi’ sound. The latter isn’t really a consonant diacritic because it ends in a vowel sound, but since it starts with a consonant sound, I have placed it here. It acts pretty much like a vowel diacritic, meaning you cannot add a vowel sound to it.
The candrabindu will nasalise any syllable it appears on top. To nasalise a verb, block the airflow to the nasal passage with the back of your tongue. This will give a more nasal voice.
ब् (b) + ा (ā-diacritic) + ँ (m̐) = बाँ (bām̐ or bā~)
The above is pronounced as ‘bā’ but with more nasal tone. The way it will be transliterated varies, with either m̐ or ~, but the pronunciation remains identical. (This is because of different software parsing).
The other diacritic sometimes appears in certain words and imparts a ‘ṛi’ sound.
म् (m) + ृ (ṛi-diacritic) = मृ (mṛi)
While the above applies to many cases, there are two exceptions. When we combine र् (r) with an ‘u’ or a ‘ū’ sound, we use a different form of diacritic. It looks like a tail and is added between the hinge of the character:
र् (r) + u = रु (ru)
र् (r) + ū = रू (rū)
The diacritics have formal names that are easy to build. They are simply named after what they sound like, then we add कार (kār). For example, ा (ā-diacritic) is called ākār.
When there is ambiguity because the two vowels sound the same, then we use the convention of ह्रस्व (hraswa) and दीर्घ (dīrgha). The shorter vowel (i and u) is given ह्रस्व (hraswa) while the longer vowel (ī and ū) is given दीर्घ (dīrgha). Note that these words go before the formal name (e.g. hraswa ukār for ु).
To see how diacritics behave, you can download an Excel sheet by clicking here [for online viewing only, click here or here (mirror link)].
A. WRITE DOWN THE FOLLOWING SYLLABLES IN DEVANAGARI
B. TRANSLITERATE THE FOLLOWING SYLLABLES
A. 1. क्सै
A. 2. लो
A. 3. र्सि
A. 4. ख
A. 5. च्यै
B. 1. syā
B. 2. tla
B. 3. prī
B. 4. ṅde
B. 5. ṭau