Over the past few lessons you may have noticed that some sounds went silent, especially those around the end. Although Devanagari, the script Nepali uses, is a phonetic script with no silent letters (unlike English), the sound in the end vanishes away like it never existed, although it seems that the sound should really exist. This sound is known as ‘schwa’ and the phenomenon of it being deleted from pronunciation is called ‘Schwa Syncope’. It is also known as Schwa Deletion Phenomenon.
First, let’s see what a schwa really is. Take an example word like ghām, which means ‘Sun’ in Nepali. It is written as घाम in Devanagari, which ideally should be pronounced as ‘ghāma’ (according to the spelling) but somehow, the last ‘a’ simply vanished. This unstressed vowel is called a schwa and is usually represented as ‘ə’ in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Technically, a schwa in English phonology is an unstressed vowel in the mid-central region, but we will nonetheless still call the end unstressed vowel “schwa”, mostly because we are focused on Nepali phonology rather than English phonology. Specifically, schwa here refers to the end vowel sound made by अ (a), because it is the only one that is affected by this phenomenon. Other vowel sounds are not deleted.
Syncope /ˈsɪŋkəpi/ means deletion, or rather omission of certain sounds from a word. An example of this would be the omission of ‘a’ from the pronunciation of library /ˈlʌɪbri/.
ORIGINS OF SCHWA SYNCOPE
Now, you may say “Why not use a halanta instead to delete the schwa?” This is an interesting question, but the reason why we don’t is because of history. Nepali came from Prakrit, which itself came from Sanskrit. Sanskrit used Devanagari to write, much like Nepali, but it did not delete the schwa from the words. Thus, घाम would be read with the schwa i.e. ghāma. It is only when things went awry in Prakrit, when the final ‘a’ (or the schwa of the word) was deleted for unknown reasons (perhaps, for convenience). We’ll never know. What we do know is that the change in pronunciation did not reflect upon the word, thus we still retain the spelling for words that originally had a schwa.
Another reason is that it makes separation of words easier. Morphemes, or unit of words, usually retain their schwa-less pronunciation while building up bigger words. Thus, one can easily glance at the large word and guess what it means by looking at the morphemes used. Another reason may be because using a lot of halanta looks really crowded, thus for aesthetics this is not done.
As an evidence, many languages that use Devanagari as the script delete the schwa from their words. This is more or less pronounced, with Nepali being a bit towards the lesser side. Nepali is way more phonetic than say Hindi, because the original sound of Sanskrit is somewhat more preserved than in other languages.
IMPORTANCE AND CAUTION
It is very important to be able to delete schwa appropriately if you want to read properly. As said before, only the vowel sound of अ (a) is affected by this phenomenon. Do not delete the other vowel sounds!
I will assume you have encountered terms like ligatures and consonant clusters in the previous lessons. If you have not, click here. In brief, ligatures are characters that represent two or more sounds, much like the German ‘ß’ (Eszett).
For this lesson, I will separate each syllable with an interpunct (·). I have separated the consonant with the schwa as well, but take care not to pronounce that ligature’s schwa.
If a consonant (or a consonant cluster) is modified by a vowel sound in a word (other than the default ‘a’ sound) to form a syllable, you do pronounce that syllable. Example:
मुला /radish/ = mu · lā
Consonants marked with a halanta are not pronounced with any vowel sound. Example:
सन् /CE/ = san (not sa · na)
Generally retain the schwa of all characters but the final one. Example:
कलम /pen/ = ka · la · m (not ka· la· ma or any other variation like kla · ma)
Now that we have these two rules in mind, let’s learn how to delete that pesky ‘a’ sound efficiently. Note that the below guidelines apply only to words that have the schwa in the end. Also, I have included the deleted schwa [ə] in square brackets. Do not include [ə] in your pronunciation! I have only included it for reference. For example, read rā ·m[ə] as Rām and not Rāma.
Schwa of independent characters are retained
A standalone character’s schwa is always spelt out, unless dictated otherwise by a halanta. Examples:
म /I/ = ma
ल /okay/ = la
Schwa of nouns and adjectives are usually deleted
The schwa of nouns are usually deleted, but exceptions can arise if the word was imported fairly recently. Examples:
नेपाल /Nepal/ = ne · pā · l[ə]
हिमाल /mountain/ = hi · mā · l[ə]
नरम /soft/ = na · ra · m[ə]
Schwa of verbs are retained
Generally, every syllable in a verb (and its conjugates) is pronounced. This is because the verb relies on absence or presence of the schwa to indicate different moods. Examples:
गर /do/ = ga · ra
गर् /do/ = ga · r (notice the lack of schwa as it is removed by the halanta)
Schwa of ligatures are usually retained
When a schwa is present in a ligature, the schwa is usually spelt. Exceptions are usually imported words; native words almost always pronounce the schwa of ligatures. Examples:
वाक्य /sentence/ = wā · kya
पूर्व /East/ = pū · rwa
साहित्य /literature/ = sā · hi · tya
पत्र /newspaper/ = pa · tra
रङ्ग /colour/ = ra · ṅg[ə] [Some people don’t omit the schwa, so this is in grey area]
Schwa of grammatical functions are retained
Grammatical markers and functions like case markers retain their schwa. Examples:
पर /across/ = pa · ra
बाट /from/ = bā · ṭa
State of schwa of words persist even if the word gets modified/ concatenated
Addition of case markers, adverbs, adjectives, postpositions etc. do not affect the retention (or lack thereof) of the schwa of the previous word. They function independently and do not affect each other. Examples:
नेपालबाट /from Nepal/ = ne · pā · l[ə] – bā · ṭa
घरलाई /to house/ = gha · r[ə] – lā · ī
This also means that, when words are joined together to make larger words, each component retains their original pronunciation. Examples:
एकदिन /one day/ = e · k[ə] · di · n[ə]
आजभोलि /nowadays/ = · ā · ja · bho · li
These rules do not apply for imported words
The schwa syncope rules do not really apply for imported words, whose lack of schwa (or presence thereof) depends a lot on the original pronunciation of the word as it was imported. Examples:
घटना /event/ [Hindi] = gha · ṭ[ə] · nā
जानकारी /information/ [Hindi] = jā · n[ə] · kā · rī
With the above rules, you should be able to make educated guesses on the schwa status. While I will not guarantee you will get it right all the time, with this you should be able to pronounce most of the words correctly.
Schwas are usually not deleted if they are part of a song or a poem. This is done for a poetic effect and should not be taken as the Gospel truth for pronunciation.
Finally, if any word confuses you, it is best to consult that word with a native speaker. They can tell the correct pronunciation so you can be sure of your guess.
A. ARE THE END SCHWAS DELETED FOR THE FOLLOWING WORDS? EXPLAIN WHY.
1. पारस /lamp/
2. हिड्ँछ /walks/
3. गरीब /poor/
4. तँ /informal you/
5. निर /at/
B. WRITE THE CORRECT PRONUNCIATIONS OF THE FOLLOWING WORDS
1. इष्ट /relation/
2. लेख्य /written/
3. तर /but/
4. सिमसिम /light pitter-patter of the rain/
5. चीन /China/
C. CORRECT THE PRONUNCIATIONS OF THE WORDS BELOW
1. धाक /bluff/ = dhāka
2. व्युत्पन्न /etymology/ = vyutpann
3. नाम /name/ = nāma
4. पाटनबाट /from Patan/ = pāṭna bāṭ
5. सरल /simple/ = srala
A.1. Yes; Noun
A.2. No; Verb conjugate
A.3. Yes; Adjective
A.4. No; Single syllable word
A.5. No; Postposition/ Grammatical function