The Devanagari script was primarily intended for Sanskrit, where words were written exactly how they were pronounced. The daughter languages of Sanskrit continued to use Devanagari (or related scripts) because it made sense: the vocabulary is largely derived from Sanskrit, and it’s not worth it to reinvent the wheel (or writing) all over again when the old one will make do. However, words have since then evolved over time, with one phenomenon being the bane of every modern Indic language learner: where are all the a‘s?
Although Devanagari is a phonetic script with no silent letters, modern words have evolved in such a way that occasionally, the end ‘a‘ sound gets dropped from the word when pronouncing the word. However, the script does not indicate this at all. While it would be great if everyone adopted the halanta to make the script more phonetic, in reality this is not done and one must infer the correct pronunciation of the word against the wisdom of the script. It is as if the script wants you to pretend that the ending ‘a‘ sound doesn’t exist at all. What is going on?
This end sound, the ghostly ‘a‘ that is indicated by the script but never really pronounced, is known as a schwa. Thus, the phenomenon that deletes this is known as schwa syncope, otherwise also known as schwa deletion phenomenon. Note that the only vowel that undergoes this is अ (a), so for schwa syncope to happen, the word must have an implied अ (a). (Un)fortunately, there are plenty of these kind of words.
The schwa in Nepali is the sound produced by the vowel अ (a). You will find many words where the script indicates the presence of a schwa, but the schwa is sometimes dropped.
Example | Take a word like ghām, which means ‘sun’. In Devanagari, it is written as घाम, which ideally should be pronounced as ghāma (according to the way it is written). However, due to schwa syncope, the last ‘a’ is deleted and the word is pronounced as ghām.
Schwa syncope mostly affects the end schwa, but sometimes in the middle of the word as well. Other vowels are not deleted.
Why do we not use halanta all the time? | Now, you may say “why not use a halanta to delete the schwa?” This is an interesting question, but the reason why we don’t is because of history. Nepali owes a lot of its vocabulary to Sanskrit, which did pronounce the schwas. However, over time the schwas were lost from the daughter languages, but the orthography remained. 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 a large word and guess what it means by looking at the morphemes used. Another reason may be because using a lot of halanta makes for a crowded, jarring text.
It is very important to be able to know when and where to delete the schwa if you want to be able to read the word correctly. Only the vowel sound of अ (a) is affected by this phenomenon. Do not delete other vowel sounds!
You have encountered terms like consonant clusters and syllables in the previous lessons. We revisit them here again to see how they behave.
In this lesson, syllables are separated by an interpunct (·).
Here are some general rules that govern how words behave in Nepali.
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.
मुला | radish
Consonants marked with a halanta do not have any vowel sound.
सन् | CE
Incorrect | sa·na
Generally, retain the schwa of all the other syllables but the final one.
कलम | pen
Incorrect | ka·la·ma | kla·ma | klam …
Now that we have these guidelines in mind, let’s learn how to delete that pesky schwa efficiently.
Schwa of independent characters is retained
A standalone character’s schwa is always spelt out, unless dictated otherwise by a halanta.
म | I
ल | okay
Schwa of nouns and adjectives is usually deleted
The schwa of nouns is usually deleted, but exceptions can arise if the word was imported fairly recently.
नेपाल | Nepal
Incorrect | ne·pā·la
हिमाल | mountain
Incorrect | hi·mā·la
नरम | soft
Incorrect | na·ra·ma
Schwa of verbs and its conjugates is retained
Generally, every syllable in a verb (and its conjugates) is pronounced. This is because the verb relies on absence or presence of a schwa to indicate different conjugations.
गर | do | 2nd person | imperative | mid respect
गर् | do | 2nd person | imperative | low respect
Schwa of syllables formed from consonant clusters is mostly retained
When a schwa is present in a syllable that is made from a consonant conjunct or a ligature, the schwa is usually retained. Exceptions are usually imported words; native words almost always pronounce the schwa.
वाक्य | sentence
पूर्व | east
साहित्य | literature
पत्र | newspaper
There are a few exceptions, notably with words imported from Hindi and n-containing consonant clusters that can be rewritten with a ṃ-diacritic (ं).
रङ्ग | color
Schwa of grammatical functions is mostly retained
Grammatical markers and functions like case markers retain their schwa.
पर | across
बाट | from
State of schwa-ness of words persist even if the word gets modified
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.
Note | Case markers and other concatenated markers are separated by a hyphen (-) in the transliterations. In Nepali, case markers and such are usually written together with the word.
नेपालबाट | from Nepal
Incorrect | ne·pā·la-bā·ṭa
घरलाई | house[dat.]
This also means that, when words are joined together to make larger words, each component retains their original pronunciation.
एकदिन | someday | one day | एक (ek) + दिन (din) | one + day
Incorrect | eka·di·na | eka·di·n | ek·di·na …
आजभोलि | nowadays | आज (āja) + भोलि (bholi) | today + tomorrow
Incorrect | āj·bho·li
These rules do not apply for imported words
The rules do not really apply for imported words, whose lack of schwa (or presence thereof) depends on the original pronunciation of the word as it was imported.
लास्ट | really | intensifier | from English last
Incorrect | lās·ṭa
जानकारी | information | from Hindi
Incorrect | jā·na·kā·rī
With the above rules, you should be able to make an educated guess whether to retain the schwa or not. 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.
Other thing to note: schwas are usually not usually deleted in songs and poems. This is done to achieve a poetic effect as it allows you to stretch or shrink syllables. So, you may hear nepāla in songs, even though it is just nepāl normally.
Finally, if any word confuses you, you can always consult with a native speaker or a Nepali friend, who can guide you to the correct pronunciation.
A. ARE THE SCHWAS DELETED FOR THE FOLLOWING WORDS? EXPLAIN WHY.
1. पारस | lamp
2. हिड्ँछ | walks
3. गरीब | poor
4. तँ | you[lr]
5. निर | at
Note | [lr] = low respect. Nepali has three different levels of honorifics for the 2nd person.
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 | adverb made from reduplication of sim
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