When you dig into the Nepali Script (and the romanized version) more and more, you will start to notice disparities in transliterations. This time, I want to set things straight in Transliteration and this will be the first step to understanding how people write phrases in English and the vernacular uses of the language. This lesson is aimed to clear any misunderstandings in transliterations.
Transliteration comes from the word ’trans-’ which means ’Across’ and the Latin ’littera’ which means ’Letter’. You can guess that transliteration means to convert ‘letters’. Hence, Transliteration is the process of representing the words or letters of one language into another language using the nearest corresponding letters.
First thing here, I will consider Transliteration and Transcription to be the same (I know the are not!). This should now keep things simple and ‘Transcription’ will be ‘Transliteration’ unless otherwise mentioned! The other thing is, transliteration will be strictly into the Roman Script ! *unless otherwise mentioned*
Transliteration is concerned with spellings, representing foreign letters as they appear. Transcription is concerned more with the sound than spelling.
THE ‘PRESCRIBED’ TRANSLITERATIONS
Nepali uses the Devanagari Script for writing. Attempts to transliterate Devanagari (which is used by languages like Hindi, Sanskrit etc.) resulted in quite a few ways to represent Devanagari in the Roman Script. One or the other system is used in transliterations of Scholarly articles. Some of them are IAST, Hunterian etc. I won’t be listing them because you can see them in this article anyway.
Transliterations are important for a learner; they help a learner to understand words and letters until they need no longer depend on it. However, Nepali people and those who know Nepali in general usually type transliterations than Nepali text. So, a question arises, why do we write like ’ke gardai’ instead of the more natural ‘के गर्दै’ while talking in the cyberspace?
An answer to that is, first…Nepali has too many sounds. Also, everything around us is in English. We also simply lack Nepali Keyboards. There isn’t a ‘default’ installation of the Nepali Language Pack either. So, that leaves us with English keyboards with English Software. Another reason is, Nepali is way too complicated to type and even if we had a keyboard, it would take quite some time to type like da da da daaa...
What are informal transliterations? These are translations which an individual things is an appropriate substitution for the Nepali equivalent. However, there are various disparities which I will now talk about.
First exercise, spell these vowels: A E I O U
Did you? Now take this word, for example: किरण
It spells kiran, right? Well, that is what I have told you if you have been reading from this site for some time. Well, what if I told you that people type alternative spellings as well?
That i in ‘ki’ sounds like the english alphabet ‘E’ doesn’t it? So, some people type ‘kiran’ as ‘keran’. I have one friend who according to me is chronically affected by this. He types every word where there is supposed to be an ‘i’ with an ‘e’. So, words like ‘kira’ and ‘pidit’ become ‘kera’ and ‘pedet’. But the question is, is he incorrect?
I would say no, but as the reader I would find it pretty difficult to read it. He is not incorrect because for him, these are as normal as words were to Shakespeare (what a poor analogy). For him, these letters appear normal.
There are also times when you see that आ and अ are often represented with a single ‘a’. For example, you might see ‘khola’ and wonder whether it is ‘open’ or ‘river’. For this, we must now depend upon intuition and context. Are they talking about things or sceneries? If they say ‘khola badhyo’, they obviously mean ‘the river grew’. However, if they say ‘gift khola’, then they mean ‘open the gift’. We must also note that river is खोला (more correct kholaa) while ‘open!’ is खोल (correctly, khola).
Of course, sometimes context can fail. *profanity ahead* There is a joke in Hindi (translated into english except the part which is important) which says:
A: You’re always online. Chutiya hae kya?
B: Excuse me? You must be the chutiya here.
A: What? I meant holidays!
Transliteration and context fails above. The bold part ‘chutiya hae kya’ can be read as ‘चुतिया hae kya’ which means more or less ‘Are (you) an idiot’. However, what ‘A’ wanted to say was ‘छुट्टियां’ which means ‘holidays’. Both can be transliterated into ‘chutiya’ hence the miscommunication. Unfortunately, context twisted the very intended meaning.
Therefore, we must never be certain on what the transliteration is trying to say. A common sentence can begin like this:
खाना भो (khānā bho)
Which could be transliterated into:
- khana vo
- khaanaa bho
- khana bho
- khaana bho
and so on. There are limitless possibilities. If you notice, the ‘v’ sound mimics the ‘bh’ sound closely, so some people substitute ‘bh’ for ‘v’ (like vai, varkhar etc.) Similarly, both the त and ट series are represented by ‘t/d’ series so transliterations never really say what is retroflex and what is dental (unless you use IAST or Devanagari). For example, ‘taal’ could be the dental ताल (= lake) or the retroflex टाल् (= stick it).
All in all, there is no one standard that everyone adheres to. You stick to one that you follow and hope others understand you as well. With experience, you must build the ability to read transliterations appreciably. Here are some observations I have noted down (but exceptions exist):
- The trailing ‘a’ is usually an ‘आ’ sound (like father). Examples: asina (असिना = hail), gharra (घर्रा = drawer) etc.
- Some people write ऐ (ai) and आइ/आई (aai) as ‘ae’. So words like gardai (गर्दै) and malai (मलाई) become gardae and malae respectively.
- Some people (read: teenage wannabes) think substituting ‘l’ (l for Love) for ‘r’ is cute and trendy. So don’t panic when you sometimes see ‘melo’ and ‘timlo’ and don’t find in the dictionary. It simply means ‘mero’ and ‘timro’ (which means ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ respectively) [mero = मेरो | timro = तिम्रो]
- The greatest discrepancy is between च and छ. IAST lists them as ca and cha respectively. Some people write cha and chha but most people make no distinction. This is quite tricky. Words like chucho doesn’t help either. Does it mean ‘sharp’ (चुचो) or ‘an ill-mannered person’ (छुचो)? When this happens, always look at the context. I am certain people are not asking for ill-mannered knives or a sharp person!
- Some people write फ as ‘fa’. While not incorrect, ‘pha’ is more correct.
- The three s’ श ष स are simply represented by ‘sa’ while some people may use ‘sha’ for the first two.
- The letter व can be read as ‘va’ or ‘wa’. It is more common for people to use ‘ba’ instead of ‘va’.
- The nasal markings ं and ँ are often written using ‘n’ but in case of ँ, it is often omitted altogether. For example, बाँस (baas) means ‘bamboo’ and is pronounced with a nasal on ‘ba’. However, people write ‘bans’ as well to differentiate it from बास (baas) which means ‘place of stay’.
Nepali Word (meaning)
Common transliterations [Formal IAST in the leftmost]
cha/ chha /xa /6 [6 because it is pronounced ‘chha’ in Nepal]
Any syllable that ends with ‘a’ sound (like ago) could be represented as x-a/ah/oh/uh. For example, ta/tah/toh/tuh …
keṭī/ keti/ kti/ kt
keṭā/ keta/ kta
himāl/ himal/ himaal
TRANSLITERATE THE FOLLOWING
1) घारी (grove)
2) तीर (arrow)
3) भाडा (rent)
4) भाँडा (utensil)
ANSWERS (in IAST/ some alternatives) (illustrative only)
1) ghārī/ ghari/ ghaari/ ghaaree
2) tīr/ teer/ tir
3) bhāḍā/ bhaadaa/ bhaada/ bhada
4) bhām̐ḍā/ bhada/ bhanda/ bhaadaa