Reading & Writing in Hindi

Today I attended an Indian cultural concert and charity event in my home city.  Most of the songs were in Hindi, one was in Marathi, and all of it made me wish I had made more of an effort to learn about my own culture.  I go through phases of being obsessed with Bollywood and Hindi music (usually when I’m in India) but I’m weirdly self-conscious about trying to learn Hindi.  I feel more pressured because I’m Indian… but then when I watch Hindi films, I’m surprised at how much I can understand, just because Hindi is so similar to Marathi.  And then I feel like I want to start teaching myself Hindi again.  Anyway, I have made slight progress.  I do know how to read Devanagari characters and construct some very basic sentences.  Here’s an old post of mine from tumblr about reading and writing in Hindi.

(originally posted August 6, 2010 on tumblr)

I have little respect for people who want to learn how to speak a foreign language but who don’t want to read/write it.  (This is a little ironic on my part, considering that I can’t read/write in my own native language.  But!  I have an excuse.  The Marathi that my family and I speak is a bastardized version of the pure Marathi spoken in Maharashtra.  Although my distant ancestors are from that part of India, my family has actually lived in south India for generations.  Hence the Marathi that we speak is riddled with some Tamil, Telugu, some words that we made up and even the grammar isn’t exactly correct.  No one in my immediate family knows how to read/write the “proper” Marathi.  As a language purist, this really bothers me).

Language has always attracted me first by sight and then by sound.  One of the things that Hindi, Korean, and Japanese (the 3 languages I’m attempting to learn at the same time) have in common is that all three of them are visually striking.  Here’s what’s cool about writing in Hindi:

Devanagari (देवनागरी): Used to write Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, and Sanskrit, this alphabet is syllabic (like Japanese).  So for example there’s really no equivalent to the letter “k” in Hindi, instead there is which is ka (short a sound).  The way you write words is pretty neat.  There are 14 vowels and  33 consonants.  Each vowel has an independent form which occurs if a word begins with a vowel and a diacritic form that is incorporated into a consonant, to create a syllable.

  • Example:  To write the word kaam (work) in Hindi, you first need to make the syllable “kaa” and then add the consonant “m.”
  • To make “kaa” (ka) +  (the vowel aa in its independent form) = का(kaa).  So the diacritic form of  is  which you add after the plain consonant  to get का.  So the diacritic form of the vowel is like an accent mark on the consonant letter.  Cool huh?
  • Then you add (technically ma but if it occurs at the end of a word, you just pronounce it as m)
  • So finally you get का (kaa) +  (m) = काम (kaam)

And if you want to connect consonants together to make a biconsonantal conjuct, the letter that you create looks pretty cool too.

  • For example, to write the word pyaar (love) you first need to figure out how to create the consonant sound “pya” and then add the diacritical form of “aa” and then add the consonant “r” at the end.
  • To get “pya” you combine the consonants (pa) + (ya) = प्य (pya).  I know it looks complicated!  But if you look closely, you take part of the paletter that is everything but the vertical line and you smush it next to the entire ya letter, put the horizontal line over both parts, and you get प्य pya.  (No, not pronounced paya.  The way I think of it is that if you remove the final vertical line of the letter, you’re cutting off the a sound so you only get a ONE syllable letter in the end).
  • Add the diacritical form of aa () and you get पया
  • Finally add the ra consonant  (which is pronounced r at the end of the word) and you get प्यार (pyaar).

There’s no uppercase/lowercase in Devanagari script, but there is punctuation.  According to my grandfather, the only “official” punctuation is the danda, which is a vertical line that acts as a period.  Apparently these days, the use of commas and quotation marks is also common.

Stroke order is quite important when writing but I think the two most important things to note is that first, the horizontal line at the top of a letter comes AFTER writing the rest of the letter and second, you must make the horizontal line after each letter in the word, not after you write the entire word.  I was tempted to make the second mistake a lot because that’s the way the line looks when you type in Hindi but when writing apparently you make it separately for each letter.

My own name looks more attractive in Devanagari:  अर्चना.

6 thoughts on “Reading & Writing in Hindi

  1. I could really understand what you mean!
    My mother is Indo-Caribbean and I feel that someday, I will have to learn Hindi too… Although unlike you, I will be starting from scratch. Indeed, except for a few prayers in Hindi, my mother only spoke to me in English. (In fact my grandparents were the last generation that spoke Hindi at home. My aunts and cousins know little to no Hindi, and my mother only learned it because she lived in India for a few years.)
    And here’s my first name in Devanagari: नलिनी
    (Jeanne is in fact my second name, from my French grandmother.)
    Sorry for the long comment, and thank you for this post, I definitely could relate to it!


    1. No worries, I love long comments! I’m afraid that in my family, Marathi might die with my generation. I can communicate pretty well but my pronunciation is so colloquial (not “correct,” compared to how my grandparents speak). I keep wanting to brush up on Marathi but there are just so many more resources for Hindi out there so I get sidetracked. Personally I think Hindi grammar is tough (compared to Korean or Japanese) so when I try to move beyond the “A is B” type of sentences, I get discouraged. Oh well. Oooh… नलिनी is a very pretty name!!


      1. Thank you!
        Indeed, I could only imagine how scarce resources for Marathi are! I get frustrated about Korean with my Japanese-learning friend and joke about moving on to Japanese, so I guess there’s a similar gap between Marathi and Hindi.
        You’re scaring me a bit! I would have thought that as an Indo-European language, the grammar of Hindi would be easier to learn for Indo-European language speakers like us. Then again, Hindi and English/French are so different that the relationship between them might make no difference for a beginner… And Korean grammar maybe isn’t that tough, I’m amazed that with all the different particles I know after just a few months of study, I could express a LOT of nuances.


        1. I guess I think all languages are tough in some ways and not in others. But Hindi really seems formidable because I’ve been spoiled by Korean/Japanese. Japanese has a nice regularity about it and the “logic” of Korean (i.e. adding verb endings to verb stems to convey nuances) is at least easy to grasp, if not to master. But with Hindi, I have to go back to worrying about subject-verb agreement, nouns having gender, on top of worrying about tense/mood. And then there are some adjectives that change whether the noun is masculine/feminine and then some that don’t. There are also postpositional markers that change according to the gender AND the sound of the word preceding it!! It’s like Hindi grammar incorporates all the hard stuff about European languages and Asian languages so I guess being familiar with both French and Korean/Japanese, for example, could at least help you understand how Hindi “works” better than someone who just knows English.


      2. Indeed each language has its difficulties. I believe they could be overcomed by enough passion and interest for the language, as well as enjoyable content.
        That puts me off a bit, too. I can’t see myself watching Bollywood movies all day (though this was fine when I had to stay in a hotel room during the 2005 floods, and watching TV was the only entertaining thing to do). However, I’m sure there has to be content for my taste in Hindi, somewhere! I’ve just got to find it.


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