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Learning Nepali - The Alphabet

Updated on April 18, 2014

First time learning a language?

Relax. Nepali can seem a little daunting at first, but cracking the code to a language like this will open the door to learn even more. For example, Nepali is closely related to Hindi and shares the same alphabet and many of the same words. Knowing one makes learning the other that much easier!

Before I began learning Nepali, I had been studying Japanese for months. The two languages share a lot in common - non-Roman writing systems, similar word order, etc. Beginning with Japanese (which I feel is a lot more difficult) really helped me with Nepali.

Of course, you don't need to learn Japanese or any other language first to start with Nepali. Just have an open mind, and remember that other languages have rules that can be quite different to English. Learning to "think" in a different language can be fascinating!

Source

We'll start off with the alphabet. If you are committed to learning a language, being able to read it is an important step. Many people, though, are able to speak conversationally without ever being able to read.

The Vowels

Source

The writing system used for Nepali (called the Devanagari script) has some interesting rules. Check out the chart above. The first line are the vowels by themselves. You'll usually see them at the beginnings of words, or when more than one vowel are side by side.

The second line shows how vowels look when combined with a consonant - in this case, P.
It doesn't matter which consonant the vowels are paired with, they will always follow these same rules.

  1. क+ओ=को
  2. प+ओ=पो
  3. स+ओ=सो

All three of the above are different consonants paired with the vowel O.


Now, take a look at the last one on the right, अँ
This little letter is an interesting one. See that little curve on top with the dot in the middle? It's called a chandrabindu (which means "moon-dot") and in Nepali, it means that vowel is nasalized. Nasalization can take some practice. It almost sounds like you're adding an N to the vowel. Try talking while holding your nose. Sounds like you have a cold, right? Well, it's kind of the same idea. Listening to Nepali speech will definitely give you a flavor for this sound. (*Make sure you watch the music video at the very bottom of this page...it gives a hysterical example of this nasalization technique!)

The video below shows all the vowels being pronounced by a native Nepali speaker.

Consonants

I know, it seems like a lot. That's because in addition to what we think of as "regular" English consonants, Nepali also has aspirated consonants, retroflex consonants....aspirated retroflex consonants...

But it's not as hard as it sounds. 'Aspirated' only means you let out a puff of air (basically an H sound) when you say the letter. These consonants are the ones listed with an H after them, like ख, ध, etc.

As for retroflex, these ones are pretty fun to say. Check out the first four letters on the second line in the picture above. Those "dots" underneath the spelling indicate that these are retroflex consonants. To say them, you have to curl up your tongue and flick it against the roof of your mouth. Try saying "da" this way. Sounds like an Indian accent, right? The same goes for the other retroflex letters. Just speak in your best Bollywood accent and you've got it right.

The interesting thing about these consonants is that they come prepackaged with the consonant अ in them, pronounced like "uh". Unlike English consonants, these already have a vowel attached. So if you see them all by themselves, you'll pronounce them with an "uh" afterwards - "tuh, duh, kuh." There are plenty of exceptions to this rule - lots of Nepali words end with a consonant, not a vowel, and you pretty much have to memorize the word in order to know whether it ends with an "uh" sound or not.

Since the vowel अ is automatically included, how do we write words which are supposed to have two consonants stuck together, e.g. the word for hello, "Namaste"? It would be weird to write it out as नमसते, "na-ma-sa-te," because that's not how it's pronounced. Well, here is where another crazy feature of the Nepali alphabet comes into play. In Nepali, you can actually cut consonants in half and stick them onto other consonants. This is how "Namaste" is actually spelled:

नमस्ते

See that? That's half of स stuck to त. You can do this to pretty much any consonant, and they'll usually be easy to recognize since they appear to have just been cut in half. Some follow special rules, though. Check out this amazing chart on Devanagari conjuncts, which shows how all the consonants behave when combined with other consonants.

Practice with Nepali phrases!

तपाईंलाई कस्तो छ?
Tapāilāī kasto chha?
How are you? (Literally: To you how is it?)
मलाई राम्रो छ.
Malāī rāmro chha.
I am well. (To me it is good.)
तपाइँको नाम के हो?
Tapāiko nām ke ho?
What is your name? (Your name what is?)
मेरो नाम ___ हो
Mero nām ___ ho.
My name is ___. (My name __ is.)
Notice in the third example, the word नाम ("name") is pronounced "nām" instead of "nāma". Some words do drop the "uh" sound that usually comes after a Nepali letter, so be on the lookout!

There are plenty of fun ways to practice listening to Nepali and getting your accent right.

  • Search for Nepali movies and music videos on YouTube. There are plenty to choose from.
  • Get a radio app like TuneIn radio, which includes Nepali radio stations.
  • Search for Nepali apps, which are common on both Google Play and the App Store. Several feature tons of Nepali radio stations.
  • The best way to practice Nepali is to converse with Nepali people. As is true with any language, practicing with native speakers is the best way to learn. The Nepali culture is naturally friendly and easy-going, and most Nepali people, especially those living in foreign lands, are thrilled to see others learning their language.

*"Honey Bunny" Nepali Music Video :)

*Notice at 2:05 the nasally sound he makes when he sings "Hello"? That's the nasally sound you're going for with that "chandrabindu"! It's fun, so practice it!

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