Devanagari Is a Syllabary

Uh, oh, there's another term: syllabary. Ignore it for now, while I tell you about the letter names in Devanagari: they (for the most part) have none. What? No letter names? Then how do Hindi-speakers tell each other how to spell words? Well, there are things that we call Hindi letters, but they have no names as such.

This is another difference between Devanagari and the English alphabet, but again, it doesn't make things more difficult. In English, the letter b is named bee, while the letter w is named double-you. The name of the letter b happens to start with the same sound it makes. What about the second letter w? No correspondence at all. What about the c we were talking about, whose name sounds like see? Sometimes the sound it starts with is the same sounds it makes (like an s), but most of the time it makes a different sound altogether.

Since Devanagari is a phonetic script (that is, each letter stands for one sound), there's no need to have a name for each letter. Instead, you can simply call the letter by the sound it makes, followed by a sound like the a in majority (Snell, 5). In other words, there is a Hindi letter that makes a k sound, so we call it ka, which sounds a little like the first part of cup. (I slightly bent the truth: sometimes the word, kār, sounding like the English car is added to the end of a letter when naming them; therefore, the letter that makes the k sound would be named ka-kār (Snell, The Hindi Script, 5).)

In fact, the letter that makes the k sound usually makes the entire ka sound in a word. With this in mind, how does Hindi create words with the Devanagari script? Let's try to write the English word, cut as you would in Hindi: kt. Remember that the k letter makes the entire ka sound.

Let's try another. What would bbl gm spell in Hindi? It would spell bubble gum, more or less. Yes, there are vowels in Devanagari, but in many cases each letter makes the entire syllable just fine by itself. Watch that word: syllable. Each Hindi letter makes a syllable of the word.

Doesn't English do this? Think of the word match. Some of the letters combine together to create other sounds. You don't say matacah for match, or beeaacah for beach. English letters don't always correspond directly to syllables in a word. Devanagari words usually do. So Devanagari is not classified as an alphabet, but a syllabary (Snell, 5).