Devanāgarī, the abugida in which Hindi is now written, does a pretty good job of representing the sounds of Hindi·Urdu. But it's so complex! There are 14 letters for independent vowels, 33 letters for consonants and 19 diacritics for vowels, nasals and other stuff. And although they mostly fit into a well-organized scheme that dates back at least to Panini in 400BC, there is no regularity in the forms: each must be learned on its own. And then there are the 1296 conjuncts!
Shwa writes Hindi in the Syllabary gait, in which vowels are written attached to the previous consonant. Independent vowels are written alone. Consonants with no following vowel - the first consonant of a cluster or a final consonant - are also written alone.
Unlike Devanāgarī, Shwa also writes the distinction between v and w, and since vowels are always written - there is no inherent vowel - it is clear when syncope deletes a schwa.
Devanāgarī is missing letters for a few Hindi·Urdu sounds, in addition to letters needed for loanwords and allophones. Numerous other languages are also written in Devanāgarī, and several of them have had to add diacritics or ligatures to handle sounds that didn't exist in Sanskrit. Shwa has letters for them all, as seen on the chart below.
Urdu, the national language of Pakistan and a scheduled language of India, is written in the Arabic script. When both Hindi and Urdu are written in Shwa, it's evident that they're different registers of the same language. But since Urdu uses many Perso-Arabic words, Shwa has letters for f z ʒ x ɣ q and uses the Catch to translate Arabic ع ayn. And each Urdu sound has a unique Shwa letter, which avoids many spelling errors.
Here are the consonants of Hindi·Urdu, with IPA, IAST and Shwa transcriptions.
|क k k k ک||च ʧ c ch چ||ट ʈ ṭ tr ٹ||त t̪ t t ت ط||प p p p پ|
|ख kʰ kh kx کھ||छ ʧʰ ch chx چھ||ठ ʈʰ ṭh trx ٹھ||थ t̪ʰ th tx تھ||फ pʰ ph px پھ|
|ग g g g گ||ज ʤ j dj ج||ड ɖ ḍ dr ڈ||द d̪ d d د||ब b b b ب|
|घ gʰ gh gx گھ||झ ʤʰ jh djx جھ||ढ ɖʰ ḍh drx ڈھ||ध d̪ʰ dh dx دھ||भ bʰ bh bx بھ|
|ङ ŋ ṅ ng||ञ ɲ ñ ny||ण ɳ ṇ nr ڻ||न n̪ n n ن||म m m m م|
|ह ɦ h h ح ٥||श ʃ ś sh ش||स s s s ث س||फ़ f f f ف|
|ल l l l ل||व w w w و|
|क़ q q kq ق||ढ़ ɽʰ ṛh rhx ڑھ||ड़ ɽ ṛ rh ڑ||र ɾ r r ر|
|ग़ ɣ ġ gh غ||य j y y ى||न्ह n̪ʰ nh nx نھ||म्ह mʰ mh mx مھ|
|ख़ x x kh خ||झ़ ʒ zh zh ژ||ज़ z z z ذ ز ض ظ||व v v v و|
Hindi·Urdu has ten vowels. The three central vowels (in red below) are considered short; the others are all considered long, even though the ɛ and ɔ are phonetically short - they derive from the sequences ai and au in Sanskrit, as shown by all their IAST transcriptions.
|ई i ī i: ی||इ ɪ i i اِ||उ ʊ u u أ||ऊ u ū u: ۏ|
|ए e ē e: ے||ऐ ɛ ai e ۓ||अ ə a eh اَ||औ ɔ au o وَ||ओ o ō o: و|
|आ ɑ ā a: آ|
When an h is surrounded by ə's, they front to ɛ's, and this is shown in Shwa.
Shwa also use the Nasal suffix to replace the candrabindu ँ, and normal nasal letters to replace the anusvāra ं :
Finally, Shwa writes the stressed syllables with a high vowel. Even though stress isn't very audible in spoken Hindi·Urdu, it's crucial in determining schwa syncope (deletion) in unstressed syllables. Deleted schwas are not written in Shwa.
Now that you know the letters, why not try to read some Hindi written in Shwa?
Devanagari shares with Bengali and Gurmukhi (the script of Punjabi) the use of a topline to connect all the letters in a word, and there are Shwa fonts which include a topline : we'll use one here to make the script seem more familiar for Hindi readers. But Urdu is normally not written in a topline font.
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