Let’s start this off with a frank admission: there’s really no way to tell whether you’re pronouncing a Hindi word correctly if you haven’t first read it in Devanagari (AKA Hindi script). But there are a few tips to give you a better shot at it. If you know a Romance language such as Spanish, use that rather than English as your guide when pronouncing Hindi vowels. Native English speakers (those of us not from the subcontinent, anyway), particularly North Americans, tend to slur vowels to include all sorts of other sounds (just think of the way you say “lazy.” I bet you add a touch of “y” in there, so the word comes out more “lay-zee” than “lazy”). If you’ve studied Spanish, you’ve probably practiced saying “a, e, i, o, u, sabe el burro mas que tu?” so many times that you’ve got a good grip on how to keep your vowels “pure.” Anyway, here’s a vowel guide, though as you’ll see when reading the illustrative film titles, Hindi speakers rarely transliterate with strict attention to the precise denotation of these vowels:
|a||English: “what”||Hindi: Kaho Na Pyaar Hai|
|aa||English: “la dee da“||Hindi: Devdas|
|i||English: “hit”||Hindi: Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge|
|ii||English: “free“||Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham|
|u||English: “look”||Kuch Kuch Hota Hai|
|e||Kinda English : “tres chic!” (skip the Y sound)||Tere Naam|
|ai||English: “hen”||Dil Chahta Hai|
|o||English: “so” (skip the W sound)||Kuch Na Kaho|
|au||English: say “awww, what a cute puppy!” Now cut off the W sound.||Aa Ab Laut Chalen|
Now an explanation of why transliteration is so difficult.
When trying to figure out how to pronounce transliterations of Hindi, the most important thing you must understand (after vowel pronunciation) is the existence in Hindi of the “assumed vowel.” First consider the English language. Each letter has a name, but if you just write down a string of consonants — say, mthr — you’ll have no idea how to pronounce those letters as a word. You need vowels!
Well, Hindi is a little different. It does have vowels. But one of these vowels doesn’t need to be written if it occurs in the middle of a word. In other words, if there are no vowels written between Hindi consonants, the speaker simply “assumes” that the vowel sound is an A of the sort English speakers find in the word “what.”
Ponder Hindi’s M sound (another thing you should know about Hindi: there are no “names” for each letter as there are in English. Therefore Rupert Snell, editor of Teach Yourself Hindi, writes that Hindi has not an alphabet, but a “syllabary.”). The “m” sound looks like this: When you add another “m” next to it, you know how to pronounce these two letters together even though there’s no vowel written. How? Well, since no vowels are denoted, you know to use the “assumed” vowel. So you’d pronounce the side-by-side Ms as “mum” (as in the English synonym for “mom” or “mother”): . (If you’re curious, this word means “my” or “mine” in Hindi, though I’ve never heard it used. It seems to be an orphaned child of Sanskrit.)
Tangent: If you happened to be on the phone, conferring about your homework for Hindi class, and had to spell a word in Hindi to your hapless classmate, you’d just take the sound of the letter and add to it that assumed vowel. Hence, when naming the M sound, you’d say “muh.”
Why is this “assumed vowel” crucial to understanding part of the difficulty in pronouncing transliterations? Well, as you already know from the above guide to pronouncing vowels, there are two types of “A” vowels: the “assumed A,” which, when written out all on its own, looks like this: This is, as you’ve gathered by now, pronounced like the English “uh.” Then there’s the long A, , which is pronounced as in the English word “la” (as in “la dee da”). Thing is, lots of Hindi speakers transliterate Hindi with little attention to denoting the difference between these two A’s. They assume you’ll already know the Hindi word, and that you know how to pronounce it without their having to write out “aa” for that long A sound. Thus you get film titles like “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge,” which properly should be transliterated as “Dilwaale Dulhaniyaa Le Jaayenge.” But filmmakers just style the spelling in the way that looks, well, most stylish (and, occasionally, the way that fits the letter value their numerologist has told them will ensure the success of the film. According to the media, this is why the title of SRK’s period piece was changed from “Ashoka” to “Asoka” at the last moment, along with Kareena/Kariena Kapoor’s name in the title credits).
The confusion only increases when you introduce retroflex consonants. For example, there are FOUR — yes, four! — different types of “T sound”: . But this isn’t really a problem: no one expects you to be able to differentiate between TYPES of T when you’re pronouncing a movie title at your local video store. Of greater concern are the retroflex Ds and retroflex Rs. Hindi speakers hear (the retroflex, unaspirated R) as a D.
But if you’re a native English speaker with little to no exposure to spoken Hindi, you probably hear this letter not as a D, but as an R. Which could explain your confusion when you see the word (boy) written as “ladka” instead of “larka.” (This is why BollyWHAT? transliterates this letter as a capital R.) So, keep in mind that when you see “d” written in transliterations of Hindi that this “d” might refer to a D sound like , which probably does sound to you like a “d” — or it might well represent a sound like , which seems to you more like an “r”. The recent Govinda-Rani starrer, “Chalo Ishq Ladaaye,” is a good example of this phenomenon.
Nevertheless, if you go ahead and pronounce that “Ladaaye” with an English D sound, you’re about as close as if you had pronounced it with an English “r” sound. The correct pronunciation of balances about equally between the two.
The most important thing to take away from all this is that you should not be embarrassed to “slaughter” the film titles when speaking them aloud, because there is no possible way to tell whether you’re pronouncing them correctly unless you have first read the title in Hindi. Transliteration is wholly dependent on two things: the whims of the transliterator, and the assumed knowledge of the person reading the transliteration. Of course, if you know the language, you’ll know what word the transliterator is getting at. Otherwise, you’re in the dark. So fire away with shameless impunity!
If you’ve found this brief ramble interesting and want to know more, you should consider picking up a copy of Teach Yourself Hindi, edited by Rupert Snell. It’s a clear and concise introduction to Hindi, and will teach you how to read the language as well as speak it. It is very possible for you to learn how to read Devanagari script within a couple of weeks. Hindi is entirely phonetic (unlike the language you’re reading right now), and once you learn a few simple rules of pronunciation, it will never betray you the way transliteration often does. Hindi grammar is also wonderfully regular — but that’s another ramble entirely.