Learning the Devanagari Script

Sanskrit practice using Devanagari script

As part of my recent studies of the Sanskrit language, I am learning how to write Sanskrit using the Devanāgarī script. Devanagari is not the way Sanskrit was originally written. In fact, it has no “native” script as such.¹ But Sanskrit is most frequently written in Devanagari script.

The Devanagari script is used across many languages in North India.  According to the Wikipedia article linked above, it is used in over 120 languages in India,² so it is a useful thing to learn.

So how does Devanagari work?

Like English and other western languages, it is written left to right.  Typically, only consonants are written, with vowels modifying them.  For example, “g” if it is written without any vowels is pronounced as “ga” (guh) by default.  But if modified by a vowel, then it obviously changes.  So, “g” by itself is ग but if modified with “i” becomes गि which is pronounced “gi”.  There are a few edge-cases where the modified consonant looks different than the original, such as त्र (tra) which is त (ta) with an “r”.  But these combinations aren’t too common, and even then they are very consistent.

Sometimes vowels are written by themselves too, such as ए (e) इ (i) and so on when necessary.

Also, words in Devanagari are connected at the top by a horizontal line, which spacing between words, just like English.

Anyhow, Devanagari is not immediately useful for my long-term goals, but it is needed for this textbook, and is a fun thing to learn anyway.

Learning the script isn’t easy since it’s more complicated than, say, English alphabet, but the advantages of Devanagari is the broad range of sounds (so it fits many languages), and the way it explicitly presents every sound in the language.  Compare this to English where “o” can be pronounced many ways: old, operation and so on.  In other words, Devanagari requires more work upfront, but is a practical, precise and beautiful writing system.

Anyhow, I hope to post more about it as my studies continue.  🙂

¹ Ancient Sanskrit writings often were written in one of a number of Brahmi scripts, including Siddham which is still used in Japanese esoteric Buddhism.  It was also preserved in Karosthi script along the Silk Road as well.  However, Devanagari has long since replaced these and hence it is the standard now.

² The very fact that India has so many languages is amazing by itself, since it is about the size of Europe.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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