Nepali alphabet and writing system

The Nepali writing system is not an alphabetic writing system; rather it constitutes a cross between syllabic writing systems and alphabetic writing systems. However, the term "alphabet" in this section is used in a wider sense to include aspects of both systems. In addition, it is used in a similar sense to exclude dependent vowel signs and to include three conjuncts, क्ष /chhya/, त्र /tra/, ज्ञ /gya/, commonly regarded as consonants and two instances of vowel अ /a/ with a combining mark, अं /am/ and अः /ah/, commonly regarded as vowels in popular and traditional teachings. The Nepali writing system section provides more information on writing Nepali.


The Nepali writing system

The effective unit or the smallest unit of the Nepali writing system is a syllable consisting of a consonant and vowel (CV) core, and optionally, one or more preceding consonants. The orthographic syllable is built up of alphabetic pieces consisting of three distinct character types: consonant letters, independent vowel letters, and dependent vowel signs. Consonant letters by themselves constitute a CV unit, where the V is an inherent vowel. Independent vowel letters also constitute a CV unit, where the C is considered to be null. A dependent vowel sign is used to represent a V in CV units where V is not the inherent vowel.

These characteristics make the Nepali writing system a cross between syllabic writing systems and alphabetic writing systems.

Similar to the alphabetic writing systems, it consists of consonants and vowels. However, all vowels cannot be written independently, which does not make it a true alphabetic writing system. In addition, the inherent vowel /a/ is not written at all.

The Nepali writing system also has a feature of the syllabic writing system in that its effective unit is a syllable. However, some aspects of the syllabic writing system are not present in the Nepali writing system.

In a syllabic writing system, each syllable is typically represented by one symbol, e.g., the Japanese katakana symbol "キ" /ki/ is written with one symbol but represents a syllable containing the consonant /k/ and vowel /i/. In the Nepali writing system, the syllable /ki/ is not written with one distinct symbol, but with two symbols, "क" /k/ and "ि" /i/.

Another distinction is the manner in which syllables starting with the same consonant are written. In syllabic writing systems, there is no regular way or a set pattern on which such syllables are written. For example, in Japanese katakana, syllables カ /ka/, キ /ki/, ク /ku/ are not written in a way that includes a common graphic aspect to indicate their common /k/ consonant. However, in the Nepali writing system, the syllables का /ka/, कि /ki/, के /ke/ are written in a regular way that includes the common graphic aspect, the /k/ consonant.

This type of writing system consisting of aspects of both alphabetic writing systems and syllabic writing systems has been termed as abugida, a term proposed by Peter T. Daniels, from the Ethiopian word for the Ge'ez script, an example of such writing system, and in which Ethiopian is written[1]. The term, abugida, is taken from the four CV units in the script, "ʾä bu gi da" - four consonants and the first four vowels of the script, in a similar way the term, abecedarium, is derived from the Latin alphabets "ā bē cē dē."

Abugida is also referred to as alphasyllabary.

The Nepali writing system is thus an abugida. Nepali is written in Devanagari script, a descendant of the Brahmi script. The Devanagari script is written from left to right and there are no special forms for capital letters.

Even though Nepali is written in Devanagari script, the Nepali writing system uses only a subset of characters, not the entire character set, of the Devanagari script.

Characters used in the Nepali writing system

Consonant Letters
Each of the following 33 consonant letters represents a single consonantal sound and an inherent vowel, generally the sound /a/: क /ka/, ख /kha/, ग /ga/, घ /gha/, ङ /ŋa/, च /cha/, छ /chha/, ज /ja/, झ /jha/, ञ /ña/, ट /ta/, ठ /tha/, ड /da/, ढ /dha/, ण /ṇa/, त /ṭa/, थ /ṭha/, द /ḍa/, ध /ḍha/, न /na/, प /pa/, फ /pha/, ब /ba/, भ /bha/, म /ma/, य /ya/, र /ra/, ल /la/, व /wa/, श /sa/, ष /sa/, स /sa/, ह /ha/.

Independent Vowel Letters
The following 11 independent vowel letters stand on their own: अ /a/, आ /ā/, इ /i/, ई /i/, उ /u/, ऊ /u/, ऋ /ri/, ए /e/, ऐ /ai/, ओ /o/, औ /au/.

Dependent Vowel Signs (Matras)
The following 10 dependent vowel signs serve as the common manner of writing noninherent vowels: ा /ā/, ि /i/, ी /i/, ु /u/, ू /u/, ृ /्ri/, े /e/, ै /ai/, ो /o/, ौ /au/. They do not stand alone; rather exist in combination with a consonant letter, e.g., क /ka/ + ो /o/ = को /ko/.

Hal ( ् )
Hal (represented as U+094D DEVANAGARI SIGN VIRAMA in Unicode) cancels the inherent vowel of the consonant to which it is applied. When a consonant has lost its inherent vowel by the application of a Hal, it is known as a dead constant; in contrast, a live consonant is one that retains its inherent vowel or is written with a dependent vowel sign. The word Hal refers to the character itself, and Halanta refers to the consonant that has its inherent vowel suppressed.

Consonant Conjuncts
Consonant conjuncts serve as orthographic abbreviations (ligatures) of a consonant cluster, where one or more dead consonants is followed by a live consonant, e.g.,क /ka/ + ् /hal/ + य /ya/ = क्य /kya/, where क्य /kya/ is a consonant conjunct.

Chandrabindu ( ँ ) and Shirbindu ( ं )
In addition to dependent vowel signs, two other types of combining marks, Chandrabindu ( ँ ) and Shirbindu ( ं ) may be applied to an orthographic syllable. These marks indicate nasalization of a syllable.
Chandrabindu (represented as U+0901 DEVANAGARI SIGN CANDRABINDU in Unicode) indicates nasalization of a vowel, e.g. Chandrabindu in आँसु /aansu/ indicates nasalization of dependent vowel sign ा /ā/, and Chandrabindu in आउँ /aaun/ indicates nasalization of independent vowel letter उ /u/.

Shirbindu (represented as U+0902 DEVANAGARI SIGN ANUSVARA in Unicode) indicates a nasal consonant preceding another consonant, e.g., Shirbindu in प्रशंसा /prasamsa/ indicates nasal consonant म /ma/ preceding the consonant स /sa/, and Shirbindu in अंक /anka/ indicates nasal consonant ङ /ŋa/ preceding the consonant क /ka/.

Purna biram ( । ) marks the end of a sentence. It (represented as U+0964 DEVANAGARI DANDA in Unicode) is similar to a full stop. The period or full stop from the Latin script is not used to mark the end of a sentence in Nepali. However, except for the full stop, other punctuation marks, e.g., comma, semicolon, question mark, etc. from the Latin script are used in writing Nepali as well.

The following set of digits is used in Nepali: ० /zero/, १ /one/, २ /two/, ३ /three/, ४ /four/, ५ /five/, ६ /six/, ७ /seven/, ८ /eight/, ९ /nine/.

Bisarga ( ः )
Bisarga (represented as U+0903 DEVANAGARI SIGN VISARGA in Unicode) appears in some Sanskrit loanwords in Nepali, but they are usually not pronounced, e.g., दुःख /dukha/.

Note: The terminology used in this section follows that is used in the Unicode Standard.

[1] Daniels, Peter T. "Fundamentals of grammatology." Journal of the American Oriental Society (1990): 727-731.
The Unicode Standard, Version 7.0. Mountain View. The Unicode Consortium. 2014. Print.
Nepali Brihat Shabdakhosh. 7th ed. Kathmandu. Nepal Pragya-Pratisthan. 2010. Print.


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