The meaning of the rows and columns in Devanagari script

Gather around, children, because we are going to talk about the Devanagari alphabet today. We are interested in the consonants, not the vowels. So, here are the consonants:

क ख ग घ ङ

च छ ज झ ञ

ट ठ ड ढ ण

त थ द ध न

प फ ब भ म

य र ल व

श ष स ह

I’ve intentionally dropped the ळ क्ष ज्ञ because anyway they are poor cousins that we don’t want to throw out on the streets.

Anyway, have you ever wondered why the alphabet is always written out as a 2-dimensional table like this? Compare that with the English alphabet which is pretty much a one-dimensional sequence of alphabets without any organizational structure. There are obviously strong reasons why the devanagari alphabet is arranged in a table like this.

To get a hint, focus on the first 5 rows above. First, say aloud the letters in any one of the horizontal rows (top 5 only). Notice any similarities? Now say aloud the letters in any vertical column (just the first 5 rows). Again, notice any similarities?

Before I give the answer, here is a full table, organized according to phonetics, taken from the Wikipedia page on Devanagari







Voicing aghoṣa ghoṣa aghoṣa ghoṣa
Aspiration alpaprāṇa mahāprāṇa alpaprāṇa mahāprāṇa alpaprāṇa mahāprāṇa


































































If you read any row horizontally, you’ll notice that your lip position and tongue position remains the same, and only the method of expelling air from your voice box, nose and mouth changes. It remains exactly the same for the first 5 columns (until the nasals), and then changes slightly for the last row (the aproximant or the fricative).

If you read any column vertically, you’ll notice that the way air comes out of our mouth/nose/voicebox remains the same and only the tongue/lip position changes.

Also, I’m sure, this is the first time many of you have figured out how to correctly pronounce ङ and ञ. (Actually, my Hindi teacher in primary school taught us that ञ is the sound made by a small child crying, and ङ is an even smaller child crying. So, obviously, none of us had any clue how exactly one is supposed to pronounce those letters.) And, also, I’m sure there are many who have now figured out the difference between श and ष for the first time. (“They are ‘same’,” is what I believed for many years due to the same Hindi teacher…)

18 thoughts on “The meaning of the rows and columns in Devanagari script”

  1. Thanks for this fantastic stuff. this way of looking at consonants was taught to me by my sanskrit teacher. He was a clerk in ST and taught us kids just for fun. No wonder he knew a lot more than school appointed teachers.

    I will use this to teach marathi to my daughter who struggles with pronunciations.

  2. Hi. Thanks for the nice article!

    As a matter of coincidence – just this Saturday, I was explaining the exact same theory to my wife, and I see a full-fledged article on that topic soon afterwards.

    Nice – I can simply refer people to this page whenever this is a topic of discussion! 🙂

  3. This seems to be DIY phonetics from ya onwards. If any of this was true, there would have been another column – one thing you can tell from ka thru ma is that those guys knew their sounds. ra is not retroflex (it is alveolar; the hindi d of ladka is retroflex) and va is not labial (it is labiodental). I’m not even sure if the difference between the two sha’s has not been lost to history.

    1. @saurabh, I’m not really qualified to be able to debate the accuracy of what you are saying. But, if I understand you right, you’re saying that the table is accurate as far as क through म are concerned, but is inaccurate for य र ल व, श ष स ह. That might be. I’m not an expert, and I simply took this data from the wikipedia page, and prima facie, it seemed correct to me. On further digging, it appears that the data is taken from this paper, by Charles Wikner, who appears to be a scholar in these matters. I would be tempted to believe him, in absence of strong data to the contrary…

      For example, he does talk about व and points out that some traditions do pronounce it like the English ‘v’ (i.e. labiodental), but he makes a case that it is really supposed to be pronounced like the English ‘w’ (i.e. labial).

      1. I am a Nepali. We all know that (Hindi and other Indian languages)=x and (Nepali language)=y came from Sanskrit. Now, in the long course of time, 1 and 2 both, separately have lost many imp aspects of original pronunciation techniques.

        For example, Nepalese care less about which sa(श, ष, or स) they are pronouncing. For instance, though the word ‘sharma’ in Nepali is written in the correct form (i.e. by using श), it is pronounced as ‘स’.

        For another example, the letters ‘ए’ and ‘ऎ’ are not distinctively pronounced by the Indians, rather they sound very much similar to each other (almost the same) which is not in reality. If you disbelieve me right now, consider listening the pronunciations of these two letters from a Nepali and you shall have no other option but to admit it that Nepalese pronounce them more distinctively and accurately.

        The point I’m going to make now might shock you but it is nothing but a fact, and you might have to consult this with true Sanskrit scholars in India or Nepal to believe it. It is because Indians are already used to it and I know they’ll find it difficult to accept this,

        The letter ‘ व ‘ is in fact pronounced as English ‘w’ rather than ‘v’. And in Nepal, we do pronounce it as English ‘w’. We all do. 100% of our population does.

  4. Navin, I’m not qualified either but from experience know that one needs to trust existing knowledge (in this case what people speak, especially if the people are *you*!) more than academic theory. Theory wants to be precise and categorized; in practice it aint so.

    Yes I was saying ka thru ma is accurate but ya onwards it’s dubious – I tend to believe more the ancients who gave us this order (I’m not quite sure if the arrangement is ancient but remember having read somewhere that it is), than a guy who probably didnt learn the sounds growing up. That is, adults *hear* sounds differently than babies, and his arrangement could reflect that.

    Regarding va, I know no Indian who pronounces it labially; it just sounds more like w because the constrictedness of v is absent in va (technically the only difference is that va is an approximant while v is a fricative). In fact, I know a few people who were taught to say w correctly in convent schools, and the only possible reason for that is that w is not va!

    That said, I havent read the paper; plan to some day. Thanks for your additional research.

  5. Nice post buddy! People are forgetting about this Devanagari script. Once I was asked to write a name in Hindi on VISA form by my office travel desk lady. I asked her if she meant Devanagari to which she looked strangely at me and replied, ” I do’t know Devanagari. Pls write your name in Hindi”. 🙂

  6. Hi,

    Thanks for the great post. Can you please post some audio clips of ञ ङ श and ष. I’m still not sure how to pronounce them but would really like to know

    1. @Kush, I think listening to audio clips is not going to help you learn how to pronounce them. It’s very likely that if you were not taught this as a kid, then your ear+brain cannot really ‘hear’ the difference between these and other similar sounds.

      The way to learn to pronounce them is this:
      First say प फ ब भ म loudly. Notice how your lip and tongue position remains the same throughout, but notice that the passage of air through your throat and mouth is different in each case. Specifically note that in the case of म the sound is being created with a constriction at the base of the throat. Remember this. Now repeat this procedure with त थ द ध न. Once again, notice the same thing. Again, note how you make the sound न. And think of what is common between न and म. It’s the constriction of the throat while making the sound. This constriction of the throat is what is common to the entire last column. Remember this.

      Now say loudly, क ख ग घ. Note the position of the tongue and lips. Now here is the trick: Using the same tongue position as क ख ग घ, make the sound come out with a constricted throat, as in the case of न and म. This combination gives you the sound ङ. After a little practice, you’ll get it. Also remember, what we think of as the half ‘n’ sound in many words, is not really a half न, but is a half म, न, ङ, ञ, or ण depending upon what sound comes next. If the next sound is क ख ग घ, then the half ‘n’ is really a half ङ. For example when you’re saying ‘mangalam’, the ‘n’ sound is really a half ङ, and if you’re saying ‘mandal’ then the ‘n’ sound is a half ण.

      A similar analysis will help you figure out the other sounds (ञ श and ष). Again, note that whether a word uses श or ष often depends upon what the next sound is. षटकोन has a ष because the next sound is a ट, which is from the retroflex family, hence the sibilant used is also retroflex. My guess is that usually an ‘sh’ sound uses श except if the next sound is a retroflex, in which case, a ष is used.

      (Note: a lot of the last two paragraphs is speculation on my part; better informed linguists please feel free to chip in with gyaan.)

  7. Good to see the active discussion …. BTW this all IS taught in CBSE class 9 Hindi ….. so I am surprisd to see that most of you seem to be “enlightened” on the issue.

    1. @Sarvdeep, sorry for the delay in approving your comment and responding to it. It was sitting in the spam section, and I just noticed it.

      Unfortunately, I studied in Maharashtra’s HSC board, which is terrible – and we came nowhere close to having discussions of this sort. In fact, I clearly remember my Hindi teacher teaching us that ञ is the sound of a small baby crying, and ङ is the sound of an even smaller baby crying. I swear I am not making that up – that is the entire and full explanation of how to pronounce these sounds that we ever got.

  8. ‘ङ’ is sound that appear in rare words e.g. कर्तव्यपराङमुख it can be pronounced as starting sound of न and starting sound of ग. But you may question then why not pronounce or write it As कर्तव्यपरांगमुख.? But there is difference ….. न and ग both are microtones in pronunciation of ङ.

    Now when श and ष are used. This difference is probably same difference between ि and ी or ु and ू. When the pronounciation demands not to pronounce sound श fully , it requires ष. E.g. सुभाष, भाषा try pronouncing and hearing these words as सुभाश, भाशा and observe the contractions in your toung You will realize it is difference.

    ळ is commonly used sound in Marathi e.g बाळ, काळ, वेळ, डाळ, झळ and so many.

    1. @Mahesh,
      Your description: “as starting sound of न and starting sound of ग” is imprecise. What exactly does starting sound of न mean? Somebody trying to reproduce the starting sound of न will be tempted to touch their tongue to the back of the teeth, which is wrong.

      Also, do you have a reference for why you think that the only difference between श and ष is the length of the sound? That seems incorrect to me.

  9. Why not give the examples of the English “finger” and “pinch” for kanthya anunaasika (guttural-nasal) and taalavya anunaasika (palatal-nasal) instead bringing in those crying babies?

    And then, there really is no equivalent for the taalavya fricative in any of the European languages.

    But try and say “su-shroo-shaa” that means “good treatment” and assmbles all the alpapraana fricatives in just one word.

    1. @Balasubrahmanyam, I did not give the example of crying babies as something that *should* be used to teach those sounds. I gave that as an example of how badly I was taught in school.

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