Schwa deletion, or schwa syncope, is a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Gujarati, and several other Indo-Aryan languages with schwas that are implicit in their written scripts. Languages like Marathi and Maithili with increased influence from other languages through coming into contact with them — also shows a similar phenomenon. Some schwas are obligatorily deleted in pronunciation even if the script suggests otherwise.
Schwa deletion is important for intelligibility and unaccented speech. It also presents a challenge to non-native speakers and speech synthesis software because the scripts, including Devanagari, do not tell when schwas should be deleted.
For example, the Sanskrit word "Rāma" (IPA: [ɽaːmɐ], राम) is pronounced "Rām" (IPA: [raːm], राम्) in Hindi. The schwa (ə) sound at the end of the word is deleted in Hindi. However, in both cases, the word is written राम.
The schwa is not deleted in ancient languages such as Sanskrit or Pali.
Although the Devanagari script is used as a standard to write Modern Hindi, the schwa ('ə') implicit in each consonant of the script is "obligatorily deleted" at the end of words and in certain other contexts, unlike in Sanskrit. That phenomenon has been termed the "schwa syncope rule" or the "schwa deletion rule" of Hindi. One formalisation of this rule has been summarised as ə → ∅ /VC_CV. In other words, when a schwa-succeeded consonant is followed by a vowel-succeeded consonant, the schwa inherent in the first consonant is deleted. However, this rule sometimes deletes a schwa that should remain and sometimes fails to delete a schwa when it should be deleted. The rule is reported to result in correct predictions on schwa deletion 89% of the time.
As a result of schwa syncope, the Hindi pronunciation of many words differs from that expected from a literal Sanskrit-style reading of Devanagari. For instance, राम is pronounced Rām (not Rāma, as in Sanskrit), रचना is pronounced Rachnā (not Rachanā), वेद is pronounced Véd (not Véda) and नमकीन is pronounced Namkeen (not Namakeena). The name of the script itself is pronounced Devnāgrī, not Devanāgarī.
Correct schwa deletion is also critical because the same letter sequence is pronounced two different ways in Hindi depending on the context. Failure to delete the appropriate schwas can then change the meaning. For instance, the letter sequence 'रक' is pronounced differently in हरकत (har.kat, meaning movement or activity) and सरकना (sarak.na, meaning to slide). Similarly, the sequence धड़कने in दिल धड़कने लगा (the heart started beating) and in दिल की धड़कनें (beats of the heart) is identical prior to the nasalisation in the second usage. However, it is pronounced dhaṛak.ne in the first and dhaṛ.kaneṁ in the second.
While native speakers pronounce the sequences differently in different contexts, non-native speakers and voice-synthesis software can make them "sound very unnatural", making it "extremely difficult for the listener" to grasp the intended meaning.
Other Indo-Aryan languages
Different Indo-Aryan languages can differ in how they apply schwa deletion. For instance, medial schwas from Sanskrit-origin words are often retained in Bengali even if they are deleted in Hindi. An example of this is रचना/রচনা which is pronounced racanā (/rətʃənaː/) in Sanskrit, racnā (/rətʃnaː/) in Hindi and rôcona (/rɔtʃona/) in Bengali. While the medial schwa is deleted in Hindi (because of the ə → ∅ / VC_CV rule), it is retained in Bengali.
On the other hand, the final schwa in वेद /বেদ is deleted in both Hindi and Bengali (Sanskrit: /veːd̪ə/, Hindi: /veːd̪/, Bengali: /bed̪/).
Bengali deleted schwas at the end when not ending in a consonant cluster but sometimes retained the medial schwas. However, tatsama borrowings from Sanskrit generally retain the schwa except in word-final positions and except in very informal speech.
Medial schwas are not always retained. For instance, 'কলকাতা' is pronounced as kôlkata, and not kôlôkata (although different pronunciations based on dialect exist, none pronounce it this way).
Gujarati has a strong schwa deletion phenomenon, affecting both medial and final schwas. From an evolutionary perspective, the final schwas appear to have been lost prior to the medial ones.
In the Dardic subbranch of Indo-Aryan, Kashmiri similarly demonstrates schwa deletion. For instance, drākṣa (द्राक्ष) is the Sanskrit word for grape, but the final schwa is dropped in the Kashmiri version, which is dach (दछ् or دَچھ).
Its Sanskrit tradition makes schwas be rarely deleted in Maithili except for in Hindi or Urdu loanwords. Maithili's schwa deletion in Hindustani loanwords is similar to Hindustani, and ə → ∅ / VC_CV also selectively applies to the language. Maithili with increased influence of other languages through coming into contact with them has been showing the phenomenon of schwa deletion sometimes with words that traditionally pronounce schwas. For instance, हमरो is həməro (even ours) with schwas but is pronounced həmro. That is akin to the neighbouring Bhojpuri in which हमरा (meaning mine) is pronounced həmrā rather than həmərā from the deletion of a medial schwa.
In Marathi, the schwa at the end of the Sanskrit stems is retained in such cases as a few tatsama words. The medial schwa is retained in most of the words. Marathi with increased influence of other languages through coming into contact with them has been showing the phenomenon of schwa deletion sometimes with words that traditionally pronounce schwas like रंग (ranga/colour), बंद (banda/close), गुण (guna/quality), गोड (goda/sweet), मार्ग (mārga/way or street), etc.
Nepali orthography is comparatively more phonetic than Hindi when it comes to schwa retention. Schwas are often retained within the words unless deletion is signaled by the use of a halanta(्). सुलोचना(a name) is pronounced sulocnaa by Hindi speakers while sulocanaa by Nepali speakers. However, उसको (his) is not pronounced as *usako, rather as usko. Similarly, रामले (Ram-ergative marker) as raamle as opposed to *raamale
The following rules can be followed to figure out whether or not Nepali words retain the final schwa in a word.
1) Schwa is retained if the final syllable is a conjunct consonant. अन्त (anta - end), सम्बन्ध (sambandha - relation), श्रेष्ठ (shrestha - greatest/ a last name) Exceptions: रङ्ग(rang) conjuncts such as ञ्ज ञ्च in मञ्च(manc - stage) गञ्ज(ganj - city) and occasionally the last name पन्त (panta/ pant)
2) For any verb form the final schwa is always retained unless the schwa cancelling halanta is present. हुन्छ(huncha - it happens), भएर(bhaera - in happening so/ therefore), गएछ(gaecha - he apparently went) but छन्(chan - they are), गइन्(gain - she went). Meanings may change with the wrong orthography: गइन(gaina)= she didn't go VS गइन् (gain) = she went
3) Adverbs, onomatopoeia and postpositions usually maintain the schwa and if they don't, halanta is acquired: अब (aba - now), तिर (tira - towards), आज (aaja- today) सिम्सिम् (simsim - drizzle)झन् (jhan- more)
4) Few exceptional nouns retain the schwa such as: दुख(dukha - suffering), सुख (sukha - pleasure)
Note: Schwas are often retained in music and poetry to facilitate singing and recitation.
Odia, declared the sixth classical language of India, retains the schwa in its pronunciation. Both medial and final schwas are retained, unlike Bengali, where only the medial schwas are retained.
Punjabi has broad schwa deletion rules: several base word forms (ਕਾਗ਼ਜ਼, کاغز, kāghəz/paper) drop schwas in the plural form (ਕਾਗ਼ਜ਼ਾਂ, کاغزاں, kāghzāṅ/papers) as well as with instrumental (ਕਾਗ਼ਜ਼ੋਂ, کاغزوں, kāghzōṅ/from the paper) and locative (ਕਾਗ਼ਜ਼ੇ, کاغزے, kāghzé/on the paper) suffixes.
Common transcription and diction issues
Since Devanagari does not provide indications of where schwas should be deleted, it is common for non-native learners/speakers of Hindi, who are otherwise familiar with Devanagari and Sanskrit, to make incorrect pronunciations of words in Hindustani and other modern Indo-Aryan languages. Similarly, systems that automate transliteration from Devanagari to Latin script by hardcoding implicit schwas in every consonant often indicate the written form rather than the pronunciation. That becomes evident when English words are transliterated into Devanagari by Hindi-speakers and then transliterated back into English by manual or automated processes that do not account for Hindi's schwa deletion rules. For instance, the word English may be written by Hindi speakers as इंगलिश (rather than इंग्लिश्) which may be transliterated back to Ingalisha by automated systems, but schwa deletion would result in इंगलिश being correctly pronounced as Inglish by native Hindi-speakers.
Some examples are shown below:
|Word in Devanagari and meaning||Pronunciation in Hindi (with schwa syncope)||Pronunciation without schwa syncope||Comments|
|लपट (flame)||ləpəṭ||ləpəṭə||The final schwa is deleted |
|लपटें (flames)||ləpṭeṅ||ləpəṭeṅ||The medial schwa, ləpəṭ, which was retained in लपट, is deleted in लपटें |
|समझ (understanding)||səməjh||səməjhə||The final schwa is deleted |
|समझा (understood, verb masc.)||səmjhā||səməjhā||The medial vowel also is deleted here, which it wasn't in समझ|
|भारत (India)||bhārət||bhārətə||Final schwa is deleted|
|भारतीय (Indian)||bhārtīy||bhārətīyə||Both the medial and final schwa are deleted, although the final schwa is sometimes faintly pronounced due to the 'y' glide; when pronounced without this, the word sounds close to 'bhārtī'|
|देवनागरी (Devanagari, the script)||devnāgrī||devənāgərī||Two medial schwas (after व and after ग) are deleted|
|इंगलिश (English, the language)||inglish||ingəlishə||Medial and final schwas (after ग and after श) are deleted|
|विमला (Vimla, a proper name)||vimlā||viməlā||Medial schwa is deleted |
|सुलोचना (Sulochna, a proper name)||sulochnā||sulochənā||Medial schwa is deleted |
With some words that contain /n/ or /m/ consonants separated from succeeding consonants by schwas, the schwa deletion process has the effect of nasalising any preceding vowels. Here are some examples in Hindustani:
- sən.kī (सनकी, سنکی, whimsical) in which a deleted schwa that is pronounced in the root word sənək (सनक, سنک, whimsy) converts the first medial schwa into a nasalised vowel.
- chəm.kīlā (चमकीला, چمکیلا, shiny) in which a deleted schwa that is pronounced in the root word chəmək (चमक, چمک, shine) converts the first medial schwa into a nasalised vowel.
- Larry M. Hyman; Victoria Fromkin; Charles N. Li (1988), Language, speech, and mind (Volume 1988, Part 2), Taylor & Francis, ISBN 0-415-00311-3,
...The implicit /a/ is not read when the symbol appears in word-final position or in certain other contexts where it is obligatorily deleted (via the so-called schwa-deletion rule which plays a crucial role in Hindi word phonology...
- Indian linguistics, Volume 37, Linguistic Society of India, 1976, 1976,
...the history of the schwa deletion rule in Gujarati has been examined. The historical perspective brings out the fact that schwa deletion is not an isolated phenomenon; the loss of final -a has preceded the loss of medial -a-;...
- Tej K. Bhatia (1987), A history of the Hindi grammatical tradition: Hindi-Hindustani grammar, grammarians, history and problems, BRILL, ISBN 90-04-07924-6,
...Hindi literature fails as a reliable indicator of the actual pronunciation because it is written in the Devanagari script... the schwa syncope rule which operates in Hindi....
- Ann K. Farmer and Richard A. Demers (2010). A Linguistics Workbook: Companion to Linguistics (Sixth ed.). MIT Press. p. 78. ISBN 9780262514828.CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
- Monojit Choudhury, Anupam Basu & Sudeshna Sarkar (July 2004), "A Diachronic Approach for Schwa Deletion in Indo Aryan Languages" (PDF), Proceedings of the Workshop of the ACL Special Interest Group on Computational Phonology (SIGPHON), Association for Computations Linguistics,
...schwa deletion is an important issue for grapheme-to-phoneme conversion of IAL, which in turn is required for a good Text-to-Speech synthesizer.... Sanskrit rəcəna, Hindi rəcna, Bengali rɔcona....
- Naim R. Tyson; Ila Nagar (2009), "Prosodic rules for schwa-deletion in Hindi text-to-speech synthesis" (PDF), International Journal of Speech Technology, 12: 15–25,
...Without the appropriate deletion of schwas, any speech output would sound unnatural. Since the orthographical representation of Devanagari gives little indication of deletion sites, modern TTS systems for Hindi implemented schwa deletion rules based on the segmental context where schwa appears....
- Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy (1995), The rāgs of North Indian music: their structure and evolution, Popular Prakashan, 1995, p. xi, ISBN 978-81-7154-395-3,
...The Devnāgrī (Devanāgarī) script is syllabic and all consonants carry the inherent vowel a unless otherwise indicated. The principal difference between modern Hindi and the classical Sanskrit forms is the omission in Hindi of this inherent a when in final position (e.g. rāga in Sanskrit and rāg in Hindi) and frequently in medial position (e.g. Māravā in Sanskrit and Mārvā in Hindi).
- Monojit Choudhury & Anupam Basu (July 2004), "A Rule Based Schwa Deletion Algorithm for Hindi" (PDF), Proceedings of the International Conference on Knowledge-Based Computer Systems,
...Without any schwa deletion, not only the two words will sound very unnatural, but it will also be extremely difficult for the listener to distinguish between the two, the only difference being nasalization of the e at the end of the former. However, a native speaker would pronounce the former as dha.D-kan-eM and the later as dha.Dak-ne, which are clearly distinguishable....
- Anupam Basu; Udaya Narayana Singh (2005-01-01), Proceedings of the Second Symposium on Indian Morphology, Phonology & Language Engineering: Simple'05, February 5th-7th, 2005, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Central Institute of Indian Languages, 2005, ISBN 978-81-7342-137-2,
...The compound words derived from native words of Bengali show greater tendency towards deletion than those derived from Sanskrit....
- George Cardona (2007-07-26), The Indo-Aryan languages, Psychology Press, 2003, ISBN 978-0-7007-1130-7,
...The two morphophonemic alternations that are very productive and regular in Maithili are schwa deletion and replacement of a by schwa. (a) Schwa deletion:... VCəCV → VC0CV.... Schwa deletion in Maithili occurs....
- Manindra K. Verma; Karavannur Puthanvettil Mohanan (1990), Experiencer subjects in South Asian languages, Center for the Study of Language (CSLI), 1990, ISBN 978-0-937073-60-5,
...The paradigm in Bhojpuri... hamaar in isolation is genitive and has an oblique form in -aa, which according to the general principle of vowel attenuation (schwa deletion) in this language yields the form hamraa before postpositions....
- Rajeshwari Pandharipande (1997). Marathi. Psychology Press. p. 571. ISBN 978-0-415-00319-3. Retrieved 26 December 2012.
- Tej K. Bhatia (1993), Punjabi: a cognitive-descriptive grammar, Psychology Press, 1993, ISBN 978-0-415-00320-9,
...nazar 'glance' - nazar të - nazrë. Postposition incorporation is quite productive. The stem-final schwa undergoes deletion before the vocalic postpositional elements....
- Florian Coulmas (1991-01-08), The writing systems of the world, Wiley-Blackwell, 1991, ISBN 978-0-631-18028-9,
...in the Devanagari script, the schwa vowel is not indicated in consonant-initial syllables. This is a well-known problem for those learning to read Hindi....
- An example is Google's automated transliteration of J. P. Singh Ahluwalia; Mohan Singh, Jepī Raipiḍa korasa ṭu sapokana Iṅgalisha: including Ingalisha pronouncing dikashanarī, Jaypee Publications, 2008,
... sapokana Iṅgalisha ...
- Rajendra Singh; Rama Kant Agnihotri (1997), Hindi morphology: a word-based description, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1997, ISBN 978-81-208-1446-2,
... For a pair of words eg ləpəṭ ~ ləpəṭen 'flame', one has to apply the following phonomorphological interface rules on the abstract ...
- Colin P. Masica, The Indo-Aryan Languages, Cambridge University Press, 1993, ISBN 978-0-521-29944-2,
... on the suffixation: H. samajhna 'to understand' > samjha 'understood'. This too produces clusters, albeit unstable ones. As noted in Chapter 6, the most recent treatment (synchronic) of this "schwa-deletion" phenomenon in Hindi ...
- Manjari Ohala, The schwa-deletion rule in Hindi: phonetic and non-phonetic determinants of rule application, Indiana University Linguistics Club, 1974,
... [sulochna] ~ [sulochəna] ... schwa is conditionally deleted ...
- G.C. Narang; Donald A. Becker (September 1971), "Aspiration and nasalization in the generative phonology of Hindustani", Language, Linguistic Society of America, 47 (3): 646–667, JSTOR 412381,
... nasalized vowels are derived from underlying sequences of vowel plus nasal consonant ...