Schwa Deletion in Indo-Aryan Languages
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Schwa Deletion in Indo-Aryan Languages

The IPA symbol for the schwa

Schwa deletion, or schwa syncope, is a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in Assamese, 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.[1][2]

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.[3]

For example, the Sanskrit word "R?ma" (IPA: [?a:m?], ) is pronounced "R?m" (IPA: [ra:m], ?) in Hindi. The schwa (?) sound at the end of the word is deleted in Hindi.[4] However, in both cases, the word is written .

The schwa is not deleted in ancient languages such as Sanskrit or Pali, or medieval forms such as Early Assamese. The schwa is also retained in all the modern registers of the Dravidian languages Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam.


Although the Devanagari script is used as a standard to write Modern Hindi, the schwa ('?') implicit in each consonant of the script is "obligatorily deleted" at the end of words and in certain other contexts, unlike in Sanskrit.[1] That phenomenon has been termed the "schwa syncope rule" or the "schwa deletion rule" of Hindi.[1][3] One formalisation of this rule has been summarised as ? -> ? /VC_CV. In other words, when a schwa-succeeded consonant (itself preceded by another vowel) is followed by a vowel-succeeded consonant, the schwa inherent in the first consonant is deleted.[3][5] 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.[5]

Schwa deletion is computationally important because it is essential to building text-to-speech software for Hindi.[5][6]

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, is pronounced R?m (not R?ma, as in Sanskrit), ? is pronounced Racn? (not Racan?), is pronounced Ved (not Veda) and is pronounced Namk?n (not Namak?na).[5][6] The name of the script itself is pronounced Devn?gr?, not Devan?gar?.[7]

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.[8] For instance, the letter sequence '' is pronounced differently in ? (har.kat, meaning movement or activity) and (, meaning to slide). Similarly, the sequence in (the heart started beating) and in ? (beats of the heart) is identical prior to the nasalisation in the second usage. However, it is pronounced dha? in the first and dha?.kan? in the second.[8]

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.[8]

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.[9] An example of this is ?/? which is pronounced racan? (/r?tna:/) in Sanskrit, racn? (/r?t?na:/) in Hindi and rôcona (/r?t?ona/) in Bengali. While the medial schwa is deleted in Hindi (because of the ? -> ? / VC_CV rule), it is retained in Bengali.[5]

On the other hand, the final schwa in / is deleted in both Hindi and Bengali (Sanskrit: /ve:d/, Hindi: /ve:d?/, Bengali: /bed?/).[5]


The Bengali equivalent for Schwa is Open-mid back rounded vowel or [?]. Bengali deleted this vowel at the end when not ending in a consonant cluster but sometimes retained this vowel at medial position. The consonant clusters at end of a word usually follows a Close-mid back rounded vowel or [o]. For example, the Sanskrit word (/p?t/, way) corresponds to the Bengali word /p?t/. But the Skt. word ? (/?nt/, end) retains the end vowel and becomes ? /?nt?o/ in Bengali, as it ends with a consonant cluster.

However, tatsama borrowings from Sanskrit generally retain the '?' except in word-final positions and except in very informal speech.

That vowel in medial position are not always retained. For instance, '' is pronounced as /kolkat?a/, and not /kol?kat?a/. (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.[2]


In the Dardic subbranch of Indo-Aryan, Kashmiri similarly demonstrates schwa deletion. For instance, dr?k?a (?) is the Sanskrit word for grape, but the final schwa is dropped in the Kashmiri version, which is dach ( or ?).


Maithili's schwa deletion differs from other neighbouring languages. It actually doesn't delete schwa, but shortens it., ? -> / VC_CV 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, ? is h?m?ro (even ours) with schwas but is pronounced h?m?ro.[10] That is akin to the neighbouring Bhojpuri in which ? (meaning mine) is pronounced h?mr? rather than h?m?r? from the deletion of a medial schwa.[11]


In Marathi, the schwa at the end of the Sanskrit stems is retained in such cases as a few tatsama words.[12] 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 (ranga/colour), (banda/close), (guna/quality), (goda/sweet), (m?rga/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(?). ?(a name) is pronounced sulocn? by Hindi speakers while sulocan? by Nepali speakers. However, ? (his) is not pronounced as *usako, rather as usko. Similarly, (Ram-ergative marker) as r?mle as opposed to *r?male

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. ? (anta, 'end'), ? (sambandha, 'relation'), ? (?reha, 'greatest'/a last name).
Exceptions: conjuncts such as in ? (mañc, 'stage') ? (gañj, 'city') and occasionally the last name ? (panta/pant).

2) For any verb form the final schwa is always retained unless the schwa-cancelling halanta is present. (huncha, 'it happens'), (bhaera, 'in happening so; therefore'), (gaecha, 'he apparently went'), but (chan, 'they are'), ? (gain, 'she went').

Meanings may change with the wrong orthography: (gaina, 'she didn't go') vs ? (gain, 'she went').

3) Adverbs, onomatopoeia and postpositions usually maintain the schwa and if they don't, halanta is acquired: (aba 'now'), (tira, 'towards'), (?ja, 'today') ? (simsim 'drizzle') vs (jhan, 'more').

4) Few exceptional nouns retain the schwa such as: (dukha, 'suffering'), (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.[]


Punjabi has broad schwa deletion rules: several base word forms (, ?, k?gh?z/paper) drop schwas in the plural form (, , k?ghz/papers) as well as with instrumental (, , k?ghz/from the paper) and locative (?, , k?ghzé/on the paper) suffixes.[13]

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.[14] 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 (rather than ) which may be transliterated back to Ingalisha by automated systems, but schwa deletion would result in being correctly pronounced as Inglish by native Hindi-speakers.[15]

Some examples are shown below:

Word in Devanagari and meaning Pronunciation in Hindi (with schwa syncope) Pronunciation without schwa syncope Comments
(flame) l?p l?p The final schwa is deleted [16]
(flames) l?p?e? l?pe? The medial schwa, l?p??, which was retained in , is deleted in [16]
(understanding) s?m?jh s?m?jh? The final schwa is deleted [17]
? (understood, verb masc.) s?mjh? s?m?jh? The medial vowel also is deleted here, which it wasn't in [17]
? (India) bh?r?t bh?r?t? Final schwa is deleted
(Indian) bh?rt?y bh?r?t?y? 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 'bh?rt?'
(Devanagari, the script) devn?gr? dev?n?g?r? Two medial schwas (after ? and after ?) are deleted
(English, the language) inglish ing?lish? Medial and final schwas (after ? and after ?) are deleted
(Vimla, a proper name) viml? vim?l? Medial schwa is deleted [18]
? (Sulochna, a proper name) sulochn? suloch?n? Medial schwa is deleted [18]

Vowel nasalisation

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.[19] Here are some examples in Hindustani:

  • s?n.k? (?, ?, whimsical) in which a deleted schwa that is pronounced in the root word s?n?k (, , whimsy) converts the first medial schwa into a nasalised vowel.
  • ch?m.k?l? (, , shiny) in which a deleted schwa that is pronounced in the root word ch?m?k (, , shine) converts the first medial schwa into a nasalised vowel.

See also


  1. ^ a b c 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...
  2. ^ a b 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-;...
  3. ^ a b c 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....
  4. ^ 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)
  5. ^ a b c d e f 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 r?c?na, Hindi r?cna, Bengali r?cona....
  6. ^ a b Naim R. Tyson; Ila Nagar (2009), "Prosodic rules for schwa-deletion in Hindi text-to-speech synthesis", International Journal of Speech Technology, 12: 15-25, doi:10.1007/s10772-009-9040-x, ...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....
  7. ^ Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy (1995), The r?gs of North Indian music: their structure and evolution, Popular Prakashan, 1995, p. xi, ISBN 978-81-7154-395-3, ...The Devn?gr? (Devan?gar?) 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. r?ga in Sanskrit and r?g in Hindi) and frequently in medial position (e.g. M?rav? in Sanskrit and M?rv? in Hindi).
  8. ^ a b c 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?-ka-n? and the later as dha-?ak-ne, which are clearly distinguishable....
  9. ^ 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 {a} deletion than those derived from Sanskrit....
  10. ^ 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:... VC?CV -> VC0CV.... Schwa deletion in Maithili occurs....
  11. ^ 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....
  12. ^ Rajeshwari Pandharipande (1997). Marathi. Psychology Press. p. 571. ISBN 978-0-415-00319-3. Retrieved 2012.
  13. ^ 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....
  14. ^ Florian Coulmas (1991-01-08), The writing systems of the world, Wiley-Blackwell, 1991, ISBN 978-0-631-18028-9, 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....
  15. ^ An example is Google's automated transliteration of J. P. Singh Ahluwalia; Mohan Singh, Jep? Raipi?a korasa ?u sapokana I?galisha: including Ingalisha pronouncing dikashanar?, Jaypee Publications, 2008, ... sapokana I?galisha ...
  16. ^ a b 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 l?p ~ l?pen 'flame', one has to apply the following phonomorphological interface rules on the abstract ...
  17. ^ a b 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 ...
  18. ^ a b Manjari Ohala, The schwa-deletion rule in Hindi: phonetic and non-phonetic determinants of rule application, Indiana University Linguistics Club, 1974, ... [sulochna] ~ [suloch?na] ... schwa is conditionally deleted ...
  19. ^ 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 ...

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