The following section provides information on pronouncing Nepali.
The written forms of words in Nepali can be categorized into two groups consisting of Sanskrit loanwords written according to the Sanskrit writing rules, and all other words written according to the Nepali writing rules. However, both groups of these words are pronounced the same way. This section presents a guide to pronouncing Nepali with a description of the principles on which Nepali words are pronounced.
The long vowels (ई, ी, ऊ, ू) are pronounced as short vowels (इ, ि, उ, ु.)
Pronounce Sanskrit loanwords as Nepali words
In general, all loanwords in Nepali are written or pronounced according to the Nepali writing or pronunciation rules. However, there is one exception in writing Sanskrit loanwords. Sanskrit loanwords are written according to the Sanskrit writing rules, whereas all other words are written according to the Nepali writing rules.
This exception, however, only exists in writing but not in pronunciation. So, even though Sanskrit loanwords are written according to the Sanskrit writing rules, when it comes to pronunciation, there is generally no distinction between pronouncing Sanskrit loanwords and other words.
The characters that are used only in writing Sanskrit loanwords are pronounced as follows:
Pronounce श and ष as स
Pronounce क्षे as छे and क्ष as छ्य
Pronounce ज्ञ as ग्य
Pronounce ञ as न
ञ is generally followed by ्. In such cases, it is pronounced as न.
Pronounce ण generally as न
When ण is followed by ्, it is pronounced as न.
ण is the only exception where even though it is only used to write Sanskrit loanwords, it is often pronounced according to the Sanskrit pronunciation rules, e.g., ण in the following words is pronounced as ण and not न:
In colloquial speech, ण in some Sanskrit loanwords is pronounced also as न in addition to being pronounced as ण, e.g., अरुण is pronounced also as अरुन् /arun/ in addition to being pronounced as अरुण् /aruɳ/, and similarly, किरण as किरन् /kiran/ in addition to किरण् /kiraɳ/. For some such common Sanskrit loanwords, a corresponding Nepali equivalent also exists in the official Nepali dictionary, e.g., both the Sanskrit loanword ऋण /riɳ/ and its Nepali equivalent, रिन /rin/ are listed in the official Nepali dictionary.
Pronounce ं /Shirbindu/ as म
Inherent vowel in certain cases may not be pronounced
When a consonant letter with its inherent vowel intact occurs in a word along with other orthographic units, its inherent vowel may or may not be pronounced.
For example, consider the word आज, where the consonant letter ज /ja/ is made up of a consonant ज् /j/ and an inherent vowel अ /a/. In this example, the inherent vowel, अ /a/, is pronounced. So, the word आज is pronounced as आज /äja/ and not as आज् /äj/.
In contrast, consider the word मन with न /na/ as the consonant letter and consonant न् /n/ and inherent vowel अ /a/ as its parts. Here, the inherent vowel, अ /a/, is not pronounced. So, the word मन is pronounced as मन् /man/ and not as मन /mana/.
Pronounce all other words the same way they are written
Besides long vowels, Sanskrit loanwords and inherent vowel, all other words, regardless of their origin and type, are pronounced the same way they are written.
This section includes technical details about phonetics, the study of speech sounds, as it pertains to articulation, the manner of using speech organs to make speech sounds.
The Nepali consonant sounds are classified according to their manner and place of articulation.
According to their manner of articulation, the Nepali consonants belong to one of the following categories.
Stop consonants, a type of constant that obstructs airflow, are articulated with a complete obstruction of airflow. They are articulated with the vocal tract blocked so that all airflow is obstructed and subsequently the sudden release of the airflow, similar to the English "k" as in "king."
Fricative consonants, also a type of constant that obstructs airflow, are articulated with a limited obstruction and forcing air through a narrow channel.
Nasal consonants, a type of consonant that is produced with continuous airflow, are pronounced with the closure of the airflow from the mouth but allowing the airflow through the nose, similar to the English 'n' as in "English."
A lateral consonant is articulated with the airstream passing through the sides of the tongue. During the articulation, the tip of the tongue touches the upper teeth and the alveolar ridge, thereby blocking the passage of the airstream through the middle of the mouth, such as /l/.
The consonants may also belong to the voiced or voiceless categories. When voiced consonants are pronounced, the vocal cords vibrate, similar to English "g" as in "game," whereas when voiceless consonants are pronounced, the vocal cords do not vibrate, similar to English "s" as in "sun."
Both voiced and voiceless consonants are further categorized into aspirated and unaspirated consonants. Aspirated consonants are pronounced with a burst of air, similar to English "p" as in "pot," whereas unaspirated consonants are pronounced without a burst of air, similar to English "b" as in "bin." One can put a hand in front of one's mouth to pronounce the Nepali consonants "ka" and "kha." When pronouncing "kha," an aspirated consonant, one would feel a puff of air on the hand, whereas similar puff of air would not be felt while pronouncing "ka," an unaspirated consonant.
According to their place of articulation, the Nepali consonants belong to one of the following categories.
Bilabial consonants are articulated by using both lips. Both the upper and lower lips come together to block the air and then release it make the sound, such as प /pa/.
Dental consonants are articulated with the blade of the tongue, the top front portion just behind the tip of the tongue, against the back of the upper front teeth, such as त /t̪a/. The dental nasal consonant न /na/ is, in some cases, also articulated in a similar fashion as an alveloar nasal consonant /n/ is articulated, similar to English "n" in "nice."
Alveopalatal consonants are articulated with the tip and the blade of the tongue touching the area behind the alveolar ridge (the jaw ridge between the upper teeth and the hard palate, the bony middle part of the roof of the mouth) and just ahead of the hard palate (Acharya* 18). The tongue is slightly curled backwards during the articulation. Many other Indian languages, place this group of consonants under retroflex consonants, but in Nepali, unlike those languages, the tongue is not as curled during articulation and these consonants are more fronted (i.e., the place of articulation occurs more towards the front of the mouth compared to the place of articulation for retroflex consonants in other languages.) The English alveolar consonants /t/ and /d/ sound more like the corresponding alveopalatal consonants ट /ʈa/ and ड /ɖa/ rather than the corresponding dental consonants त /t̪a/ and द /d̪a/.
Palatal consonants are articulated with the body of the tongue touching the hard palate, such as च /cha/.
Velar consonants are articulated with the back part of the tongue touching the soft palate, the back part of the roof of the mouth, such as क /ka/.
A glottal consonant is articulated by the vocal cords, such as ह /ha/.
The table below shows Nepali letters with their categories as it pertains to articulatory phonetics.
Manner of articulation
Place of articulation
References: * Acharya, Jayaraj. A descriptive grammar of Nepali and an analyzed corpus. Georgetown University Press, 1991.