Nepali phonology

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Nepali is the national language of Nepal. Besides being spoken as a mother tongue by more than 48% of the population of Nepal, it is also spoken in Bhutan and India. The language is recognized in the Nepali constitution as an official language of Nepal.

The variety presented here is standard Nepali as spoken in Nepal. There are three major dialects: eastern, central, and western. Though many dialects can be distinguished in Nepal and other South Asian countries, there is reported to be little variation in phonology from one to another.1

Vowels

Nepali has 11 phonologically distinctive vowels, including 6 oral vowels and 5 nasal vowels (indicated in the IPA with tildes ~). Although Sanskrit—the ancestral language of Nepali—had a phonological distinction in vowel length (for example, /i/ versus /iː/ and /u/ versus /uː/), there is no such distinction in spoken Nepali. However, due to a process of h-deletion, there are words in which some speakers produce long vowels, such as [paaɽ] ('mountain'), analyzed phonemically as /pʌɦaɖ/.2

Nepali vowel phonemes23
Front Central Back
High i ĩ u ũ
Close-mid e ẽ o
Open-mid ʌ ʌ̃
Open a ã

As the above list shows, there are five nasal vowels. The high mid back vowel /o/ does not have a nasal counterpart at the phonological level; although the vowel [õ] does exist phonetically in the language, it is often in free variation with its oral counterpart, as in [hotso] ~ [hõtso] 'short', [bʱeɽaa] ~ [bʱẽɽaa] 'sheep'. Nasal vowels are not frequent in the Nepali lexicon, compared to a language such as French in which the number of nasal vowels is large. They occur mostly in verbs.

According to Bandhu et al. (1971), the evidence for the distinctiveness of vowel nasalization is not nearly as strong as that for the distinctiveness of the six oral vowels. They state that minimal pairs are easily obtainable only for the vowel /a/. Examples are shown below:

  • /kap/ 'inside corner', /kãp/ 'tremble!' (2nd p. sg. imperative)
  • /bas/ ('shelter'), /bãs/ ('bamboo')
  • /bʱaɽa/ ('rent'), /bʱãɽa/ ('pots')
  • /tat/ ('be heated!'), /tãt/ ('row')
  • /tsap/ ('pressure'), /tsãp/ ('magnolia wood')

Other minimal pairs include /naũ/ ('name') vs. /nau/ ('barber') and /ɡaũ/ ('village') vs. /ɡau/ ('sing' 2nd p. sg. imperative). At the phonetic level, oral vowels can be nasalized when following a nasal consonant.4

Diphthongs

Pokharel (1989:37–38) recognizes ten diphthongs:

diphthongs Example Gloss Orthography
/ui/ /dui/ 'two' दुई
/iu/ /dziu/ 'body' जीउ
/ei/ /sʌnei/ 'trumpet' सनै
/eu/ /euʈa/ 'one' एउटा
/oi/ /poi/ 'husband' पोइ
/ou/ /dʱou/ 'wash!' धोऊ!
/ʌi/ /kʌile/ 'when' कैले
/ʌu/ /dzʌu/ 'barley' जौ
/ai/ /bʱai/ 'younger brother' भाइ
/au/ /au/ 'come!' आऊ!

Consonants

Spoken Nepali has 27 consonants in its native system:

Nepali consonant phonemes125
Bilabial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop p
b
t
d
ts
tsʰ
dz
dzʱ
ʈ
ʈʰ
ɖ
ɖʱ
k
ɡ
ɡʱ
Fricative s ɦ
Rhotic r
Approximant (w) l (j)

The glides [j] and [w] are nonsyllabic variants of /i/ and /u/, respectively.5 All consonants but these two, /l/, and /ɦ/ may also occur as geminates between vowels.6 Apart from forming lexically distinctive words, as in /tsʌpʌl/ चपल ('unstable') and /tsʌppʌl/ चप्पल ('slipper'), gemination also forms the intensive degree of adjectives, as in /miʈʈʰo/ ('very delicious'), compare /miʈʰo/ ('delicious').

The murmured stops may lose their breathy-voice between vowels and word-finally.6 Non-geminate aspirated and murmured stops may also become fricatives (e.g. /sʌpʰa/ 'clean' → [sʌɸa]; /ʌɡʱaɖi/ 'before' → [ʌɣaɽi]).6

/ɖ ɖʱ/ have a postalveolar flap allophone (ɾ̠) in postvocalic position. /r/ is always a trill.7

Loanword consonants

Loanwords from Sanskrit introduce further consonants that are not active in the phonological inventory of the spoken language for some educated speakers,8 occurring in borrowed words where they are prescriptively pronounced as described in Sanskrit grammars. The retroflex nasal [ɳ] occurs in the speech of some speakers, in words such as /baɳ/ बाण ('arrow'). A posterior sibilant [ʃ] occurs in such words as /nareʃ/ नरेश ('king'). The language does not have any minimal pairs opposing /s/ and /ʃ/, and speakers sometimes use these sounds interchangeably.

References

Bibliography

  • Acharya, Jayaraj (1991), A Descriptive Grammar of Nepali and an Analyzed Corpus, Georgetown University Press, ISBN 0878400737 
  • Bandhu, Chudamani; Dahal, Balabh Mani; Holzhausen, Andreas; Hale, Austin (1971), Nepali Segmental Phonology, Tribhuvan University Kirtipur, Nepal.: Summer Institute of Linguistics 
  • Clements, G.N.; Khatiwada, Rajesh (6–10 August 2007), "Phonetic realization of contrastively aspirated affricates in Nepali", Proceedings of ICPhS XVI, Saarbrücken, pp. 629–632 
  • Dahal, M.D. (1974), A description of Nepali: Literary and colloquial (Ph.D.), University of Pune, India 
  • Khatiwada, Rajesh (2007), Nepalese retroflex stops: a static palatography study of inter- and intra-speaker variability, INTERSPEECH-2007, Antwerp, Belgium, pp. 1422–1425 
  • Khatiwada, Rajesh (2009), "Nepali", Journal of International Phonetic Association 39 (3): 337–380 
  • Pokharel, Madhav Prasad (1989), Experimental analysis of Nepali sound system (Ph.D.), University of Pune, India 
  • बन्धु, चुडामणि (२०२५ [1968]) नेपाली भाषाको उत्पत्ति, साझा प्रकाशन, काठमाडौँ (२०५२ [5th ed., 1995])
  • पोखरेल, मा. प्र. (2000), ध्वनिविज्ञान र नेपाली भाषाको ध्वनि परिचय, नेपाल राजकीय प्रज्ञा प्रतिष्ठान, काठमाडौँ ।







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