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Lesson 1: Letters of the Alphabet

 

INTRODUCTION

 

After the study of Devanagari, it is finally appropriate to learn how to read Bengali. There are many concepts that are very similar to the ideas of Devanagari. However, near the midpoint of our study, there will be many things which will break rules and will never seem consistent. Even pronouncing the words in Bengali can be difficult. Sanskrit transliteration had to be altered in someway, even though the actual spelling does not represent the sound accurately. Unlike Devanagari letters used in Sanskrit, where each letter retains it sound, Bengali letters never retain their sound. This is why it was highly recommended to have studied Devanagari first.

 

DIVISIONS OF THE LETTERS

 

The Bengali alphabet is very similar to the Devanagari. It has some additions and omissions of letters . It has thirteen vowels (swara) and thirty-three consonants (vyañjana) along with the nasal element (anusvāra) and aspirated element (visarga).

 

Here is the table of vowels in Bengali. Note the letters “a”, “ai”, and “au” have very different sounds.

VOWELS

 

The letter “a” is pronounced as “aw” in “raw” or “o” in “go.”

 

The letter “ā” is pronounced as “a” in “father.”

 

The letter “i" is pronounced as “i” in “sin” (say “seen” with a shorter “ee” sound)

 

The letter “ī” is pronounced as “ee” in “seed”

 

The letter “u” is pronounced as “u” in “should” (say “shood” with a shorter “oo” sound)

 

The letter “ū” is pronounced as “oo” in “roof”

 

The letter “ṛ” is pronounced as “ri” in “rip” (say “reep” with a shorter “ee” sound)

 

The letter “e” is pronounced as “ay” in “pay” (avoid adding the “y” sound at the end). In some words, it’s pronounced as “e” in “echo” or “a” in “apple.”

 

The letter “ai” is pronounced as “oi” in “oil.”

 

The letter “o” is pronounced as “o” in “no” (avoid the u/w sound as the end)

 

The letter “au” is pronounced as “ow” in “low.”

 

CONSONANTS

 

The first set of five consonants is known as the gutturals. They are sounds pronounced through the throat.

The letter “k” is pronounced as “k” in “kite”

The letter “kh” is pronounced as “ck-h” in “kick-hard”

The letter “g” is pronounced as “g” in “goat”

The letter “gh” is pronounced as “g-h” in “dig-hard”

The letter “ń” is pronounced as “n” in “song.” (Just the n, not the g. This is the nasal element for the gutturals)

 

The second set of five consonants is known as the palatals. They are sounds pronounced through the palette.

The letter “c” is pronounced as “ch” in “church.”

The letter “ch” is pronounced as “ch-h” in “staunch-heart”

The letter “j” is pronounced as “j” in “jiffy”

The letter “jh” is pronounced as “dge-h” in “hedge-hog”

The letter “ñ” is pronounced as “ny” in “canyon” (This is the nasal element for the palatals)

 

The third set of five consonants is known as the cerebrals. They are sounds pronounced through the tongue touching the roof of the palette.

The letter “ṭ” is pronounced as “t” in “hot”

The letter “ṭh” is pronounced as “t-h” in “hot-house”

The letter “ḍ” is pronounced as “d” in “road”

The letter “ḍh” is pronounced as “d-h” in “red-hot”

The letter “ṇ” is pronounced as “na” in “nut.” (This is the nasal element for the cerebrals).

 

The fourth set of five consonants is known as the dentals. They are sounds pronounced through the tongue touching the teeth.

The letter “t” is pronounced as “t” in “hot”

The letter “th” is pronounced as “t-h” in “hot-house” or “thick”

The letter “d” is pronounced as “d” in “road”

The letter “dh” is pronounced as “d-h” in “red-hot” or “th” in “though”

The letter “n” is pronounced as “na” in “nut.” (This is the nasal element for the dentals).

 

The fifth set of five consonants is known as the labials. They are sounds pronounced through the lips.

The letter “p” is pronounced as “p” in “popcorn.”

The letter “ph” is pronounced as “p-h” in “up-hill” or “f” as in “foot.”

The letter “b” is pronounced as “b” in “baby.” If “b” is the second half of a combined letter, then it will be pronounced like a “w.”

The letter “bh” is pronounced as “b-h” in “tub-hot”

The letter “m” is pronounced as “m” in “mother.”

 

The set of letters are known as semi-vowels, or letters that will serve dual-functions as consonants and vowels.

The letter “y” is pronounced as “y” in “yes.”

The letter “j” is pronounced as “su” in “measure.” It sounds like a soft “ja” due to a hard “ya” pronunciation. Some books somewhat exaggerate the letter as “za.”

The letter “r” is pronounced as “r” in “right.”

The letter “l” is pronounced as “l” in “light.”

 

The next three letters are known as sibilants, or sounds based on a special hissing.

The letter “ś”, “ṣ” and “s” are pronounced like “sh” in “shine.” (The “s” is softer in “sh” sounds)

 

Aspirate letters is letter “h” is pronounced as “h” in “heaven.”

Weak Retroflex letters are řa and řha which sound like Spanish “para” which has a weak r and hard d sound. The letter řa has a slightly harder sound.

The nasal element known as the anusvara is ḿ. It is pronounced as “ng” in “wrong” (“g” sound is included). It assumes any appropriate nasal element.

 

The aspirate element known as the visarga is ḥ. It causes a “ha” sound to come. For instance, aḥ is pronounced as “aha” or iḥ is pronounced as “iḥ.”

UDPATED: June 16, 2009