Saturday, July 14, 2007

Kannada for the North Indian (Part I)

A reader Sohan Mahanto submitted the following comment at my post Language Tidbits:
I wish you could help new Bangaloreans like me on how to pickup the local language (Kannada). Some basic practical examples like talking to autodrivers, busconductors, maids, the dukaanwalah etc. Most of my colleagues are North Indians or non-locals and are all in the same boat. As for the locals, they all know Hindi. So [there is] no chance for people like us to learn Kannada.
I was myself planning to put up a Kannada tutorial sometime. Sohan's comment spurred me on to actually get down to the task.

Disclaimer: Kannada is not my mother tongue. (Fortunately, that turns out to be an advantage since I can then suggest ways to learn the language as a non-native.) And I am no scholar either. So if you try the "Kannada" learnt by supposedly following my tips on your maid-servant and get slapped on the cheek, you have my sympathies; but I assume no legal responsibility.

I plan to do this tutorial in a series of posts; and these are targetted primarily at the folks from the northern states. But fellow peninsular Indians may also find something of value.

So here we go.
- - - - -

Kannada is a part of the Dravidian family of languages. North Indian languages, as we all know, belong to a separate clan, the Indo-European. Now, this might give an impression that Kannada is very different from the North Indian languages and that learning it might be a daunting uphill task. This is not true: I would like to point out that it took (in 1816) the scholar Alexander Duncan Campbell 30 whole pages of his grammar text to demonstrate that South Indian languages are a different family vis-a-vis the North Indian languages. If it took so much effort to distinguish the two families, there must indeed be a lot of similarities between them. So even if the task of learning Kannada is not easy, it may not require a Himalayan effort. Perhaps just a Vindhyan one.

While the Kannada language may belong to a different family-tree, the Kannada script is descended from the same ancestor as are all the other Indian scripts — Brahmi. And this is where we will begin our study from. I will compare the Kannada script with Devanagari to highlight the similarities, but the same can be done with any other northern script too.

The Kannada Script

The Kannada varNamAlA is represented in the same format as the Devanagari one. First the vowels a to au, together with the anuswAra and the visarga. Next come the consonants falling into different rows - beginning with ka, ca, Ta, ta, pa, ya, za and terminating in ha.

The extra letters (not present in the northern scripts) are:
  • the short vowel e (pronounced like the E in "get")
  • the short vowel o (pronounced like the O in "poetry")
  • the retroflex consonant La (equivalent of the Marathi ळ)
A large number of Kannada characters bear such a close resemblance to their Devanagari counterparts that I believe that the script can be learnt in a week. Only a little amount of imagination is needed to discern the similarities.

Let's consider, for instance, the Kannada character ka (). First, take the Devanagari ka and remove its "helmet." Next, rotate it by 90 degrees anticlockwise.
And lo behold, the Kannada ka!
Character kha is as easy. Take the Devanagari kha, remove its inner circle and its helmet too. Next, circle up the bends.

And here it is:

Some more examples: Ga.






You get the idea now. I leave the other characters as an exercise. (Link: The complete alphabet.) As I said before, all that is needed is a little imagination.

Using other mnemonics:


(1) In Devanagari, a number of letters are formed out of the following shape:
... such as:
Similarly in Kannada, the following template:
... gives rise to:
(2) In Devanagari, some letters are written the same way, except for the fact that in one, the "head" touches the helmet, and in the other, it does not. For example, in the letter (ma), the head touches the helmet. But in the letter (bha), it does not. Otherwise, they both look alike. Another example is the pair, (gha) and (dha).

Similar cases exist in the Kannada script too. The letters na () and sa () are written alike except that the latter's head does not touch the helmet. So also, the letters va () and pa (). In the non-touching cases, note the small circle in Devanagari and the dot in Kannada.

(3) When the letters get together to form words in Kannada, their helmets do not merge into a common roof (as it happens in Devanagari). The helmet of each letter retains its independence. That is:
व + न = वन (The helmets merge.)
ವ + ನ = ವನ (The helmets do not merge.)
(4) A very important note on pronunciation. In Indian scripts, every letter has an implicit "a" sound. क is "Ka," not "K." But in North Indian languages, the letters sometimes lose this vowel depending on their position in the word. E.g., in the word सोमवार, pronounced somvaar, the letters म and र lose the implicit "a" vowel.*

This does not happen in Kannada (or any other South Indian language, for that matter). In the example above, the correct pronunciation in Kannada would be so-muh-vaa-ruh.

For a lot of North Indians, this tendency to clip off the implicit A vowel is a difficult habit to unlearn. But practice, practice. Every time you catch yourself saying Kor-mang-laa, go to your company pantry and punish yourself by consuming a cup of caffeine. And then say aloud a hundred times, Ko-ruh-mang-uh-luh.

As another example, consider the following word:
It is correctly pronounced va-nuh. Not van. The word means, as you may have guessed already, forest.

Exercise: What's written here?

Vowel Marks (mAtrAs)

The Kannada vowel diacritical marks. These are quite simple too. There isn't much for me to say here.

Conjunct Consonants

(1) In Devanagari, when two consonants combine, it is the first consonant that is modified. The second remains unaffected. For example,
ध् + व = ध्व
In Kannada, the opposite is true. The first is unaffected:
ಧ್ + ವ = ಧ್ವ
The second consonant is written as a subscript to the first; but otherwise there is no change in its form.

(2) Besides becoming a subscript, some consonants have a totally different form when participating as the second. These are listed here. Some examples:
  • ದೊಮ್ಮಲೂರು (dommalUru or Domlur)
  • ಬನ್ನೇರುಘಟ್ಟ (bannErughaTTa or Bannerghatta)
In their modified forms, these consonants resemble their Devanagari counterparts much more than in their simple forms.

(3) As in Hindi, the anuswāra is used as a substitute for nasal consonants. E.g.,
  • ಇಂದಿರಾ ನಗರ (iMdirA nagara)
  • ಬನಶಂಕರಿ**(banazaMkari)
- - - - -
Other parts of this series:

* Bengali and Oriya are probably exceptions. jana gaNa mana, Bengali names like Aurobindo, Subroto and Oriya names like Satchidananda Mohanty, etc. suggest a Sanskrit-like pronunciation.
** In Dravidian languages, words do not end in a long "I" vowel.


ಪವ್ವಿ said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Srikanth,
That was a well-written introduction, as has always been a feature in your posts! Interesting how Devanagari can be converted to Kannada.

Manjunath said...

A very novel way of teaching Kannada! Frankly, it has left me, a native speaker, confused!!

Similar cases exist in the Kannada script too. The letters na (ನ) and sa (ಸ) are written alike except that the latter's head does not touch the helmet. So also, the letters va (ವ) and pa (ಪ). In the non-touching cases, note the small circle in Devanagari and the dot in Kannada.

I write 'ಸ' and 'ಪ' with a small circle touching the helmet. The helmet may or may not touch the body. Did I learn wrong or limitation of internet bringing about new changes?

Manjunath said...

By the way, in your Kannada alphabet you have missed 'zha'(ೞ) only Ra(ಱ) is present.

Also, you can add alveolar nasal (n) or called 'nakarapillu'. It is written like straightened Tamil Na (ண - turn this 90 degrees anti-clockwise).

Srikanth said...

ಪವ್ವಿ: I had a look at the Kannada Language Guide at that site. Seems a useful resource. Thanks.

Anon: Thanks a lot for your good words!

Srikanth said...

Frankly, it has left me, a native speaker, confused!!

I write 'ಸ' and 'ಪ' with a small circle touching the helmet. The helmet may or may not touch the body.
I have had very little exposure to handwritten Kannada. Whatever I have written here is from my (limited) knowledge of printed Kannada. Here, I am just trying point out some common patterns in both scripts for easier understanding. If a circle should be used in place of the dot, it is good because I can map it to Devanagari more directly.

in your Kannada alphabet you have missed 'zha'(ೞ)...
Oops... Thanks for pointing out! Is this letter commonly used in contemporary Kannada?

you can add alveolar nasal (n) or called 'nakarapillu'
I don't seem to find it in the Unicode Kannada. I think you had mentioned before that it was only used in archaic Kannada, right?

Manjunath said...

Is this letter commonly used in contemporary Kannada?

Both 'zha' and 'Ra' went out of use centuries back.

I don't seem to find it in the Unicode Kannada. I think you had mentioned before that it was only used in archaic Kannada, right?

I have seen the usage of it in 20th century Kannada. But from whatever I gather from the net it looks like it is mostly used in northern Karnataka (and probably in the coastal region as I hail from that region).

Ellelliyu said...

Hi Srikanth!

My blog aims at reaching out to the Northi interested in learning Kannada as well:

However, your introduction to
the way Kannada can be derived from Hindi is awesome! I'm a native Kannada speaker, but I've never observed these differences!

Sakkath, maga :)

Srikanth said...

(Sorry about the delay. I was away from the Internet the whole of yesterday.)

Both 'zha' and 'Ra' went out of use centuries back.
Oh, even 'Ra'? In that case, I think I'll need to modify the post a little...

Ellelliyu: Thank you! And that's a pretty comprehensive tutorial there in your blog!

Anjali said...

i've have spent two years in b'lore, and traveled within karnataka. though i can speak kannada well, i had trouble getting used to the script. your tutorial was helpful.
and, out of all the south languages, i have discovered that spoken kannada is the easiest to learn, specially the one spoken in b'lore. The b'lore dialect has plenty of loanwords from hindi/urdu (shuru, raste, zaroori, sama (equal) etc). telugu to some extent also has urdu laonwords (roz-u, khabar-lu). northwards of hubli near bidar or gulbarga, there are whole hindi sentences used within kannada.
digressing and reading your old posts, even i'm amazed at how well b'lore kannadigas speak tamil, though i cant understand it one bit! i guess thats because tamil is not influenced by hindi!

Anjali said...

also, kannada numbers are a little confusing, specially if you look at the numeral 3, which actually looks like 2.. sorry i cant type them in kannada here, i hope you are able to understand :) luckily though, buses in b'lore dont seem to be using the kannada numerals anymore. though i cribbed about the overusage of kannada on the boards, i learnt to read them in parts, and i was able to exercise what i learnt when i visited hyderabad too!

Srikanth said...


Thanks for your comments!

I have also noticed that the Kannada spoken here has a large number of loanwords from Urdu, English, etc. Kannada itself has a large number of Sanskrit words.

One of the reasons I have described the script in the first part is because:
1. It's pretty easy to learn.
2. We can read the bus routes.
2. Once we start reading the signboards, we realise we can often understand what they mean without knowing much of the language.

I can't read the Kannada numerals too!

Neelanjan said...

like so many others here, I have found your Kannada derivations helpful. I have memorised how Domlur is spelt in Kannada, and a funny thing I would like to tell you is that the 'da' of Kannada without the helmet looks like .. well :). 'ba', 'tha', 'dha' look the same :D, and I once boarded a "bem. bus station" bus instead of a "domlur" bus!

I have used this to help me find out buses going towards Domlur, Doopanahalli, Dommasandra, etc.
And have to agree with Anjali: knowing the Kannada script also helps when you go across to AP :)

Srikanth said...


the 'da' of Kannada without the helmet looks like .. well :)
Well, it's all good as long as it helps you learn better! You can even use similar anatomical resemblances to distinguish ದ(द) and ಬ(ब) ;-). In the same vein, I'd like to point out that nearly all aspirated letters are males.

ba', 'tha', 'dha' look the same
True. You may have heard of the observation that to a foreigner, all Chinese people look alike. It's the same thing here as well, in the beginning. You can develop your own helpful mnemonics to remember/distinguish similar-looking characters.

knowing the Kannada script also helps when you go across to AP
Right -- they are so similar that one can consider them to be different fonts of the same script.

Anonymous said...

Im curious to know why you have addressed just north Indians. Is it because compared to a telugu or a tamill, the northi is at a relative disadvantage when it comes to kannada?

there are tons of telugus and tamils who claim they cant understand a word in kannada, when in fact tel/tam/kan are so similar, which baffles me.

Srikanth said...


I would have written a Kannada tutorial for a South Indian in a different way. One reason is, as you point, the large similarities between Kannada and other SI languages.

This is customised for a North Indian audience.

Sohan Mahato said...

Thanks Srikanth for this wonderful tutorial! Waiting eagerly for Part II..

రాకేశ్వర రావు said...

I am an avid తెలుగు blogger, and guess what I live in Mysore(only for two months now) and lived in Bangalore for two years previously. I absolutely love Kannada, and have put some effort in to learning it.

The way you brought out the similarities between devanagari and Kannada lipi is awesome.

I was just telling a Nothi friend that, Telugu lipi and Devanagari came from the same Brahmi lipi. Now I have the evidence to prove it!

Thanks a lot!

Srikanth said...

రాకేశ్వర రావు గారు,
చాల ధన్యవాదంబులు!
As you point out, because of common parentage, there are many similarities among the Indian scripts. Some are particularly similar -- Kannada and Telugu can even be considered different fonts of the same script. Grantha and Malayalam are very similar too. The same is probably true of Assamese and Bengali.

In fact, I started the series of the tutorial with the script since Kannada and Devanagari scripts have more things in common than Kannada and N.Indian languages.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

I need to learn kannada only speaking and not writing..........How to do that????????

Anonymous said...

Can anybody tell good site for learning how to speak Kannada ?

sudhir kumar said...

Wonderful Effort! Keep up the good work.

satyarafi said...

superb yaar, ur try for relation between Devnagari and kannada is superb. Very efficient way.

AUGMENT said...

simply superb. I am looking forward for next post.

mendra11 said...

Hi Srikant what an amazing brain you have man. I think it would have taken a lot of time to develop this technique. hat's doff to you man. now onwards I will use this technique to learn kannada language which I have been trying for long time with not much success. Hope this help me a lot.
Thank you for this nice work.

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sanjeev said...

superb bro....u have helped me to learn kannada...our indian languages are seeing this we can say u r great dude..True indian with so much knowledge about our indian language and culture and brainy too...

jdarwin said...


I took the approach to learn Kannada by comparing Hindi (Devanagari), and I found the most suitable article here.

Thanks so much, you have a wonderful attitude towards teaching, keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Dear Srikanth,

This research is on, but you have done a great job here showing it the innovative way.

In real, Kannada is not from a Southern group of languages at all as claimed by some and so are its people. The real history of these people presents a different theory and their language formation happened for a purpose while they still had their mother tongue Sanskrit. The spoken language inside Kannada is even today largely Sankrit-Prakit (makes some Hindi naturally), while only styles and certain tones seem like other South languages. This should help the learners further. Thanks.

amol sanap said...

this is very useful for those who want to learn the marathi, thanks for sharing this information.


Very useful blog.
I think, i'll learn these CW/CCW rotations quickly.
One suggestion: Hindi knowing people would be more btter than 'north indian'. That word is not valid.

Rohini Sharma said...

Dude, loved the article. As a hindi speaker, had figured out part 2 of your article over the years but the written part is useful because at my advanced age it is all curly cues to me. By the time I figure out the first letter on the bus, it has reached its destination. Anyways, armed with your article, and my coffee penance, I shall succeed!

yashas yadav said...

I am happy who interested in learn kannada language....I suggest northees to speak in shudh hindI it almost similear to kannada....start doing this in smoll amount....u will surely learn kannada from your hindI only!!!!

Prj said...

Good work ! Thanks a lot for explaining it through images..

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