In this chapter, we cover the last two letters of the Urdu alphabet. These are the trickiest letters and require careful attention.
The letter ain is the most unique and mysterious letter in the Urdu alphabet. It entered the Urdu script from Arabic, where it represents a distinctive sound produced deep in the throat. This sound does not exist in Urdu (except when forcefully inserted by the most pedantic speakers). Instead, when ain appears in an Urdu word (primarily in words derived from Arabic and Persian), it is either silent or pronounced as a vowel. Often, the pronunciation can be deduced based on its position in a word, but you may also simply memorize spellings and pronunciations on a case-by-case basis.
Fortunately, writing the letter ain is easy: it is written just like ġhain, but without the dot:
||silent / vowel|
The letter ain is ubiquitous in Urdu. It appears in some of the language’s most basic words, many of which you already know. You will need to memorize the spelling of these words and remember to include the ain in them:
When you hear an unfamiliar word, it is difficult to anticipate if it will contain an ain. If you encounter a new word in writing, though, there are some guidelines that will help you to pronounce it correctly.
When ain is the first letter of a word, it functions precisely as an alif would. Just as an alif can mark any vowel sound at the beginning of a word, ain does the same:
aib ‘sin, vice’
In some words, an ain will be preceded by an alif. In these cases, a long vowel is typically formed:
ailān / ělān‘announcement’
aitiraz / ětirāz ‘objection’
In the medial position of a word, the pronunciation of ain is influenced by the combination of consonants or vowels on either side. Depending on the context, the ain may be treated as silent, turned into a y, or it may serve to elongate the preceding short vowel:
shā’ir / shāyir ‘poet’
bidat ‘religious innovation (negative)’
tabī’at / tabīyat ‘disposition, health’
māmla ‘matter, issue’
shola ‘ember, flame’
When it appears as the last letter of a word, the ain will either be silent or elongate the preceding vowel:
Note that for technical purposes (such as poetic scansion), ain is treated as a consonant. This is a legacy inherited from Arabic. However, in Urdu, ain never actually functions as a consonant, but is always either silent or a vowel.
The letter hamza plays two distinct roles in Urdu. It either:
- appears in words of Arabic origin, or
- functions to separate vowels.
Each function is discussed below.
Hamza in Arabic loanwords
In Arabic, the letter hamza represents a glottal stop similar to the sound found in “uh–oh” or a Cockney pronunciation of “butter” as “bu’er.” It is rarely pronounced as a glottal stop in Urdu, though, except perhaps pedantically. Instead, in words of Arabic origin it is either silent or represents a brief pause.
The hamza looks like the top of an independent ain. In the initial and medial forms, this character is typically written above a tooth just like the one used in be-series letters (see below for important exceptions). In the final position, it almost always appears in the independent form. In practice, this mark is often, optionally, smoothed out into a diagonal squiggle (not to be confused with the horizontal squiggle sometimes used in place of two dots):
|silent / diphthong|
The hamza has been dropped from many Arabic-derived words, but it still appears in a few words. These words include some you may already know:
masla / mas’ala ‘problem, matter’
ulamā ‘religious scholars’
Note that when a hamza appears at the end of the word, as in ulamā or طلباء tulabā ‘students’, it is often omitted.
Hamza as a vowel separator
In addition to its appearance in words of Arabic origin, the letter hamza has been adapted in Urdu to mark , or adjacent vowels (except when one of those vowels is an ain). The letter appears very often in this role. When two vowels—whether long or short—appear next to one another, hamza is used to separate them. In this function, hamza is akin to Devanagari’s use of an independent vowel form to indicate two vowels in immediate succession (लिए, कोई, बनाई हुई).
Here are some common words with hamza as a vowel separator:
sunā’eñ’ ‘would recite’
In Hindi, some words may be written with either an independent vowel or with the letter य, as in दिए and दिये. This is generally true in Urdu as well: دئے and دیے are both accepted spellings of the word di’e / diye, and similarly for لئے li’e and لیے liye.
Even when it functions as a separator for vowels in Urdu, writing the hamza generally follows Arabic spelling conventions, which are complex. There is no need for the Urdu speaker to learn these rules; it is enough to memorize spelling variations when they occur, particularly when hamza is preceded or followed by the sounds u, o, or ū. When it is followed by o or ū, the hamza is not written over a tooth, but instead over the letter wāw:
jā’ūñgā ‘I will go’
Occasionally, the hamza itself is not written, but is instead represented by the wāw itself:
In the case of a short u, again generally following Arabic spelling rules, Urdu will sometimes insert a wāw into the word. Nevertheless, this wāw should be read as a short u, even when there is no hamza written over it. This idiosyncracy helps explain the otherwise unexpected spelling of the past tense forms of honā, which you should memorize:
hu’ā ‘happened, became’
hu’ī ‘happened, became’
hu’e ‘happened, became’
A few words ending with ائے ‑ā’e are pronounced ‑āy, and are spelled accordingly in Hindi script:
chāy चाय ‘chai, tea’
rā’ī राई ‘mustard seed’
rāy राय ‘opinion’
gā’e गाए ‘would sing’
gāy गाय ‘cow’
In this chapter, we introduced these letters:
silent / vowel
silent / diphthong
- For a detailed examination of how to pronounce the ain in each possible context, see pp. 63–65 of Gregory Maxwell Bruce’s Urdu Vocabulary. ↵
Adjacent vowels, as in ā’o ‘come.’