'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

'nja', 'nha', 'gna' And 'nya' - Stories Of A Transliteration

This longish post is on the different transliterations into the English Alphabet of a certain Indian consonant and the histories of these transliterations.

First some notation: In what follows, 'NA' will denote the last consonant of the 'ca'-set in Indian alphabets - 'ca' as in 'locana'; we recall, the consonants of the 'ca'-set are 'ca', 'cha', 'ja', 'jha' and 'NA'. It is a matter of some concern that most folks in the northern part of this country have largely lost the original pronunciation of 'NA' - it is often pronounced somewhat like 'gya' which is certainly a deviation from the original sound. In the south, the original pronunciation of 'NA' is still known and used frequently in Tamil and even more so in Malayalam. Anyway, here we focus only on the original 'NA' sound.

If one were to transliterate this 'NA' sound into English (in terms of the phonetics of English), the closest fit is 'nya' but one almost never sees 'nya' being employed. Indeed there are several other DIFFERENT transliterations in current use; and each seems to have a story of its own.

In Kerala, the 'standard' transliteration of the 'NA' sound in English lettes is 'nja' (for example 'njan' is how 'NAn' (meaning 'I') is usually written in English letters). However, especially in northern Kerala, one also sees 'NA' is spelt 'nha'. Names such as 'Kunhiraman', Kunhananthan',... are examples for this variant. I used to find this northern variant a bit odd (the standard 'nja' is actually even less intuitive in terms of English phonetics and was more acceptable only due to greater familiarity). In Tamil Nadu, 'NA' is transliterated as 'gna' which was still odder to me (examples are names like 'Gnanam').

These variations appear to have sprung from transliterations of 'NA' done into DIFFERENT European languages - a process carried out over a long time by visitors and missionaries who spoke those different languages; and these diverse transliterations were all apparently adopted unchanged by English - even those incompatible with English phonetics(?!). First let us look at the 'standard Mallu' transliteration of 'nja': the Dutch were influential in central and southern Kerala for quite some time. 'ja' is pronounced like 'ya' in Dutch. So writing 'NA' as 'nja' would give it the pronunciation of 'nya' in the Dutch convention - and that sound is about as close an approximation to 'NA' as one can get with Dutch phonetics. That probably explains 'nja'.

The Portuguese had a strong presence in Mangalore (apart from Goa) - their presence in Mangalore (from where they had some influence over northern Kerala) lasted much longer than their earlier association with Cochin. And in Portuguese, the cluster 'nha' is pronounced 'nya' - examples are names like 'Saldanha' (actually pronounced somewhat like 'Saldan-ya'). So the Portuguese too have given a fairly accurate transliteration.

As for the transliteration 'gna' prevalent in Tamil-land, it seems to be of Italian origin - and it is the most accurate for, in Italian, the pronunciation of the 'gna' combination is practically identical to the Desi 'NA' sound. And although Italians never were dominant anywhere in India, Jesuit missionaries from there (like the famous de Nobili) spent long years in Tamil country and this 'gna' transliteration must have been their contribution.

And 'gna' could also be of Latin origin - the Latin pronunciation of the cluster 'gna' is the same as in Italian (which is a derivative). It appears that the use of 'gna' to stand for 'NA' is found in Bengal as well which did not have much of an Italian jesuit connection so here Latin might have provided the phonetic reference.

So one could concludes that the persistence of these seemingly odd alternative transliterations of 'NA' into English (to the exclusion of the obvious 'nya') contain pointers to some less than well-known nooks of Indian history.


  • At 4:03 PM, Blogger Vishnu said…

    Was wondering whether you disappeared or not!

    Here is one more way to write 'NA' -- 'n~a'. This is how you write it while typesetting using the Sarovar latex package

  • At 9:20 PM, Blogger Anand said…

    Nice post.

    In Itrans, it's "~n". I usually use nja or nha. nja in njan, nhi in thenhippalam.

  • At 10:07 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Thanks for the pointers to those packages. I had seen 'NA' printed '~n' with the tilde sitting on top of the 'n' but what you say is new. Perhaps I could have used '~n' or 'n~' in the post.

    And just as 'Portuguese' Thenhipalam is to the north, 'Dutch' Manjapra and Poonjar are in central and and (somewhat) southern Kerala respectively.

  • At 6:18 AM, Blogger സിബു::cibu said…


    Nice work! Very insightful. The transliteration habbits of Malayalees has to be linguistically studied. Transliteration has become the secondary script for Malayalam.

    Just one note: I don't agree to your comment that 'nya' is closest to 'ഞ'. You must have picked ഞാൻ to verify its pronounciation. ഞാൻ has got a hidden യ in it - we are really pronouncing it as ഞ്യാൻ. Use ഞങ്ങൾ to verify its actual pronounciation.

    Vishnu, Anand:

    Sarovar's assignment of 'n~' and Itrans assignment of '~n' are not contributed by any historical events or habbits of a society; it was just the whim of programmer.

  • At 7:34 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Thanks Cibu, for the appreciation.

    I am not sure what combination of (bare) English letters approximates 'NA' (or ~na) better than 'nya'. It appears some font you used is not visible in the form you intended.

  • At 1:31 PM, Blogger സിബു::cibu said…


    That was a bait for you to bite.. ;)

    Those words where written in Malayalam Unicode. (a Unicode font is not yet another Malayalam font). Get

    Follow the instructions at

    Read all kinds of Malayalam blogs at

    Write using the keymap from

    Welcome to the brand new world of Unicode!

  • At 3:18 AM, Blogger nin said…

    you have done a good job are very strong in language....very hard working guy..i suppose...nice posting.

  • At 7:08 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    must say you got me there!

    Thanks. what shows as my 'strength in languages' is actually familiarity with about half a dozen of them acquired by living in various Indian states for long spells. In this domain, I am strictly a dilettante!

  • At 5:50 PM, Blogger deep shikha said…

    Will any one suggest me how to pronunciate "nitigna " presently I am pronunciating it as nitigya. So m I right?


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