Marathi Language

Marathi is the language spoken by the native people of Maharashtra. Marathi belongs to the group of Indo-Aryan languages which are a part of the larger of group of Indo-European languages, all of which can be traced back to a common root. Among the Indo-Aryan languages, Marathi is the southern-most language. All of the Indo-Aryan languages originated from Sanskrit. Three Prakrit languages, simpler in structure, emerged from Sanskrit. These were Saurseni, Magadhi and Maharashtri. Marathi is said to be a descendent of Maharashtri which was the Prakrit spoken by people residing in the region of Maharashtra.

The odyssey of written Marathi begins from 11th century AD from stone inscriptions and copper plates. Long before this, Marathi must have been spoken by the people living in the region. The earliest reference to spoken Marathi is found in the 8th century poem "kuvalaymAlA" of Udyotansuri. Marathi was the court language during the reign of the Yadava Kings. There are various stone inscriptions in Marathi found at Akshi in Raigad (former Colaba) district, Patan, Pandharpur, Dive-Agra etc. The most famous among these is the one found at the bottom of the statue of Gomateshwar (Bahubali) at SravaN BeLgoLa in Karnataka. This inscription goes like 'ChAmuNDrAye karaviyale, GangarAye suttAle karaviyale' which gives some information regarding the sculptor of the statue and the king who had it constructed.

The saint poet JNAneshwar gave a higher status to Marathi by bringing the sacred Geeta from Sanskrit to Marathi. The holy book was written in Sanskrit and was not easily accessible to the common Marathi speaking person. JNaneshwar wrote the book popularly known as JNaneshwarI in which he explains the Geeta in Marathi with his own rich poetic style. He proudly said about Marathi that 'MAjhA MarAThAchi bolu kavatuke, amRitAtehi paijA jinke, aisI akshare rasike meLavIn ' which means that 'I will speak my Marathi (language) only with pride and I will give such Marathi words to the ardent listeners which will even win bets against the nectar (amRit).'
Marathi Script

The script currently used in Marathi is called 'bALbodh' which is a modified version of Devnaagari script. Earlier, another script called 'moDI' was in use till the time of the Peshwas(18th century). This script was introduced by HemADpanta, a minister in the court of the Yadava kings of Devgiri (13th century). This script looked more like today's draviDian scripts and offered the advantage of greater writing speed because the letters could be joined together. Today only the Devnaagari script is used which is easier to read but does not have the advantage of faster writing.
The Alphabets

Marathi script consists of 16 vowels and 36 consonents making a total of 52 alphabets.
The vowels are grouped in two groups. The first group consists of 12 vowels as follows:

a aa(A) i ii(I) u uu(U) e ai o au aM aH

अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ए ऐ ओ औ अं अ:

The first 10 vowels are very widely used. The last two are less commonly used.

The second group consists of the 4 vowels : R^i R^I L^i L^I of which the vowels R^I and L^I are entirely extinct today. The vowel L^i is found only in the word 'kL^iptee'(meaning a clever idea) which is also a tongue-twister and can explain the near extinction of these vowels. The vowel R^i still finds use in words like R^ishI (sage), R^itU (season) etc. But in Marathi, it is pronounced more like 'ru'(r is a consonent)which differs significantly from its original Sanskrit pronunciation.

Out of the 36 consonents, first 25 are divided into 5 groups, each containing 5 letters. This classification is based on their pronunciation. The last letter in each group requires 'nasal' pronunciation and is called 'anunAsik'(nAsikA = nose).

The first group of 5 consonents consists as follows:

k kh g gh N^

क ख ग घ ङ

These letters are called 'kaNthya'(kaNtha = throat) meaning that these are pronounced from the throat. The last letter N^(anunAsik) finds its only use in the word 'vAN^may'(meaning literature), otherwise it is also extinct. However, when a nasal sound preceeds any of the other 4 letters of this group, the anusvaara actually represents this letter. For example, aN^ka (number ), paN^kha (wing), raN^ga (color) or saN^gha (union)

The second group of 5 consonents consists as follows:

ch chh j jh JN

च छ ज झ ञ

These are called 'mUrdhanya' because they are pronounced by touching the tongue to 'mUrdhanI' which a part of the upper jaw between the roof and the teeth. The last letter JN is entirely extinct but appears in nasal sounds before the other four alphabets. For ex., saJNcha (set), gaJNa (rust), jhuJNa (combat).

The letters ch, j and jh of this group are pronounced in two ways and this is peculiar to Marathi alone. One of them is a palatal affricate (a mUrdhanya) and the other one is a dental affricate (or a dantya, danta = teeth). This is a striking feature of the Marathi phonological system alone. The contrast between the two sounds is noticed when they appear before the vowels a and aa. For ex. palatal: chaar (four), jag (world), dental: chaaraa (fodder), jaag (awakening), jaD (heavy), jharaa (stream)

Even today, there is some confusion among the Marathi speaking people regarding a few words as to which sound (palatal or dental) is the correct one. Examples of such words are :chakalI (a food item), jaroor (need), chaadar (a blanket) etc. However, the rules for these sounds are well defined when they appear before other vowels. Palatal affricates occur before the vowels i, ii e, ai and au (Ex. chivaT, chain, chev, chayrya, jevaN, jiiv, chiir, zhiij, zep etc.) whereas dental affricates occur before the vowels u, uu and o (Ex. chuuk, churaa, jugaar, jor, chor, zop, zoLii etc.) But there is no means of distinguishing these two distinct sounds in the script. Hence while reading Marathi, you really have to know where the palatal affricates occur and where do the dental affricates occur. This makes it difficult for a non-Marathi person to read or speak in Marathi because the dental affricates for these letters are almost absent in other languages. The dental affricate for the letter 'jh' is somewhat closer to the English sound for 'z'.

The third group of 5 consonents consists as follows:

T Th D Dh N

ट ठ ड ढ ण

These are called 'taalavya'(TaaLU = palate or roof of the mouth) as they are pronounced by touching the tongue to the palate. The anunAsik 'N' of this group is very much used independently as well as always appears in nasal sound before the other 4 letters. For ex. ghaNTA (bell), kaNTha (throat), bhANDaN (quarrel) etc.

The fourth group of 5 consonents consists as follows:

t th d dh n

त थ द ध न

These are called 'dantya'(danta = teeth) because the tongue touches the teeth while pronouncing these. These are 'softer' versions of letters of the third group. The first sound 't' is absent in English. The sounds 'th, d and dh' are somewhat similar to the sound 'th' in throat, that and this respectively. Again the anunAsik 'n' is very commonly used and also appears in nasal sounds before the other four. For ex. santa (saint), pantha (sect), manda (slow), gandha (smell) etc.

The fifth group of 5 consonents consists as follows:

p ph b bh m

प फ ब भ म

These are called 'aushThya' letters (aushTha = lips) since they are pronounced by touching the lips together. The second letter in this group 'ph' is originally an 'aushThya' letter but with influence of English has got somewhat modified to a form similar to a 'dantya' letter. Now a days, many people pronounce it in the same way as the English letter 'F' which is quite different from the original 'ph'. Again the anunAsik 'm' is widely used and also appears in nasal sounds before the other 4 letters. For ex., sampa (strike), gumphaa (cave), pratibimba (reflection), sumbha (rope) etc.

Among these five groups the second and the fourth letters in each group are 'aspirated' forms (with 'h' sound added) of the first and the third letters respectively. Another interesting thing to note is that if the nose is blocked (by cold) then the anunAsik (fifth letter) in each group gets replaced by the third letter in the same group.
The remaining eleven consonents are:

y r l v sh shh s h L ksh GY/Dnya shri

य र ल व श ष स ह ळ क्ष ज्ञ

The pronunciation of these requires a combination of usages of tongue mentioned earlier.

Among these the Marathi 'r' is much 'harder' than the English sound of 'r'. Also this consonent has a pronunciation very close to the vowel R^i. When combined with other consonents, this letter is represented by four different distinct forms.

The sounds 'sh','shh' and 's' are very similar. The letter 'shh' finds very limited use, only in words directly taken from Sanskrit. The sound 'h' is called 'mahaprAN'(maha = big, prAN = soul) The letter 'L' has sound similar to 'l' but is a tongue twister for North Indian speakers. This letter is very abundant in Marathi as it is very commonly used in many nouns and verbs. Sounds similar to 'L' are found in Gujarati and many South Indian languages. The pronunciation of the last letter 'GY' as 'DNYA' is peculiar to Marathi alone. The last two letters 'ksh' and 'dnya' have also limited use.
Word Formation

Vowels are combined with consonents in forming syllables which ultimately form a word. This is shown in the script by special diactric marks. Each vowel has a characteristic mark, such as 'kAnA' for 'aa', 'velANTI' for 'i' and 'ii', 'ukAr' for 'u' and 'uu' and single or double 'mAtrA' to indicate 'e,ai, o and au'. 'anuswAr' indicates a nasal (anunAsik) or the vowel 'aM' and a 'visarga' indicates 'aH'. Syllables which involve 'i' and 'u' are called 'rhasva' meaning that the pronunciation is short whereas syllables involving 'ii' and 'uu' are the corresponding 'diirgha' forms which require 'stretched' pronunciation. There are two separate marks to indicate 'rhasva' and 'deergha'. These are helpful in knowing where the stress comes in pronouncing a word.

Marathi has a complex system of signs to indicate consonent clusters or 'jodAkshare'. Particularly for the letter 'r' when combined with other consonents, there are 4 different marks in the script depending on the usage. The consonent clusters which are difficult to pronounce are the 'aspirated' forms of N, n and m (mhaNUn, nhAN, kaNheri etc.) and of r,l.v (tarhA, kolhA, kevhA). Two different words are joined together if the second word starts from a vowel. This is referred to as a 'sandhi'(combination). For example, 'ati+uttam' gives the word 'atyuttam'. There are certain rules for 'sandhi' which need to be followed in making such word combinations. The other method of combining words is referred to as 'samAs' and there are no fixed rules for making a 'samAs'.(samAs literally means margin). When the second word starts with a consonent, a sandhi can not be formed, but a samAs can be formed. For example, mIth-bhaakar (salt & bread), udyogpatI (businessman), ashtabhujA (one with eight hands, a godess) etc. There are different names given to each type of samAs.

Suffixes, equivalent to prepositions in English, are attached to words to indicate relation of the noun (subject or object) with the verb. These are referred to as 'vibhaktI pratyay' and there are eight such vibhaktI in Marathi. The form of the original word changes when such a suffix is attached to the word and the new, modified form is referred to as 'sAmAnya rUp' of the original word. For example, the word 'ghoDA'(a horse) gets transformed into 'ghODyAvar' (on the horse) when the suffix 'var'(on/above) is attached to it.

Marathi preserves the neuter gender found in Sanskrit. There are 3 genders in Marathi - pulliN^ga (masculine), striiliN^ga (feminine) and napumsakliN^ga (neuter). Most of the times, the masculine proper nouns end with 'a','u' or occasionally with 'i' whereas the feminine proper nouns end with 'aa','ii' or 'uu'. There may be some exceptions to this rule. But there is no such rule for common nouns. Nouns such as taal (rhythm), paal (lizard) and saal (year or outer covering of a fruit) all sound similar but they are of masculine, feminine and neuter gender respectively. The word 'veL'(meaning time or time period) is sometimes used as masculine gender and sometimes as feminine gender.

The other major complication in Marathi is that plurals, verbs and adjectives change according to gender. For example, KaavaLaa (crow) is a masculine word whereas chimaNii (sparrow) is a feminine word. So it will be kaavaLaa uDaalaa (crow flew) whereas chimaNii uDaalii (sparrow flew).

There are singular nouns and plural nouns. The dwivachan found in Sanskrit representing two things together, is lost in Marathi. Sometimes plurals are the same as singular nouns. For example, waagh (tiger) or mor (peacock). For things representing a group, the plurals are usually the same as singular nouns. For ex,. daat (teeth), kes (hair) etc. There are certain rules depending on the gender. For example, kaavaLaa - kaavaLe, maasaa - maase (masculine), chimaNee -chimaNyaa, paal-paalii (feminine), phool - phule (neuter) etc. Plurals are also used while addressing elderly people to show respect and this is referred to as 'aadaraathii anekvachan'.

There are three main tenses (kaaL) in Marathi - vartamaan (present), bhoot (past) and bhavishhya (future) kaaL. Each of these is divided into three sub-categories which are same as in English.
Sentence Structure

The most common sentence structure is Subject Object Verb:

Subject=kartaa, object=karma and verb=kriyaapad


There are three types of voices in Marathi which are referred to as 'Prayog'.

Kartarii prayog refers to a sentence construction in which the verb changes according to the subject (or kartaa) which is same as the active voice in English. For example, Raam mhaNato (Raam says), Raam aambaa khaato (Raam eats a mango) etc.

KarmaNii prayog refers to a sentence construction in which the verb changes according to the object (karma) This is same as the passive voice in English. For ex. Raamaane aambaa khallaa. There are examples in which apparently there is no object but still it is a 'karmaNii' prayog. For ex. Raamaane saangitale. (Ram told) But if we put some kind of object in this sentence such as nirop (message) or mantra (hymns) then the verb changes and the 'karmaNii' prayog becomes evident.

Bhaave prayog refers to a verb which does not change according to either the subject or the object. Constructions involving order (aadnyaartha) or suggestions (vidhyartha) fall in this category. For example, 1.Mulaanii roj sakaaLii lavkar uthaave (Children should get up early in the morning every day, suggestions) 2. Maajha nirop tyaala jaaun saang. (Give my message to him) This type of voice is not found in English.

Pronouns in Marathi are similar to the ones in English. There are three 'persons' or 'purushh'.

Pratham purushh (first person) includes mI (I), aamhI (we) and aapaN(us- me & you). 'aamhi' does not include the person you are talking to but 'aapaN' includes that person.

Dwitiya purushh (second person) includes tuu (you) and tumhi (you-plural) 'tumhi' could be used for a single person to show respect. Use of 'aapaN' in place of 'tumhi' is considered very formal and is quite rare.

Trutiya purushh (third person) includes to (he), tii (she) and te (it). The plural form for masculine gender is again 'te' which could also be used for a single person to show respect. The plural for feminine gender is 'tyaa' and for neuter gender is 'tee'. In English all of these (te, tyaa, tee) are replaced by they as there is no distinction among different genders.

Verbs - In Marathi, there are supportive verbs equivalent to various forms of 'to be' in English. In spoken Marathi, these verbs usually combine with the main verb to form a single word but they are written separately. For example, 'disat aahe' in written Marathi becomes 'disatay' in spoken Marathi. Many verbs which end with 'e' are pronounced with an 'a' sound in the end which is indicated by an anuswaar in written Marathi. For example, jhaale -jhaala or kele -kela etc. However, in formal text these are written as 'jhaale', 'kele' etc.

Most of the verbs and adjectives change according to gender and whether the noun is a plural or a singular. In addition to the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives, there are 'avyaye' meaning words which are not 'spent' or which do not change their form when used in any sentence. These include conjugations such as 'aaNi','va'(meaning 'and') paN, kintu, parantu (meaning 'but') or exclamations such as 'ababa', 'arere','waa' etc.
Influence of other languages on Marathi

Marathi has been mainly derived from Sanskrit and majority of words found in Marathi are Sanskrit-based. These are divided into two categories:(1) tatsam or words taken directly from Sanskrit such without any change such as vidyaa (education), dishaa (direction) kavii (poet), van (jungle), vichaar (thought), mitra (friend) etc. and (2) tadbhav or words which have undergone some change from their original Sanskrit form such as, bahiiN (sister) based on bhaginii, hattii (elephant) from hastii, waagh (tiger) based on wyaaghra

Other than Sanskrit, Marathi has also been influenced by the languages of its neighboring states which are kannad (state of Karnataka) and telugu (state of Andhra Pradesh). The words of kannad origin in Marathi are adakittaa, guDhii. kirkoL etc. whereas words of telugu origin include anaarasaa, gherii, kiduk-miduk etc.

Marathi has absorbed words from the languages of different people who ruled India at different times. During the time of the Mughal rulers, lot of words of Persian, Arabic and Turkish origin entered Marathi. These include shahar (city), baajaar (market), dukaan (shop), hushaar (clever), kaagad (paper), jamin (land), darvajaa (door), meherbaani, mujaraa, maafii etc. Such words form a large portion of Marathi vocabulary.

The portuguese also influenced Marathi through words such as baTaaTaa (potato), bashii (saucer), pagaar (salary), istrii (iron) etc. which are very common in Marathi. And of course during the British rule, lot of English words were accepted which have become an inherent part of today's Marathi. These include pen, pencil, cake, cycle, boot, rubber, plastic etc. These words also indicate a change in lifestyle and the influence of other cultures on the Marathi people.

Although it is debatable whether konkaNii is a separate language or dialect of Marathi, it is very similar to Marathi. The other major dialects include Varhadii spoken in the Vidarbha region and Dangii spoken near Maharashtra-Gujaraat border. In Marathi, the alphabet 'L' is abundantly used in many verbs and nouns. In the Varhadii dialect, it is replaced by the letter'y' which makes it quite distinct. As such the spoken language changes from Mumbai (Bombay) to PuNe to Marathawada to Khandesh to Vidarbha, as one travels from one region of Maharashtra to another. The Marathi script is phonetic because there are no silent pronunciations. However, the spoken Marathi is quite different from the formal, written Marathi found in many text books. Marathi also has a very strong and powerful literary tradition starting from the time of the saints upto modern day. This is the language of Dnyaneshar, which can win bets with the nectar and hopefully it will keep growing and blossoming forever.

This page is written by Nilesh Savargaonkar( One of the oldest article on marathi language on the internet.
Published with permission by Maayboli.

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