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Bengali – One language, Multiple Variations

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Bengali - One language, Multiple Variations

Bengali, also called Bangla, is the official language of Bangladesh, and the Indian States of West Bengal and Tripura. There are over 200 million native speakers of this language across the world and it has the pride of place as the 5th "most spoken" language in the world (after Mandarin, Spanish, English and Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu). Bengali is the second most commonly spoken language in India (after Hindi). Yet, interestingly, there are crucial differences between the spoken and written forms of the language between Bangladeshi Bengali (with intra-country variations) and Bengali spoken in West Bengal.

Bengali - a language of ancient origin

Bengali or Bangla is an Indo-Aryan language of South Asia that evolved as a successor to Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit. Bengali is the English word for the name of the language as well as for its speakers; in Bengali, the language itself is called Bangla. It is believed that Bengali became a separate language around 1000 CE. Three or four periods are identified in the history of the language: Old Bengali (1000 - 1400 CE), Middle Bengali (1400 - 1800 CE), and New Bengali (since 1800 CE). However, there are some scholars who believe Bengali is much older, perhaps going back to even 500 BC. 

Bengali Grammar written by Portugese & English!

Bengali existed as a collection of thousands of dialects till the 18th century and did not have a well-documented grammar.

  • Manoel da Assumpcam, a Portuguese missionary, wrote the first written Bengali grammar, Vocabolario em idioma Bengalla, e Portuguez dividido em duas partes. 
  • Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, a British grammarian, is credited as being the first to write a Bengali grammar using Bengali texts and letters for illustration: A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778).

Bengali goes through important evolutionary changes

Ever since Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the great Bengali Reformer, published a book "Grammar of the Bengali Language" in 1832, the written form of Bengali has undergone under innumerable changes. Perhaps the most important was the adoption of Cholti Bhasha over Shadhu Bhasha (an archaic form of the language) as the form of choice for written Bengali. Spoken and written Bengali continues to evolve in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. 

Bengali -  striking similarities and wide differences

In India :

Assamese (language of Assam), Oriya (language of Orissa), and Bengali are considered by some to be nearly mutually intelligible; some local dialects of one language bear a striking resemblance to one or more dialects of the other two languages.

In Bangladesh

Sylheti, Chittagonian, and Chakma are some of the many languages that are often considered dialects of Bengali. Although these languages are mutually intelligible with neighboring dialects of Bengali, a native speaker of Standard Bengali would hardly understand them.

Interestingly the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are written in Bengali!

Bengali - Written differently and spoken more differently

Like many languages of South Asia, Bengali exhibits a strong case of diglossia between the formal, written language and the vernacular, spoken language.

There are two standard written forms of Bengali:

  • Shadhubhasha ("language of sages") is the written language with longer verb inflections and a more Sanskrit-derived vocabulary. Songs like the Indian national anthem Jana Gana Mana (by Rabindranath Tagore) and the national song of India Vande Mataram (by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay) were composed in a form of Shadhubhasha, but its use is declining in modern texts.
  • Choltibhasha ("running language"), a written Bengali style that reflects a more colloquial idiom, is increasingly the standard for written Bengali. It is modeled on the form of the regional dialect spoken in the districts bordering on the lower reaches of the Hooghly River particularly the Shantipur region in Nadia district, West Bengal, and is thus sometimes called the "Nadia standard" . 

Spoken Bengali exhibits far more variation than written Bengali.

Spoken Bengali, including what is heard in news reports, speeches, announcements, is modeled on Choltibhasha. This form of spoken Bengali stands alongside other spoken dialects, or Ancholik Bengali ("regional Bengali"). The majority of Bengalis are able to communicate in more than one dialect - often, speakers are fluent in Choltibhasha, one or more Ancholik dialect, and one or more forms of Grammo Bengali ("rural Bengali"), dialects specific to a village or town.

The Great Bengali Divide

Bengali dialect is typically divided into eight major dialect groups: Western, Southwestern, Central (or West-Central), Northern, Bahe, Eastern, Ganda, and Vanga. Often Chittagonian is added to this list as well.

During standardization of Bengali in the late 19th and early 20th century, the cultural elite was mostly from West Bengal, especially Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). To this day, the accepted standard language in both West Bengal and Bangladesh is based on the West-Central dialect of the 19th century Kolkata elite.

This has helped create a state of diglossia in most of Bangladesh, with many speakers familiar with or fluent in both the regional dialect of their community and the standard West-Central dialect used in the media.

There are marked dialectal differences in terms of phonological variations between the speech of Bengalis living on the Poshchim (western) side and Purbo (eastern) side of the Padma River.

Bengali - a cocktail of many languages

Due to centuries of powerful influences from Europeans, Mughals, Arabs, Persians, and East Asians, Bengali has absorbed countless words from foreign languages, often totally integrating these borrowings into the core vocabulary. After centuries of invasions from Persia and the Middle East, numerous Turkish, Arabic, and Persian words were absorbed and fully integrated into the lexicon. Later, European colonialism brought words from Portuguese, French, Dutch, and most significantly English.

Bangladesh , Kolkata and the United Kingdom

In the dialects prevalent in eastern Bangladesh (Barisal, Chittagong, Dhaka and Sylhet divisions), many of the stops and affricates heard in Kolkata Bengali are pronounced as fricatives.

These pronunciations are most extreme in the Sylheti dialect, at northeastern Bangladesh - the dialect of Bengali most common in the United Kingdom !

Bangladeshi & Kolkata Bengali lexical variations

The third major factor in dialectical difference, specifically between the dialects of West Bengal and Bangladesh, is a lexical one. Even in Standard Bengali, vocabulary items often divide along the split between the predominantly Muslim Bangladeshi populace and largely Hindu West Bengali populace. Due to their cultural and religious traditions, Muslims occasionally utilize Perso-Arabic words instead of the Sanskrit-derived forms.

Some examples of lexical alternation between standard West Bengali forms (or commonly called Hindu forms) and their corresponding standard Bangladeshi forms (or commonly called Muslim forms) are as follows:

    1. hello: namoshkar corresponds to assalamualaikum/slamalikum
    2. invitation: nimontron/nimontonno corresponds to daoat
    3. water: jal corresponds to pani 
    4. meat: mangsho corresponds to gosh/goshto/gosto 
    5. prayer: prarthona corresponds to doa
    6. God: Bhagoban, Ishshor corresponds to Allah, Khoda 
    7. salt: nun corresponds to lDbon 
    8. turmeric: holdi corresponds to holud
    9. chili pepper: lDngka corresponds to morich.

These differences reflect the vocabulary of the standard varieties of Bengali in West Bengali and Bangladesh. Variation in the vocabulary of the countless regional dialects of both West Bengal and Bangladesh are even more pronounced and diverse.


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