Language Profiles: Bengali

As someone who loves to study languages and linguistic diversity, it seems only natural that I be fascinated with the linguistic landscape of South Asia. India alone has 22 constitutionally recognized languages not including English, and many, many more spoken besides those noted in the Eighth Schedule of the constitution. India’s next-door neighbors — Pakistan and Bangladesh — have similarly diverse linguistic makeups. But today, I’m going to focus on just one language from the Subcontinent: Bengali.

Bengali (or Bangla) is predominantly spoken in eastern India (particularly the states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam) and, as you might have deduced from the language’s name, Bangladesh. It is also spoken by many members of the vast South Asian diaspora community. With 189 million native speakers, it is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world, just trailing Portuguese and Hindi.

Bengali is in the same language family as Hindi, though the two languages are not mutually intelligible and use different (though related) writing systems. Bengali’s vocabulary is influenced heavily by Sanskrit, but also draws from Persian and Arabic, especially among Muslim Bengali speakers. Due to the British Raj and the later globalization of media, education, and business, English loanwords are also common in Bengali.

Bengali is particularly notable for its rich literary pedigree. The first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, primarily wrote in Bengali; he penned the lyrics to both the Bangladeshi and Indian national anthems, which are sung in the language. You may have also heard Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali-language poetry in the song Praan (whose lyrics are adapted from a poem called Stream of Life), which was the background music in the viral video, Where the Hell is Matt?

 

Bengali also has an important place in South Asia’s political history. Rabindranath Tagore and other writers used Bengali-language works to express national and ethnic pride during the struggle for independence from Britain. Later, after independence and Partition, language rights were a catalyst for the separation of East and West Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan in 1971.  Although the eastern and western wings of Pakistan were united by their majority-Muslim populations and some shared South Asian cultural heritage, there were stark divisions between the two. Tensions between East and West Pakistan soon reached a boiling point when Urdu (predominantly spoken in West Pakistan) was made the official language.

On February 21st, 1952, activists and university students in Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh) held a protest against policies they said discriminated against Bengali speakers, including Karachi’s refusal to make Bengali a national language, and efforts to introduce Arabic as a script for writing Bengali (van Schendel 2009). Police fired on the protesters, killing five people. This day became known as Ekushe or Martyrs Day in Bangladesh, and a memorial now stands where the killings took place. The Bengali Language Movement agitated throughout the 1950s and 60s for the recognition of Bengali in Pakistani public life.

February 21st is now recognized by the UN as International Mother Language Day, which celebrates linguistic diversity and commemorates the struggles many people face to gain political and cultural recognition for their native tongues.

It goes without saying that scores of languages have made their mark on the course of human events, but Bengali’s role as a catalyst for social change, particularly as an assertion of national pride and identity during two bitter fights for independence, is unique. Today, the Bengali language unites a vast community of speakers all over the world from Dhaka to Dubai to DC, and continues to make an impact on South Asian culture in film, literature, and music.

I’m not sure if my next Language Profile will be another “B” language, if I’m going to move straight on into C, or if I’m going to go a little nuts and dispense with alphabetical order entirely. We’ll see!

Sources

Bashir, S.A. and Brady, A.J. (No year given). “Bangla – The Official Language of Bangladesh.” Accessed 28 September 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.betelco.com/bd/bangla/bangla.html

Ager, Simon. (2016). Bengali. Omniglot. Accessed 28 September 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/bengali.htm

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2016. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Nineteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Retrieved from: http://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size

Indian Constitution, Art. 344(1) and 351, Eighth Schedule. http://lawmin.nic.in/olwing/coi/coi-english/coi-4March2016.pdf

“Rabindranath Tagore – Biographical”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Accessed 28 Sep 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1913/tagore-bio.html

UNESCO. (2012). International Mother Language Day. Accessed 28 September 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/languages-in-education/international-mother-language-day/

Van Schendel, W. (2009). A History of Bangladesh. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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