The modern Bengali language is spoken by an estimated 210 million people around the world, from the United States to the Middle East. The majority of Bengali language speakers are located in the countries of Bangladesh and India, each of which offers a unique glance at the great diversity of Bengali cultural and linguistic traditions.
Classification of the Bengali LanguageThe Bengali language is classified as a member of the Indo-Aryan subgroup of the Indo-Iranian group of languages, part of the Indo-European language family. The Indo-Aryan linguistic family developed in three major stages: Old Indo-Aryan or Sanskrit; Middle Indo-Aryan, consisting of Prakrits and Apabhramsha stages; and New Indo-Aryan, which dates from circa the 10th century CE.
Despite its classification as an Indo-European language, Bengali also exhibits a variety of influences from other Southeast Asian language families, including the Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic. These linguistic families contributed to the development of both Bengali’s vocabulary and grammatical structure. Still, despite this diversity of influences, linguists agree in their classification of Bengali as a member of the Indo-European language family.
Early History of the Bengali Language
The exact origins of the Bengali languages have been debated. One theory suggests that Bengali developed around the 10th century CE from the spoken Magahi Prakrit language and its written complement, the Magahi Apabhramsha language. An alternate theory suggests that Bengali developed much earlier, around the 7th century CE, from the oral Gauda Prakrit language and its complementary written form, Gauda Apabhramsha.
Early Bengali: Relationship to Assamese and Oriya
Whatever the exact origins of Bengali, linguists generally agree that Bengali was once part of a single linguistic branch along with the Oriya and Assamese languages. From this proto-language, Oriya is believed to have been the first of the three to develop and break away as a distinct language, followed by Bengali and finally Assamese.
Written Bengali Language
The written form of the Bengali language is derived from the ancient Indian Brahmi script, specifically from the eastern version of the Brahmi script. Some of the earliest examples of the written Bengali language are the Charyapadas, a series of Buddhist mystic songs. The Bengali alphabet is believed to have been almost fully developed by the 12th century CE, although it continued to evolve up until the 16th century. Additional changes were introduced to the Bengali script in the 19th century, such as the acquisition of punctuation marks adapted from the English language.
Efforts Toward Standardizing the Bengali Language
The process of standardizing Bengali spelling was not formally undertaken until the 20th century when the University of Calcutta initiated a series of spelling reforms designed to help standardize the Bengali language in 1936. These reforms were not met with agreement, however, and a variety of alternative efforts toward standardization have been made by other institutions, such as the Bangla Academy in Dhaka and the Visva-Bharati University of Bengal.
The variety of spelling reforms by such institutions becomes even more confusing when coupled with the fact that many Bengali language publishers and newspapers have their own style. Needless to say, the great diversity of efforts made by different groups in hopes of standardizing the Bengali language has actually hindered the production of a uniform standardized Bengali language.
Formal Versus Colloquial Bengali
Bengali includes two basic styles: the colloquial speech known as Chaltibhasa and the formal speech known as Sadhubhasa. Differences between the two are evident primarily in terms of vocabulary and Chaltibhasa’s contraction of pronouns and verbs.
The more genteel Sadhubhasa form was greatly influenced by early Bengali language poetry, and by the 19th century it had established itself as the language of Bengali literature, business and other formal communication.
Sadhubhasa was never used as a means of everyday communication. This role came to be filled by Chaltibhasa, an informal Bengali speech based on the dialects of Bengali spoken in and around Calcutta. Chaltibhasa remained pigeonholed as a language of the streets until the early 20th century, at which point it first appeared in literary use. By the 21st century, Chaltibhasa had become Bengali’s leading literary language as well as its primary means of everyday communication.
Bengali Language Dialects
A number of regional dialects exist within the Bengali language in both India and Bangladesh. There are four primary Bengali dialects in Bangladesh alone: Radha, spoken in West Bengal; Pundra, also known as Varendra, spoken primarily in northwest Bengal and Bangladesh; Kamrupa, spoken in northeastern Bangladesh; and Bangla, spoken in the rest of the country. Additional dialects can be found in the Bengal territory of present-day India.
Bengali in India
With an estimated 85 million Bengali speakers, India is home to the largest number of Bengali speakers outside of Bangladesh. The Bengali language is officially recognized by India’s constitution; however, distribution of the Bengali language varies greatly throughout the country. The majority of India’s Bengali speakers are concentrated in the states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.
Bengali in Bangladesh: The Bengali Language Movement
The Bengali language is most prominent in Bangladesh, which is home to an estimated 100 million Bengali speakers. The Bengali language played a significant role in Bengali nationalism and Bengali independence. Upon its formation in 1947, Pakistan was divided into two main regions, East Pakistan – also known as East Bengal – and West Pakistan. The Pakistani government’s declaration of Urdu as the country’s national language sparked fierce protests from the Bengali community in East Pakistan.
The Bengali Language Movement that followed peaked in 1952 when Pakistani police killed a number of demonstrators participating in a protest at the University of Dhaka. Civil unrest escalated after the violent event, eventually prompting the Pakistani government to grant official status to the Bengali language (in addition to Urdu) in 1956.
The Bengali Language Movement helped unite Pakistan’s Bengali community and is considered an important precursor to the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 and Bangladesh’s eventual independence. Today Bengali serves as the official state language of independent Bangladesh.
Bengali Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Banga-Bhasa, Bangala, Bangla
Language Family: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Eastern zone, Bengali-Assamese
Spoken by Approximately 230,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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