Bengali is one of the officially recognised languages of the Union of India according to the Eight Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
The Constitution of India took almost three years to be drafted but eventually, on the 26th of January 1950, the first elected Constituent Assembly of India, agreed on it. Each of the members of the Assembly had to sign two copies of the document, one was in Hindi, the second was in English.
From then on, both Hindi and English became the official languages of the India government. But this does not mean that every state of the Union uses these languages to conduct their official business.
Each state was given the possibility to choose amongst one of the 23 officially recognised languages and more often than not, a state has more than one official language. The reason is simple, the Indian population speaks too many languages to only have one official language, even within the same state.
In total, 122 languages are spoken by at least 10,000 people while another 3o languages are spoken by more than 1 million people.
If you dig a bit deeper into India's past, these figures will come to no surprise. With the first traces of civilisation dating more than 3,000 years back and given that three different empires ruled over the subcontinent for the last 600 years, one can only acknowledge the rich cultural past of India.
"India's linguistic diversity surprises many Westerners, but there are nearly thirty languages in India with at least a million native speakers. There are more native speakers of Tamil on our planet than of Italian. Likewise, more people speak Punjabi than German, Marathi than French, and Bengali than Russian. There are more Telugu speakers than Czech, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Slovak, and Swedish speakers combined."
- Bob Harris, English music presenter former host of the BBC2 music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test, and co-founder of the magazine Time Out.
The Origins of Bengali
Bengali first emerged in the Eastern part of India and is thought to have diverged from the ancient Indian languages, Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakrit about 3000 years ago.
Proto-Bengali regional dialects evolved to form three language family groups, Bengali-Assamese, Bihari, and Odia.
Despite proto-Bengali being the official language of the Pala Empire for 400 years, the Bengali language only truly developed under the influence of the Sultanate of Bengal. This kingdom was created after the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent during the 14th century.
The Sultanate was formed after a governor of Bengal for the Delhi Sultanate declared the region independent and decided to sit on the throne. Even though the ruling dynasties were Muslims and thus used Persian as a first language, Bengali held an equal place at the Sultanate court and was one of the official languages.
The words Bangal (which late gave Bangladesh) and Bengal (giving Bengali) appeared for the first time after the creation of the eponymous Sultanate.
During the same period, the Bengali language started borrowing words, verbs and linguistic particularities from Persian and Arabic.
The modern form of Bengali emerged during the 19th and 20th century and was based on the dialect spoken in the Nadia region, today part of the Indian state of West Bengal. The vocabulary of the developing language drew most of its words from Magadhi Prakrit and Pali dialects but also borrowed a great deal from Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic as well as other Asian languages the locals were in contact with.
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"I learnt to sing in Bengali, my mother tongue then went on to sing in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati and every possible Indian language."
- Shreya Ghoshal, Indian playback singer
The Bengali Dialects in India
Today Bengali is mostly spoken in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and parts of Assam as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and counts more than 80 million speakers in India only.
Bengali was also recognised as a second official language of the Indian state of Jharkhand, just East of West Bengal.
Important communities of Bengali speakers reside in cities outside of the Bengal region chiefly in Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi, and Vrindavan.
Chakma is a dialect partly derivative of Bengali, and it is spoken by about 400,000 people in Assam, Tripura, and Mizoram. The Rajbongshi people who are scattered through Bangladesh and India also speak a close relative to Bengali called Rangpuri.
Bengali exhibits an important heteroglossia, meaning that significant variations of the same spoken and written Bengali language can be observed.
Shadhu-bhasha ( meaning the "upright language") was the formal form of the Bengali language and used long verb inflexions and a vocabulary mainly borrowed from the Pala and Sanskrit languages. It is no longer used and is primarily reserved for some official formalities.
It has been replaced by Cholito-bhasha (meaning the "running language") which is mostly the colloquial form of Bengali. It is characterised by the use of short verbs and vernacular idioms and has become the standardised form of Bengali.
Essentially, the simple, more accessible and shorter form of Bengali took over the more formal written Bengali during the 19th century thanks to various famous Bengali writers.
But the spoken versions of the language vary from area to area, and some dialects of Bengali such as the one spoken in the Chittagong region of Bangladesh can barely be understood by Standard Colloquial Bengali speakers from Kolkatta.
Even within the same dialects, speakers are more likely to use words from the Sanskrit lexicon if they are Hindu, whereas Muslims will be more likely to pick words from the Persian and Arabic vocabulary.
Bengali is a very adaptive language!
Find out where you can take an Hindi course to learn the Bengali language here.
"Bengalis love to celebrate their language, their culture, their politics, their fierce attachment to a city that has been famously dying for more than a century. They resent with equal ferocity the reflex stereotyping that labels any civic dysfunction anywhere in the world 'another Calcutta."
- Bharati Mukherjee, American writer and professor emerita in the department of English at the University of California.
The Bengali Alphabet
Linguists think that the Bengali alphabet evolved from the Brahmic script about 1000 years ago. The alphasyllabary used in Bengali has letters for consonants, diacritics (or accent) for vowels, and uses a vowel sound (অ ô) for consonants unmarked by another vowel.
This Eastern Nagari script or Bengali-Assamese alphabet is used in all the states which recognise Bengali as their (or one of their) official language: Assam, West Bengal, Tripura. But it is also used in Bangladesh in place of an Arabic-based alphabet even though the country has a population majority of Muslims.
The Eastern Nagari script is always written in cursive from left to right and does not make any distinction between upper case and lower case. All punctuation signs but one have been borrowed from the Roman alphabet, keeping the same usage. The only original Bengali punctuation sign is the downstroke called daṛi (। ) which is the equivalent of a full stop.
The Bengali alphabet contains 11 signs representing nine vowels and two diphthongs as well as 39 signs representing consonants and modifiers.
Bengali is also characterised by a horizontal line linking each sign of the same word together called (মাত্রা) matra similar to the one observed in the Hindi language in the Devanagari script.
"It was the English word she used. It was in English that the past was unilateral; in Bengali, the word for yesterday, kal, was also the word for tomorrow. In Bengali one needed an adjective, or relied on the tense of a verb, to distinguish what had already happened from what would be."
- Nilanjana Sudeshna "Jhumpa" Lahiri, American author of Indian origin.
Bengali outside of Inda
As well as being the second most spoken language in India, Bengali is the most spoken language in Bangladesh, making it de facto the national language with 98% of the people being Bengali (or Bangla) native speakers.
Due to migration flux all around the world, Bengali is also spoken by important communities in the Middle East, the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Italy.
In total, between 250 and 300 million people around the world have been registered tas native Bengali speakers making this language the 7th most spoken language on Earth. For this reason, both the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh have put a motion forward to make Bengali an official language of the United Nations along with Modern Standard Arabic, Traditional Chinese (and Simplified Chinese), British English, French, Russian and Spanish.
The national anthem of both Bangladesh ("Amar Sonar Bangla") and India (Jana Gana Mana) were written in Bengali.
Jana Gana Mana was written by the poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore. It was performed for the first time in its Hindi version, in front of the Indian Constituent Assembly, on the 14th of August 1947 at midnight.
Compostion in Bengali
জনগণমন-অধিনায়ক জয় হে ভারতভাগ্যবিধাতা!
পঞ্জাব সিন্ধু গুজরাট মরাঠা দ্রাবিড় উৎকল বঙ্গ
বিন্ধ্য হিমাচল যমুনা গঙ্গা উচ্ছলজলধিতরঙ্গ
তব শুভ নামে জাগে, তব শুভ আশিস[i] মাগে,
গাহে তব জয়গাথা।
জনগণমঙ্গলদায়ক জয় হে ভারতভাগ্যবিধাতা!
জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় জয় জয় জয় হে॥
Thou art, the ruler of our minds, of all people
The dispenser of India's destiny!
Thy name rouses the heart of Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat
and Maratha, of the Dravida and Odisha
and Bengal; It echoes in the hills of Vindhya and the
Himalayas, and mingles in the music of Ganga and Yamuna
and is chanted by the waves of the Indian sea.
They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.
The saving of all people waits in thy hands,
Thou dispenser of India's destiny.
Victory, Victory, Victory to thee