Bengali language

This article is about the Bengali language. For the script, see Bengali script.

Bangla (বাংলা)
Spoken in: Bangladesh, India, and several other countries
Region: Eastern South Asia
Total speakers: 207 million
Ranking: 4
Genetic classification: Indo-European

   Eastern Zone
    Apabhransa Avahattha

Official status
Official language of: Bangladesh, India, and Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1bn
ISO 639-2ben
See also: LanguageList of languages

Bānglā (বাংলা) or Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language of South Asia that evolved as a successor to the earlier Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit languages. Bengali is the English word for the name of the language (as well as the people speaking the language); in the language itself the tongue is called Bānglā (বাংলা), a term now finding more usage in English. From this point forward, Bangla will be used to refer to the language.

Bangla is native to the region of eastern South Asia known as Bengal, which comprises Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. There are also significant Bangla-speaking communities in the Indian states of Assam and Tripura and in immigrant populations in the West and the Middle East. With more than 200 million native speakers, it is the fourth or fifth most widely spoken language in the world (after Mandarin, Spanish, English and, arguably, Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu)) [1] ( Along with Assamese, the Bengali language is geographically among the easternmost of the Indo-European languages. Assamese, Oriya and Maithili, three other languages belonging to the Eastern Maghadan Branch of Indo-Aryan language family, are very closely related to Bangla. Standard Assamese, Oriya, and Bangla are considered by some to be nearly mutually intelligible and certain local dialects of one language bear striking resemblances to one of the other two languages.

Bangla is the second most commonly spoken language in India (after Hindi). As a result of the Bengali renaissance in the 19th and 20th centuries, much of India's most famous literature, poetry, and songs are in Bangla: the works of Rabindranath Tagore (the first Asian to be awarded a Nobel Prize), for example, were written in Bangla. Additionally, many of the reformist religious, philosophical, and political movements that began in that era were led by Bengalis.



Main article: Bengali script

The Bangla alphabet has its own script in which Bangla is written. It is a Brahmic script very similar to the Devanagari used for Hindi and Sanskrit. The Bangla alphabet is a syllabic cursive alphabet with 12 vowels and 52 consonants. All consonants have an inherent embedded vowel sound. Vowels can be written as independent letters, or by using a variety of diacritical marks which are written above, below, before or after the consonant they belong to. Additional diacritic marks can be added to change (or suppress) the embedded vowel sound of consonant. Consonant clusters are often indicated by ligating two or more symbols. This same script, with a few small modifications, is also used for writing Assamese.

The spelling system is based on an older version on the language and thus does not take into acount some vowel mergers that have taken place in the spoken language; thus it cannot be described as a completely phonemic orthography.

The Sylheti language, for a long time, used a different script, one based on the Devanagari alphabet. The script was called the Sylheti Nagori script.


Bangla phonetics has 45 essential and five non-essential phonemes. Nasalized vowels have phonemic status.


  Labial Dental Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
 Voiceless stops

 Voiced stops

 Voiceless fricatives
 Voiced fricatives


Main article: Bengali grammar

Bangla has a Subject Object Verb word order. It makes use of postpositions, instead of prepositions as found in English. There is no grammatical gender in Bangla. Adjectival and nominal morphology is light, while verbs are highly inflected. Verbs are inflected for person, tense, and honour -- but not for number.

Variation in Dialects

Dialectual differences in Bangla manifest themselves in three forms: standardized dialect vs. regional dialect, literary language vs. colloquial language and lexical influences.

There are notable differences in pronunciation between dialects. In some dialects, for example, Standard Bangla's aspirated unvoiced bilabial stop [pʰ] often becomes an unvoiced labiodental fricative [f]; the unvoiced postalveolar fricative [] (sh) becomes an unvoiced alveolar fricative [s]; and the aspirated voiceless postalveolar affricate [ʰ] (chh) also becomes [s].

Shādhubhāshā vs. Choltibhāshā

In Bānglā, there exists what is known as Shādhubhāshā (the elegant language; literally "language of sages"; also called Shuddhobhāshā) and Choltibhāshā (the current, or colloquial, language; literally "the current or running language"; also called Cholitobhāshā or Cholitbhāshā in common speech). The major differences between the two are the adherence to traditional grammar (i.e. the archaic forms of Medieval Bānglā) and to a heavily Sanskritized vocabulary in Shādhubhāshā. Songs like the Indian national anthem Jno Gno Mno (by Rabindranath Tagore) and the national song of India (by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee)) Bnde Mātrom were actually composed in the highly refined Sādhubhāshā form of Bānglā. However, Shādhubhāshā is not spoken in commonplace settings but confined to literary and formal contexts.

Choltibhāshā (or Cholitobhāshā when written in Shādhubāshā form), which comprises the standard pronunciation of Bangla and thus serves as the basis for the orthography of most Bangla writing today, is modeled on the cultivated form of the dialect spoken in Kolkātā (previously Calcutta) by the educated people originally coming from districts bordering on the lower reaches of the Hoogli River. Choltibhāshā, as the colloquial dialect, derives its lexicon from several sources. Though overwhelmingly Sanskrit-based, a large amount of vocabulary is taken from English, Arabic and Persian sources.

Greater laxity in grammatical expression, particularly the verbal conjugations, distinguishes between Choltibhāshā and Shādhubhāshā. From a strictly linguistic view, Choltibhāshā exhibits several marked departures from the traditional Shādhubhāshā Bānglv; most noticeably clipped verbal forms [cholitechhi ("I am going") becoming cholchhi], consonantal simplication [snān ("bath") becoming chān], and vowel raising [Obbhāsh ("habit") becomes Obbhesh].

Poshchim vs. Purbo

There are marked dialectual differences between the speech of Bengalis living on the western side and eastern side of the Padma River. In the dialects prevalent in much of Eastern Bangladesh (Barisal, Chittagong, Dhaka and Sylhet divisions), the following sound changes occur: palato-alveolar affricates [c] and [ch] are pronounced closer to [ts] or [s], and aspirated [ph] is usually affricated to [f]. These sound changes are most extreme in the 'Sylheti' dialect of extreme northeastern Bangladesh -- the dialect of Bangla most common in the United Kingdom. The Sylheti dialect carries a greater Arab and Persian influence while sharing grammatical features with Assamese.

During standardization of Bangla in the late 19th and early 20th century, the cultural elite were mostly from West Bengal, especially Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Hence, the dialect of that area was considered to be standard. However, at present, the accepted standard language in West Bengal and (all parts of) Bangladesh are identical.

Sanskrit Influences vs. Perso-Arabic Influence

The third major factor for dialectual difference, specifically between the dialects of West Bengal and Bangladesh, is a lexical one. 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 West Bengal dialect(or commonly called Hindu forms) and Bangladeshi Bangla (or commonly called Muslim forms) are as follows:

  • water: jol (S) corresponds to pāni (S/Hindi)
  • invitation: nimontron/nimontonno (S) corresponds to dāwāt (A)
  • bath/shower: snān/chān (S) corresponds to gosol (A)
  • god: bhOgobān, ishvar (S) corresponds to Allāh (A), Khodā (P)
  • aunt (related by blood): māshi/pishi (S) corresponds to khālā/phupu (P)

(here S = derived from Sanskrit; A = derived from Arabic, P = derived from Persian)

The differences above depend on the region contemplated and are not always clearly distinct. For example, common people in West Bengal continue to use the words "chān" and "gosol" (or "nimontron" and "dāwāt") interchangeably with no particular bias towards one word or the other; a similar situation prevails (even among Muslims) in Hindu majority and Western regions of Bangladesh.

Though both jol and pani are Sanskrit derivatives, 'pāni' became more associated with the Hindustani language that imbibed so much of Mughal culture and so became the word of choice for Muslim speakers of Bangla.

Bangla Literature

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore

Known by many as the Shakespeare of India, possibly the most prolific writer in Bangla is Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Influenced primarily by universalist Hindu philosophy in the Upanishads, Tagore dominated both the Bengali and Indian philosophical and literary scene for decades. His 2,000 Rabindrasangeets play a pivotal part in defining Bengali culture, both in West Bengal and Bangladesh. He is the author of the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh, both originally composed in Bangla. Other notable Bangla works of his are Gitanjali, a book of poems for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and many short stories and a few novels.

In a similar category is Kazi Nazrul Islam, a Muslim who was invited to post-partition Bangladesh as the National Poet and whose work, transcends sectarian boundaries. Adored by Bengalis both in Bangladesh and West Bengal, his work includes 3,000 songs, known as nazrul geeti. He is frequently called the rebel poet because of his strong involvement in revolution leading to India's independence from the British Rule. His songs and poems were frequently used during the Bangladesh Liberation War as well.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt, a Christian by conversion, is best known for his Ramayana-based masterpiece, "The Slaying of Meghnadh," (in Bengali "Meghnadh Bodh Kabbo" (মেঘনাদ বধ কাব্য)), which essentially follows in the poetic tradition of Milton's Paradise Lost. Those who have read it consider this work a world-class epic poem of the modern era. Michael Madhusudan Dutta is also credited with introduction of sonnets in Bangla literature.

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was a supremely talented author whose speciality was exploring complex human psychology. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was one of the earliest Bengali novelist and is popularly known as the author of India's first national song, "Bande Mātarom" (pronounced in Hindi "Vande Mātāram"). Tarashankar Bandopadhay was another famous novelist whose works feature a realistic picture of the many-colored fabric of life in rural bengal.

Jibanananda Das was a famous poet, who along with Buddhadev Basu, marks the starting of the move to transcend the Tagore legacy. The new genere of Bengali poets rather shifted from Tagore's ideological style and adoped realism in their writing more pronouncedly. Titled polli-kobi (Poet of the Country) for works relating to the villages and country-side of Bengal, Jasimuddin is particularly famous for his poems that have become major highlights for pedagogical purposes in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.

Seminal Hindu religious works in Bangla include the many songs of Ramprasad Sen. His works (still sung today in West Bengal) from the 17th century cover an astonishing range of emotional responses to Ma Kali, detailing complex philosophical statements based on Vedanta teachings and more visceral prouncements of his love of Devi. Using inventive allegory, Ramprasad had 'dialogues' with the Mother Goddess through his poetry, at times chiding her, adoring her, celebrating her as the Divine Mother, reckless consort of Shiva and capricious Shakti of the cosmos. There are also the laudatory accounts of the lives and teachings of the Vaishnava saint Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (the Choitanyo Choritāmrit) and Devi Advaitist Shri Ramakrishna (the Ramakrishna Kathamrita, translated roughly as Gospel of Ramakrishna).

The mystic Bauls of the Bengal countryside who preached the boundless spiritual truth of Shoj Pth (the Simple, Natural Path) and Moner Mānush (The Man of The Heart) drew on Vedantic philosophy to propound transcendental truths in song format, traveling from village to village proclaiming that there was no such thing as Hindu, Muslim or Christian, only moner mānush.


Until the 18th century, Bangla did not have a well-documented grammar. Bangla existed as a collection of thousands of dialects. The first written Bangla grammar, Vocabolario em idioma Bengalla, e Portuguez dividido em duas partes, was written by Manoel da Assumpcam, a Portuguese missionary. Assumpcam wrote this grammar between 1734 and 1742 while he was serving in Bhawal. Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, a British grammarian, is credited as being the first to write a Bangla grammar using Bangla texts and letters for illustration: A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778). Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the great Bengali Reformer, also published a book "Grammar of the Bengali Language" in 1832.

The Fight for Bangla In Bangladesh

During the period of 1947-1971, when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan (and first known as East Bengal and later East Pakistan), the Bangla language became the focus and foundation of the national identity of the people, leading ultimately to the creation of the sovereign state of Bangladesh.

Around 1950-52, the emerging middle classes of East Bengal underwent an uprising known later as the "Language Movement". Bangladeshis (then East Pakistanis) were initially agitated by a decision by Central Pakistan Government to establish Urdu, a minority language spoken only by the supposed elite class of West Pakistan, as the sole national language for all of Pakistan. At the peak of resentment, on February 21, 1952, students (mainly of Dhaka Medical College and University of Dhaka) and activists walked into military fire and were killed in demand of the recognition and establishment of the Bangla language - spoken by the majority of the then-Pakistani population - as a, if not the, national language of erstwhile Pakistan. The day is revered in Bangladesh and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in West Bengal as the Language Martyrs' Day. UNESCO decided to observe 21 February as International Mother Language Day. The UNESCO General Conference took a decision to that took effect on 17 November 1999 when it unanimously adopted a draft resolution submitted by Bangladesh and co-sponsored and supported by 28 other countries.

19 May 1961, in Silchar, a small town of South Assam in North East India witnessed another fight for the Bengali language and 11 people died in police firing to protest against the forcible imposition of Assamese on the Bangla speaking people there as a state policy. The martyrs of 19 May gave their everything for the language and later the Government had to back down. On 21 July 1986, in another momentous day in the struggle for the Bengali Language, two bengalis gave their life in Karimganj, a small town in Southern Assam, protesting against yet another attempt by the state government to impose Assamese on the local Bengali population. The two martyrs gave their life when police opened fire on unarmed protesters. This was the pivotal incident that forced the government to withdraw their unpopular legislation.

See also

External links



  • Chatterji, S. K. 1926. The Origin and Development of the Bengali Language: Part II. Calcutta Univ. Press.
  • Masica, C. 1991. The Indo-Aryan Languages. Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Radice, William. 1994. Teach Yourself Bengali: A Complete Course for Beginners.Hodder Headlin, Ltd.,بنغالية

bg:Бенгалски език bn:বাংলা ca:Bengali da:Bengali de:Bengali es:Idioma bengal eo:Bengala lingvo fr:Bengal id:Bahasa Bengali ms:Bahasa Bengali nl:Bengaals nn:Bengali ja:ベンガル語 pl:Język bengalski pt:Bengali sa:बाङगला sv:Bengali th:ภาษาเบงกาลี


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