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About Bengali Language

Bengali or Bangla (Bengali: বাংলা, pronounced [ˈbaŋla]) is an eastern Indo-Aryan language. It is native to the region of eastern South Asia known as Bengal, which comprises present day Bangladesh, the Indian state of West Bengal, and parts of the Indian states of Tripura and Assam. It is written with the Bengali script. With nearly 230 million total speakers, Bengali is one of the most spoken languages (ranking fifth or sixth) in the world.

Along with other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, Bengali evolved circa 1000-1200 AD from the Magadhi Prakrit, a declined, vernacular form of the ancient Sanskrit language. It is now the primary language spoken in Bangladesh and is the second most spoken language in India.

With a long and rich literary tradition, Bengali binds together a culturally diverse region and contributes significantly to Bengali nationalism. In former East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh), the strong linguistic consciousness led to the Bengali Language Movement, in which several people were killed during protests to maintain writing Bengali in the Bengali script and to gain its recognition as a state language on 21 February 1952. The day has since been observed as Language Movement Day in Bangladesh, and was declared the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO.


Genealogically, Bengali belongs to the group of Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, here marked in yellow.Like other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, Bengali arose from the eastern Middle Indic languages of the Indian subcontinent. Magadhi Prakrit and Maithili, the earliest recorded spoken languages in the region and the language of the Buddha, evolved into Ardhamagadhi ("Half Magadhi") in the early part of the first millennium CE. Ardhamagadhi, as with all of the Prakrits of North India, began to give way to what are called Apabhramsa languages just before the turn of the first millennium. The local Apabhramsa language of the eastern subcontinent, Purvi Apabhramsa or Apabhramsa Abahatta, eventually evolved into regional dialects, which in turn formed three groups: the Bihari languages, the Oriya languages, and the Bengali-Assamese languages. Some argue that the points of divergence occurred much earlier—going back to even 500[10] but the language was not static: different varieties coexisted and authors often wrote in multiple dialects. For example, Magadhi Prakrit is believed to have evolved into Apabhramsa Abahatta around the 6th century which competed with Bengali for a period of time.

Usually three periods are identified in the history of Bengali:

  • Old Bengali (900/1000–1400)—texts include Charyapada, devotional songs; emergence of pronouns Ami, tumi, etc; verb inflections -ila, -iba, etc. Assamese branch out in this period and Oriya just before this period (8th century-1300).
  • Middle Bengali (1400–1800)—major texts of the period include Chandidas's Srikrishnakirtan; elision of word-final ô sound; spread of compound verbs; Persian influence. Some scholars further divide this period into early and late middle periods.
  • New Bengali (since 1800)—shortening of verbs and pronouns, among other changes (e.g. tahar → tar "his"/"her"; koriyachhilô → korechhilo he/she had done).

Historically closer to Pali, Bengali saw an increase in Sanskrit influence during the Middle Bengali (Chaitanya era), and also during the Bengal Renaissance. Of the modern Indo-European languages in South Asia, Bengali and Marathi maintain a largely Sanskrit vocabulary base while Hindi and others such as Punjabi, Sindhi and Gujarati are more influenced by Arabic and Persian.

Shaheed Minar, or the Martyr's monument, in Dhaka, commemorates the struggle for the Bengali language.Until the 18th century, there was no attempt to document Bengali grammar. The first written Bengali dictionary/grammar, Vocabolario em idioma Bengalla, e Portuguez dividido em duas partes, was written by the Portuguese missionary Manoel da Assumpcam between 1734 and 1742 while he was serving in Bhawal. Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, a British grammarian, wrote a modern Bengali grammar (A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778)) that used Bengali types in print for the first time. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the great Bengali reformer, also wrote a "Grammar of the Bengali Language" (1832).

During this period, the Choltibhasha form, using simplified inflections and other changes, was emerging from Shadhubhasha (older form) as the form of choice for written Bengali.

Bengali was the focus, in 1951–52, of the Bengali Language Movement (Bhasha Andolon) in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Although the Bengali language was spoken by the majority of Pakistan's population, Urdu was legislated as the sole national language.[18] On February 21, 1952, protesting students and activists were fired upon by military and police in Dhaka University and three young students and several other people were killed. Later in 1999, UNESCO decided to celebrate every 21 February as International Mother Language Day in recognition of the deaths of the three students. In a separate event on May 19, 1961, police in Silchar, India, killed eleven people who were protesting legislation that mandated the use of the Assamese language.

Geographical distribution

Distribution of native Bengali speakers in South Asia (the darker shade of pink denotes Bangladesh) The extent of Bengali inside Bangladesh.Bengali is native to the region of eastern South Asia known as Bengal, which comprises Bangladesh, the Indian state of West Bengal and many parts of Assam. There are also significant Bengali-speaking communities in the:

  • Middle East
  • Europe
  • North America
  • South-East Asia

Official status

Bengali is the national and official language of Bangladesh and one of the 23 official languages recognized by the Republic of India. It is the official language of the states of West Bengal and Tripura. It is also a major language in the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was made an official language of Sierra Leone in order to honour the Bangladeshi peacekeeping force from the United Nations stationed there. It is also the co-official language of Assam, which has three predominantly Sylheti-speaking districts of southern Assam: The national anthems of both India and Bangladesh were written by the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

In 2009, elected representatives in both Bangladesh and West Bengal called for Bengali to be made an official language of the United Nations.


Regional variation in spoken Bengali constitutes a dialect continuum. Linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterjee grouped these dialects into four large clusters—Rarh, Banga, Kamarupa and Varendra; but many alternative grouping schemes have also been proposed. The south-western dialects (Rarh) form the basis of standard colloquial Bengali, while Bangali is the dominant dialect group in Bangladesh. In the dialects prevalent in much of eastern and south-eastern Bengal (Barisal, Chittagong, Dhaka and Sylhet divisions of Bangladesh), many of the stops and affricates heard in West Bengal are pronounced as fricatives.[citation needed] Western palato-alveolar affricates চ [tʃ], ছ [tʃʰ], জ [dʒ] correspond to eastern চʻ [ts], ছ় [s], জʻ [dz]~[z]. The influence of Tibeto-Burman languages on the phonology of Eastern Bengali is seen through the lack of nasalized vowels.[citation needed] Some variants of Bengali, particularly Chittagonian and Chakma Bengali, have contrastive tone; differences in the pitch of the speaker's voice can distinguish words. Rajbangsi, Kharia Thar and Mal Paharia are closely related to Western Bengali dialects, but are typically classified as separate languages. Similarly, Hajong is considered a separate language, although it shares similarities to Northern Bengali dialects.

During the standardization of Bengali in the late 19th and early 20th century, the cultural center of Bengal was in the city of Kolkata, then Calcutta, founded by the British. What is accepted as the standard form today in both West Bengal and Bangladesh is based on the West-Central dialect of Nadia, an Indian district located on the border of Bangladesh. There are cases where speakers of Standard Bengali in West Bengal will use a different word than a speaker of Standard Bengali in Bangladesh, even though both words are of native Bengali descent. For example, nun (salt) in the west corresponds to lôbon in the east.

Writing system

Anandabazar Patrika, a popular news daily published from Kolkata in Bengali.The Bengali writing system is not an alphabetic writing system (e.g. the Latin alphabet), rather an abugida, i.e. its consonant graphemes in general represent a consonant followed by an "inherent" vowel[40]. The script is a variant of the Eastern Nagari script used throughout Bangladesh and eastern India (Assam, West Bengal and the Mithila region of Bihar). The Eastern Nagari script is believed to have evolved from a modified Brahmic script around 1000 CE and is similar to the Devanagari abugida used for Sanskrit and many modern Indic languages (e.g. Hindi, Marathi and Nepali). The Bengali script has particularly close historical relationships with the Assamese script, the Oriya script (although this relationship is not strongly evident in appearance) and Mithilakshar (the native script for Maithili language).

The Bengali script is a cursive script with eleven graphemes or signs denoting nine vowels and two diphthongs, and thirty-nine graphemes representing consonants and other modifiers. There are no distinct upper and lower case letter forms. The letters run from left to right and spaces are used to separate orthographic words. Like Devanagari, Bengali script has a distinctive horizontal line running along the tops of the graphemes that links them together.

Bengali punctuation marks, apart from the downstroke daŗi (|), the Bengali equivalent of a full stop, have been adopted from western scripts and their usage is similar.

Whereas in western scripts (Latin, Cyrillic, etc.) the letter-forms stand on an invisible baseline, the Bengali letter-forms hang from a visible horizontal headstroke called the matra (not to be confused with its Hindi cognate matra, which denotes the dependent forms of Hindi vowels). The presence and absence of this matra can be important. For example, the letter ত [tɔ] and the numeral ৩ "3" are distinguishable only by the presence or absence of the matra, as is the case between the consonant cluster ত্র [trɔ] and the independent vowel এ [e]. The letter-forms also employ the concepts of letter-width and letter-height (the vertical space between the visible matra and an invisible baseline).

There is yet to be a uniform standard collating sequence (sorting order) of Bengali graphemes. Experts in both India and Bangladesh are currently working towards a common solution for this problem.


Sources of modern Bengali words:

  • Tôdbhôbo (native)
  • Tôtshômo (Sanskrit reborrowings)
  • Deshi (indigenous loans) and Bideshi (foreign loans)

Bengali has as many as 100,000 separate words, of which 50,000 are considered tôtshômo (direct reborrowings from Sanskrit), 21,100 are tôdbhôbo (native words with Sanskrit cognates), and the rest being bideshi (foreign borrowings) and deshi (Austroasiatic borrowings) words.

However, these figures do not take into account the fact that a large proportion of these words are archaic or highly technical, minimizing their actual usage. The productive vocabulary used in modern literary works, in fact, is made up mostly (67%) of tôdbhôbo words, while tôtshômo only make up 25% of the total. Deshi and Bideshi words together make up the remaining 8% of the vocabulary used in modern Bengali literature.

Due to centuries of contact with Europeans, Mughals, Arabs, Turks, Persians, Afghans, and East Asians, Bengali has incorporated many words from foreign languages. The most common borrowings from foreign languages come from three different kinds of contact. Close contact with neighboring peoples facilitated the borrowing of words from Hindi, Assamese and several indigenous Austroasiatic languages (like Santali) of Bengal. After centuries of invasions from Persia and the Middle East, numerous Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Pashtun words were absorbed into Bengali. Portuguese, French, Dutch and English words were later additions during the colonial period.


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