Bengali, the language of West Bengal

Bengali, the mother tongue of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet who won the first Nobel Prize for Asia (1913), Sree Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh, of Aurobindo, philosopher, poet and spiritual guru, of Subhash Chandra Bose, Revolutionary leader of India's freedom struggle, of Satyajit Ray, one of the greatest film makers of the world, and of a host of several more great champions of culture and literature. This language, Bengali, is spoken by 230 million people all over the world, predominantly in Bangladesh and the states of West Bengal and Tripura in India. It is ranked 5 among the most spoken languages of the world (ref. encarta encyclopedia, 1998), and it belongs to the Indo-Aryan (eastern) group of the Indo-European family of languages. And it is one of the official languages of India, and second most spoken language in the country - after Hindi.

The origins: As mentioned above, Bengali belongs to the eastern-most branch of the Indo-Aryan/Iranian group of the Indo-European family of languages. Its origin is traced up to a form of Prakrit, a group of languages spoken in ancient India (The term Prakrit means 'natural'), where Sanskrit was used only by the Vedic Brahmins, whereas the common people's language was Prakrit. The Jains promoted the Prakrit languages, these being the tongues of the people. Some of the Prakrits are: Ardh Magadhi (the language of the people in Magadh, Bihar), Shouraseni (spoken by the people of ancient Mathura; and used by Kalidasa and Bhasa for the dialogues of servants, labourers and jokers in their plays), Maharashtri (used by the Jains in the Maratha region), Apabhransh, spoken between 500 BC and 1000 BC. The Classic Sanskrit, according to scholars, had its roots in Prakrit. Some experts interpret Prakrit as the fore-runner to Sanskrit. Prakrit is 'unrefined', and Sanskrit is the 'refined', semantically. Like Sanskrit, Apabhransh was a literary language, and from Gujarat to Bengal, this language was used in poetry without much local or ethnic influences creeping in. But over a period of time, languages slowly evolved appropriating each one's own definite form and thus the present Bengali too took shape by the middle of the 6th-10th centuries, according to scholars. During this period of evolution, proto-Bengali passed through Magadhi-Prakrit, and Maithili, the earliest recorded spoken language in the region, also considered as the language of the Buddha. From this evolved what is termed as Ardhmagadhi (half magadhi) out of which branched off Apabhramsa which eventually changed forms as regional tongues like Bihari languages, Oriya languages and the Bengali-Assamia languages. And the stage is set for Bengali to arrive in its near-present form.

Historians have identified three well-defined periods in the development of the language and its literature.
1.      Old Bengali (900 – 1400) –period of devotional songs, emergence of certain pronouns, inflections, and the branching off of Oriya and Assamiya.
2.      Middle Bengali (1400-1800) –major texts arrive, like Srikrishnakirtan of Chandida. Compound verbs become fashion. Influence of Persian. Increase in Sanskrit influence. Maintains a largely Sanskrit base for vocabulary.
3.      New Bengali (from 1800 till date). Language undergoes significant changes. Verbs and pronouns undergo shortening.

Development: The first attempt to codify the grammar for Bengali was made by Manoel, da Assumpcam, a Portuguese missionary, during 1734 and 1742 and the text is Vocabulario em idioma Bengalla a Portuguez dividido em duas partes. In 1778, Bathaniel Brassey Halhed, a British scholar, brought out A Grammar of the Bengal Language, using Bengali types in print for the first time. In 1832, Raja Ram Mohan Roy too came with a grammar – Grammar of the Bengali Language. Bengali is a conglomerate of several dialects, grouped into four –Rarh, Banga, Kamarupa, and Varendra. Out of these, Rarh, the dialects of South West became the basis of standard colloquial Bengali. The standardization of Bengali remained a dream for the elite. But when the process of standardization began, the decision makers were the British. Calcutta was the capital for British India for long, before they shifted to Delhi in 1911, and they favored the West-Central dialect of Nadia, as the standard (Nadia is now near India's border with Bangladesh.).

Unlike Sanskrit and other Indo-Iranian languages, Bengali is not a phonetic language, in that it is spoken and written differently. Two styles of writing evolved over a period of time, with distinctively different terms and sentence structure. One is Shadhubhasha or the 'chaste language', and the other is the choltibhasha or the current language which is defined as the Standard Colloquial Bengali, or rather it can even be called modern language. Shadhubhasha is more of Sanskrit word forms, and the other one uses the colloquial style. Janaganamana, India's national anthem that Rabindranath Tagore penned, and national song Vande Mataram by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee were done in the Shadhubhasha. Though Tagore's Jana gana Mana is in the 'chaste language', Tagore himself was a promoter of the colloquial style, as were Peary Chand Mitra who wrote Alaler Gharer Dulal (1857), and Pramatha Chowdhury who wrote Sabujpatra,(1914). The Bengali writing system is not alphabet-based. It is written in a variant of the eastern Nagari script. The spelling system is as in Sanskrit, and it does not accommodate the sound changes available in the spoken language. Bengali has around 100,000 words, of which half is direct borrowings from Sanskrit and about 21,000 are derived, cognate forms from Sanskrit. The rest is foreign borrowings.

Literature: The Bengali literary heritage dates back to the classical period of Sanskrit. The influence of non-Aryan languages cannot be discounted, either, argues Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, the eminent scholar and linguist. Professor Nihar Ranjan Roy, points out in his Bengalir Itihas: Adiparba: "In addition to Sanskrit, there were two other languages in vogue in Bengal in the 9th and 10th centuries: one was derived from Souraseni and the other from Magadhi. The latter is said to have evolved later into Bengali. Some writers would write pad, doha and verses, in both languages and the readers too would understand them equally well." Bengali literature found itself developing faster in the 19th century. It was by way of translations for the benefit of the British in Calcutta. Actually it was these translations that paved the way for the development of the modern Bengali prose. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, arriving in Calcutta in 1814, immersed himself in writing. He translated vehemently from Sanskrit, and wrote essays on religious topics in magazines. He formed Atmiya Sabha, a club of kins, in 1815. The Sipahi Bidroha (the Sepoy Mutiny) of 1857 and the Nil Bidroho (the Indigo Revolt) caused a tremendous shock in the literary world and some fine dramas were published based on these revolts. Michael Madhusuan dutt was the first epic poet of modern Bengali, and his 'Slaying of Meghanaad', based on Ramayana became an all-time hit. He introduced sonnets too, and thus ruled over the Bengali literary scene for several years. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was another great writer of this period, the second half of 19th century. 'Durgeshonandini', his first novel, and 'Anandamath', his master piece in which appeared the famous song 'bande maatarom', became all-time hits. Literature in Bengali found all-round development in the years that came – in poetry Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Biharilal Chakravarty, in novel Romesh Chunder Dutt, Mir Mosharraf Hossain, in plays Girish Chadra Ghosh, in essays Akshay Kumar Boral… Literature flourished in Bengali. Music, painting, sculpting and dance and dramas filled the cultural scenes. Rabindranath Tagore's appearance in the scene with his manifold brilliance in writing and philosophy made him the monarch of the cultural and literary world of India for years. His Gitanjali bagged for him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 and he became a world luminary, and the prestige of Bengali reached sky-high. Tagore enriched Bengali life with his numerous short stories, novel, paintings, songs and plays. Kazi Nazrul Islam, another great poet finally became the national poet of the newly formed Bangladesh. While Sarat Chandra Chatterjee became highly popular both in books and in films, Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyaya and Manik Bandopadhyaya created history by their realistic novels. Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak created cinema history using the stories of Bibhuti Bhusahn and Manik. Satinath Bhaduri, Bali Chand Mukherjee (Banophool), Saradindu Bandopadhyaya, Sunil Gangopadhyaya, Bimal Mitra, and others made literature in Bengali unquestionably supreme in India. The scene of short stories was no inferior. Satyajit Ray himself, as was Tagore the Great, before him, was a master story writer. In poetry, the Tagore legacy was held high by Jatindramohan Bagchi, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jibananada Das, Buddha Deva Bose and several others.