Bengali is a language of eastern Indo-Aryan origin. It is native to Bengal in the eastern South Asian region. This region is made up of Bangla Desh, the Indian State of West Bengal and parts of the Indian States of Assam and Tripura. Bengali is one of the most spoken languages in the world. With more than three hundred million people speaking this language, it is ranked as the fifth most spoken language in the world after Mandarin, Spanish, English and Hindi. It is the primary language spoken in Bangla Desh and is also the second most spoken language in India. In Bengali, this language is called `Bangla'. Bengali is the national and official language of Bangla Desh and also is one of the twenty two official languages recognised by the Indian Republic. It is the official language of the States of West Bengal and Tripura. It is also declared as a major language in the Indian Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is the co-official language of Assam. An interesting point to note is that in December 2002, the President of Sierra Leone, Mr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, proclaimed Bengali as an official language of Sierra Leone in recognition of the work done by over five thousand troops from Bangla Desh during the peacekeeping force mission of the United Nations in Sierra Leone. Bengali evolved around 1000 AD from the Magadhi Prakrit which has its roots in Sanskrit. It has its roots also in the Eastern Middle Indic languages of the Indian subcontinent. Magadhi Prakrit and Pali were the earliest recorded spoken languages in the region and were spoken during the times of Gautama Buddha. Magadhi Prakrit evolved into Ardhamagadhi which in turn gave way to Apabhramsa. The regional dialects came out of Apabhramsa into three groups which made up the Bihari language, the Oriya language and the Assamese-Bengali languages. Three periods have been identified in the history of the Bengali language.  

  1. Old Bengali (900AD-1400AD) - The texts include 'Charyapada', devotional songs, emergence of pronouns as Ami and Tumi, emergence of verbs like Ila and Iba.

  2. Middle Bengali (1400AD-1800AD) - Texts include Chandidas' `Sri Krishna Kirtan', emergence of `O' sound, spread of compound verbs and a little infiltration of Farsi language from Persia.

  3. New Bengali (Since 1800AD) - Shortening of verbs and pronouns took place (example - tahar became tar and koriyachhilo became korechhilo). Bengali language has absorbed many words from foreign languages due to many years of influence from the East Asians, Mughals and the Europeans. The Bengali language has often integrated these influences totally into its core vocabulary.



Not up till the eighteenth century was there any attempt to document Bengali grammar. The first Bengali grammar and dictionary document was written by Manuel Da Assumpcam, a Portuguese missionary who compiled the `Vocabolario em Idioma Bengalla' in 1742. Nathaniel Halhad wrote `A Grammar of the Bengal Language' in 1778. Earlier in 1832, the great Bengali reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy also wrote a treatise on Bengali grammar. In the Bengali language, the back vowel is usually an inherent vowel. To represent a consonant sound without any inherent vowel attached to it, a special character, called the hoshonto was added below the basic consonant. Often, consonants that were not marked by a hoshonto carried no inherent vowel sound. A consonant sound followed by some vowel sound other than the inherent was realised by using a variety of vowels above, below, before, after, or around the consonant sign to bind the consonant and the vowel. The Bengali consonant clusters known as juktobenjon are usually ligatures or links where the consonant which comes first is put on top of or to the left of the one that immediately follows. In these ligatures, the shapes of the consonant signs are often suppressed beyond recognition. In Bengali writing system, there are nearly two hundred and eighty five such ligatures representing consonant clusters. Recently, in a bid to lessen this burden on young learners, efforts have been made by educational institutions in the two main Bengali-speaking regions of West Bengal and Bangladesh to address the expansive consonant clusters. As a result, modern Bengali textbooks are beginning to contain more and more transparent graphical forms of consonant clusters. Bengali punctuation marks, apart from the down stroke known as dari (I), the Bengali equivalent of a full stop, have been adopted from western scripts. While in western scripts like Latin and Cyrillic, the letter-forms stand on an invisible baseline, the Bengali letter-forms hang from a visible horizontal head stroke called the matra which is not to be confused with the Hindi one. The matra denotes the dependent forms of vowels. The presence and absence of this matra can be important. The letter-forms also use the concepts of letter-width and letter-height which is the vertical space between the visible matra and an invisible baseline.



Bengali existed as a collection of thousands of dialects till the eighteenth century and did not have a well-documented grammar. The Bengali dialects have been grouped since then into three large categories - Rarh, Banga and Nadia. Rarh is the south western dialect and forms the basis of standard colloquial Bengali. Banga is the dominant dialect group in Bangla Desh. During the standardization of Bengali in the early twentieth century, the cultural center of Bengal was in the city of Kolkata, then Calcutta, founded by the British. What is considered 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 Bangla Desh.



The Bengali writing system is not an alphabetic writing system as in Latin. The script is a variant of the Eastern Nagari script which is used throughout Bangladesh and Eastern India in the regions of Assam, West Bengal, Mithila and Bihar. This script is influenced by the Brahmic script that was prevalent around 1000 AD and is similar to the Devanagiri script which is used in Sanskrit and many other modern Indian languages like Hindi and Marathi. The Bengali script has close historical links with the Assamese script, the Oriya script and the Mithilakshar script which is used in Maithili language. The Bengali script is written with a leisurely style and has eleven signs that denote nine vowels and two diphthongs representing consonants. There are no distinct lower and upper case letter forms. The letters run from left to right and spaces are used to separate words. Like Devanagari, Bengali script has a distinctive horizontal line running along the top of the alphabets that links them together. In the Bengali script, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the sounds (phonemes) and the letters (graphemes) of Bengali. But grapheme-phoneme inconsistencies may occur in certain cases. One kind of inconsistency is due to the presence of several letters in the script for the same sound. In spite of some modifications in the early twentieth century, the Bengali spelling system continues to be based on the one that is used for Sanskrit. Another kind of inconsistency is concerned with the incomplete coverage of phonological information in the script. Bengali has as many as 100,000 separate words, of which 50,000 are considered totshomo which means that it is directly borrowed from Sanskrit; 21,100 are todhbhobo which means they are native words with Sanskrit consonants and the rest are bideshi words which means they are borrowed from foreign languages and deshi words borrowed from other regional languages. There are two standard written forms of Bengali - Shadhubhasha (Sage language) and Choltibhasha (Folk language). Shadhubhasha is the written language with longer verbs and a more Sanskrit-derived vocabulary. Songs like the Indian national anthem, Jana Gana Mana and the national song of India, Vande Mataram (by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay) were composed in a form of Shadhubhasha, but its use is declining in modern texts. As a point of interest, the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are written in Bengali! The national anthems of both India and Bangla Desh were written by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Choltibhasha is a written Bengali style that represents a more colloquial idiom. It is modelled on the form of the regional dialect spoken in the districts bordering on the lower regions of the Hooghly River banks, particularly the Shantipur region in Nadia district, West Bengal, and is often referred to as the `Nadia' standard . Spoken Bengali that is heard in news reports, speeches and announcements is in the Choltibhasha style. The majority of Bengalis are able to communicate in more than one dialect with most of the people being fluent in Choltibhasha. There are also Grammo Bengali dialects or rural dialects that are specific to a village or town. Bengali dialect is typically divided into eight major dialect groups: Western, South Western, Central or West-Central, Northern, Bahe, Eastern, Ganda, and Vanga. Often Chittagongian is also added. During standardization of Bengali in the early twentieth century, the cultural elite was mostly from West Bengal, especially Calcutta and that is why, to this day, the accepted standard language in both West Bengal and Bangladesh is based on the West-Central dialect of the Kolkata elite. There are marked dialectal differences in terms of phonological variations between the speech of Bengalis living on the Poshchim (Western) side and Purbo (Eastern) side of the Padma River.



Justice cannot be done to any essay on the Bengali language without a mention of Shanthi Niketan and Rabindranath Tagore. This boarding school was started on 22nd December 1901 with only a few pupils learning English, Bengali, Literature and history of India. It was run with a system of teachers and pupils living together in natural surroundings and accepting that lifestyle willingly. There were five teachers, three of whom were English and Roman Catholic and this incensed the orthodox Hindus of the time. Tagore did not take any fees from his students. Shanthi Niketan has left its impression on the literary works of Bengal. Tagore himself wrote there about India's past and present and tales of sacrifice. He published novels like `Chokher Bali' (Eyesore) and `Naukadubi' (The Wreck). Tagore attributed the lack of education to be the main hindrance in the way of progress in India and said that illiteracy and disrespect towards learning your regional language was the root of all literary problems in the country.



The South Asia Language Resource Centre recommends the following options for typing in Bengali on Windows platforms: Windows XP Service Pack 2 Keyboard Layout - This upgrade features the Bengali Unicode support. After the upgrade, the keyboard layout may be selected by going to Control Panel>System>Languages. Click on `How to install Fonts and Layouts' in the left navigation bar. The keyboard may be viewed with the on-screen keyboard viewer by going to Start>Program>Files>Utilities>Accessibility>On Screen Keyboard. Microsoft's Keyboard Layout Creator allows the user to create a new keyboard if the default keyboard is not desirable. If the Windows XP Service Pack 2 is not installed, then Bengali will not appear as an option in the language support menu. There is, presently, no built-in support for Bengali language in OS X. However, there is a website, that offers a free system-wide Unicode Bangla solution for OS X that includes two keyboards and two fonts.

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Tahseen Nakavi

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Keywords :
Bengali , Bangla , West Bengal


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