No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive - Mahatma Gandhi
India is a land of diversities. And keeping up with this brand of ethnological diversity, it has no official language either. Many would argue that Hindi is the national language of all the official Indian languages, but it is not entirely true. It is one of the official languages recognized by the Constitution but it is not the national language. Owing to regional diversities in culture, history, and dialects, almost each state in India has its own official language. For example, the Bengali language is the official language of the state of West Bengal. Similarly, English, Hindi, Urdu, and Tamil are other official languages.
One cannot talk about the Bengali language without talking about the history of Bengal and the influence of Bengal culture in shaping the language. When you delve deeper, you will find that there are a lot of differences between written and spoken Bengali. This is because of how Bengal literature has evolved over generations of stalwarts like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, and others. Thanks to them Bengali has come to be recognized as a language of rich culture and there are a few million speakers of the language all around the world.
Origins of the Bengali Language
Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language and also known as Bangla in the local language. It is the official language of the Bengal region of the entire Indian subcontinent including India and Bangladesh. It is the lingua franca of Bangladesh and is the second most widely spoken of all official Indian languages after Hindi. There are about 230 million native Bengali speakers in the world and about 37 million speakers who use it as a second language. This makes it the 6th most widely spoken language in the whole world!
Almost 98% Bangladeshi citizens speak in Bengali while in India, the states of West Bengal , Tripura, and Assam use it as their official language, according to the 1991 census. You would be surprised to know that the Andaman region in the Bay of Bengal area has also adopted Bengali as its official language. Other states that have large populations of Bengali-speaking communities include,
- Arunachal Pradesh
The Bengali diaspora has also spread to countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East.
Bengal culture dates back to more a thousand years. And that's how old the language is too. The Bengal Renaissance was instrumental in developing the language and building a rich Bengal literature heritage. The latter is now one of the most diverse and prolific literary traditions in all of Asia. The period between 1948 to 1956 saw the emergence of the Bengali literature movement that finally led to the emergence of Bangladesh after partition in 1971. In 1999, 21st February was declared as the International Mother Language Day in recognition of this movement by UNESCO.
Bengal Culture and Its Influence on the Language
The Bengal culture is intricately woven into the Bengali heritage of the native people. This includes Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura. In all these regions, Bengali is either the official or the primary language.
How Has the Bengali Language Been Shaped?
Bengal's cultural history dates back to 1400 years from today with the Bengali people forming the primary ethnolinguistic group. Historically, Bengal has been a seat of politics, culture, and traditions. It is a cosmopolitan state that blends indigenous traditions from the pan-Indian subcontinental regions. During the Islamic medieval period in India, Bengal was the richest part of the entire subcontinent. The era of the Bengal Sultanate promoted Bengal to the level of being the major trading nation in the whole world. And during the Mughal era, Bengal's economy was worth 12% of the entire global GDP! The Bengal Presidency was the seat of power for the British Empire which saw the development of the most advanced political and cultural centers.
And then came the Bengal partition which left a deep impact on the Bengal culture. While Bangladesh is the seat of a dominant Bengali Muslim culture, India has a Bengali Hindu majority. Also, West Bengal has a significant Muslim minority and so does Bangladesh when it comes to a Hindu minority. Kolkata is the capital of West Bengal and is home to a sizeable number of ethnic communities.
Also read - the History of Marathi language.
The Modern Era of Bengali Literature
Although not as old as Tamil or Dravidian language, Bengali is one of the oldest Indian languages. The foundation of the Fort William College in 1800 marked the advent of modern Bengal literature. During this period, the power of prose literature was on the rise. And so were new poetic genres. Bengali, being an Indo-Aryan language, has a lot of influence from English literature too. The writers of modern Bengali literature experimented with various types of literary writings.
Types of Literary Writing in Modern Bengali Literature
One of the highlights of the modern era of Bengal literature was how the traditional verses were ditched for modern poetry and more evolved themes and structures. Essays, plays and novels also came to the fore during this period. The Brahmin-Catholic Sangbad by Dom Antonio was the first book to be printed in the Bengali language.
Another highlight of this era was how the foreign rulers of Bengal started to learn Bengali apart from Tamil and Hindi, in order to compile dictionaries and books on Bengali grammar. These immensely helped the English learn Bengali and other Indian languages much faster. This was important to rule the country better. Apart from grammar, books on legislations and laws were also translated.
William Carey, the missionary who came to Bengal in the late 18th century, pioneered the Bengali prose. His Bangla translation of the Bible - Mathi Rachita Mangal Samachar - became instantly famous in 1800.
Eminent Writers of Bengali Essays
The modern period of Bengal literature saw the rise of Bengali essay writing pioneered by Bhudev Mukopadhyay and popularized by Bankim Chandra. Other noteworthy names in this genre include,
- Troyilokyanath Sanyal
- Kaliprosonna Ghosh
- Chandranath Basu
- Ramdas Sen
- Chandrasekhar Mukhopadhyay
The Spread of Bengal Culture & Community Around the World
Don't limit a child to your own learning for she was born in another time - Rabindranath Tagore
Akbar made Persian the official language for all administrative purposes in Bengal during the Mughal ea. But side by side, Bengali developed as a regional language. Thus the Bengali language has borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. This also means that Islam had a deep impact on the Bengali language. Having said that, no one can really claim to be the inventor of the language since Bengali evolved very organically. It is mostly derived from Sanskrit but several non-Sanskrit words derived from other languages like Urdu and Persian have also become integral to the Bengali language, especially modern Bengali.
The Modern Bengali Language
This is derived from a combination of dialects in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Palit, and Magadhi. Apart from Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. The language developed extensively during the period of Bengal Renaissance more than 1,300 years ago. Modern Bangla as you know it today, rose in the late 19th and early 20th century thanks to the pioneering work of Michael Madhusudan Dutta and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.
Two Main Forms of Modern Bengali Language
This is nothing but spoken Bengali like spoken English. It is used in daily communication and is based on the dialect popular in the Shantipur region of Nadia district.
This is the Sanskritised version of the Bengali language. For example, India's national anthem - Jana Gana Mana, written by Rabindranath Tagore, was composed using Shadhubhasha.
How to Learn Bengali Online?
Of all the Indian languages, Bengali is one of the easiest to learn. But if you are trying to do it by yourself, it may seem challenging at first. Bengali is a lot easier to learn than Japanese or Chinese but harder than Hindi. But thanks to its closeness with the English language, it is not an insurmountable task. Just like English, Bengali also belongs to the Indo-Aryan language family.
Simple & Easy Tips on How to Learn Bengali
The Bengali language is fun to learn. And with these easy methods, it should be a walk in the park -
- Learn the 28 Bengali alphabets and memorize them as symbols to retain information better.
- Correct your pronunciation by learning with a native Bengali friend.
- Enroll in a beginner's course for learning the Bengali language.
- Search for online resources like videos and podcasts to improve your vocabulary, pronunciation and spoken Bengali.
- Read books or articles in Bengali to improve your Bengali reading skills.
- Write regularly in Bengali.
Also learn Tamil and Telugu online. Find out how.
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