On scripting Bengali

A couple of months ago, I wrote a guest blog post for কথকতা, a really interesting blog edited by my friend Mr. Mohammad Sajjadur Rahman. It took a lot of prodding on Sajjad’s part to get me to write in Bengali, in the course of which, I made some very useful technical discoveries about typing in non-cursive Indic scripts, such as Bengali. I will write a separate blog post about this soon.

I am very proud of my first little ‘thoughtful’ post written in Bengali, so here is a link to it.

Here is also an English version of it. Here is also an opportunity for me to than Sajjad for his encouragement in writing critical, if not academic pieces in Bengali, and to Mr ABM Shamsuddoza (Sajen) for teaching me much that is in the piece below.

Bengali in many forms, or, the play of scripts

Bengali is considered to be one of the New Indo-Aryan languages that emerged from Sanskrit. Despite the technical accuracy of that proposition, Bengali vocabulary abounds in Arabic and Persian words. Such mixed-vocabulary languages used in medieval Bengali literary compositions, is known as ‘dobhashi’ language, and since such language was used in the pre-print age, it is also referred to as ‘puthi Bangla’ or manuscript Bengali. Although both Hindu and Muslim authors of the pre-modern age used such language, after the linguistic reforms of the 19th century, such language (and register) came to be referred to as Musulmani Bangla. Possibly the pro-peasant social reformer and linguist, Rev. James Long, had something to do with the coining of this term. In any case, much has been said by experts on this topic, and I have nothing to add to it. What I wish to attract attention to in this little piece, is Bengali’s flexible use of alternative scripts,  and the use of Bengali script to write other languages.

Historically, di-graphia exists in other South Asian languages, most famously in the language that eventually separated into Hindi and Urdu. But in that case, the separation is complete, or at least is perceived as complete: written in the Arabic script, the language is called Urdu, written in Nagri script, it is Hindi. In Bengali, the play between scripts continued for much longer, and, I would argue, extends until the present day.

Let us take an example from the streets of present-day Dhaka. On vehicles and store-fronts, one frequently encounters substantial chunks of Arabic text, written in Bengali script. This can be the kalima: ‘La ilaha il-Allah Muhammad al-rasul Allah,’ as seen on the rear of this auto-rickshaw or ‘CNG.’ It can also be autonomous Arabic sentences or fragments, such as ‘Fi aman Allah’ (in God’s protection), as seen on the front of this bus.

In both cases, the phenomenon described extends beyond the adoption of key words from a high status or sacred language (in this case Arabic), within the local or host language (Bengali). Both examples are entirely Arabic, grammatically and on the basis of vocabulary; but written in Bengali script. Clearly, in both these examples, the Arabic sentence or phrase serves invocatory purposes, and as such, is adopted phonetically and semantically by Bengalis who use it, but who do not necessarily have or need technical grammatical understanding of it. As such, it makes full sense to transliterate it in Bengali script, but it is still striking that Bengalis choose to do so, overriding the sacred quality ascribed to the Arabic script across the Islamic world.

I am not sure when exactly Bengalis developed such a passionate attachment to their script. The significant debates preceding the language war of 1971, for example the refusal to keep the language but relinquish the script, as proposed by the Pakistani side, are illustrative of that attachment. However, the examples of transliteration and preference for Bengali script that I offered from present-day Dhaka may not entirely be explicable with references to the 1970s. As it happens, I came across a document from the 1780s, where we see a linguistically similar phenomenon (another language written in Bengali script). This time, however, the purpose was entirely non-religious; it was written by the infamous Sikh merchant Omichand (Amir Chand), who played a well-known role in the conspiracy to remove Nawab Siraj al-dawla from the throne of Bengal. Amir Chand was a banker and litigated frequently in the Mayor’s court of Calcutta, pursuing defaulting British debtors. Perhaps in the course of one of these cases in the 1730s and 40s, Amir Chand wrote the letter below, and signed it in a highly cursive Nagri script.

This letter, despite being written in Bengali script, remained illegible to me until recently, that is until I realized that  the language of this letter may have been some thing other than Bengali. Indeed, the letter ends by stating great injustice has happened to him – ‘bahut be-insafi hua.’ The entire letter, in fact, is in Hindi, but it is written in Bengali script.

The opposite was also true – Bengali was also written in other scripts. Of this, the phenomenon of Sylheti Nagri is perhaps best known; but Bengali was also written in Arabic-derived scripts. We have one such example from Gharibullah’s translation to Bengali of the Persian story series: Qissa-yi Amir Hamza (Stories of Amir Hamza). Gharibullah was perhaps from Hughli, and wrote in the second half of the eighteenth century, the manuscript that was preserved in Jessore, and commented upon in the 1920s was in Arabic script. Moreover, the book was printed in the nineteenth century in two scripts; Arabic and Bengali.

So, what are the implications of this graphic variation and flexibility? While this is something that would require far more research, I think it represents Bengal’s continued cosmopolitanism (in the Sheldon Pollock sense, but refusing his specific arguments) and resistance to the disciplines of linguistic standardization that print-culture and national education has been trying to impose on populations throughout the world since the nineteenth century.

While the post itself ended here, I am beginning to reflect on the history of constriction of the scope of Bengali language and script; when and how did our vision of Bengali language forget the possibilities outlined above? Who were/are the agents of that process?

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search