Banglish debate - In defence of change and variety
Dr Binoy Barman
I extend my heartiest thanks to the five writers who have kindly read my article 'I am not ashamed of speaking Banglish' and spent their valuable time to vent their reaction styled as 'What Banglish, Whose Banglish' (published on November 4, 2007 issue of Campus). They have raised an intellectual debate which is interesting in itself and I feel happy to be a part of it. We due respect to all of them, I would like to clarify some points here in defence of my position, which should help to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation. I always have respect for others' opinions just as mine. I feel an obligation to talk for what I believe to be true, although it may not be liked by others.
I understand their emotions when they refer to the standard use of Bangla, development of the language through history and the struggle of people for establishing its status during Pakistani era. It is the patriotic feeling that has driven them to oppose Banglish. Fine! I also love my country and my mother tongue. I also want Bangla to be a dominant language in the world and live for ever. But emotion sometimes conflicts with reality. Reality says language always changes in society whether we like it or not. Personal love or hatred does not determine the character and fate of the language. Language emerges, develops and dies in its own course like all other things in the universe. Nobody can stop this change, although it may be slowed down or diverted to particular directions with state intervention (language planning, for example).
Nowhere in my article had I suggested that standard Bangla should be neglected and Banglish should be promoted instead. Standard Bangla has its own importance (it is of paramount importance for us, indeed) and it will be exercised by people in their own needs. It should be promoted in all possible ways, I say. Banglish is not its alternative. As a variety (or non-variety), it is used by certain people in certain situations. It is not a threat to Bangla whatsoever, as the writers have imagined. Banglish will always be there on the sideline of Bangla. It does not require any institutional patronisation for its emergence and usage. And it cannot be suppressed with frown either.
The face of Bangla that we witness today was not the same throughout history. It was very different in middle and old ages. Take the language of Mangal Kabya or Punthi Sahitya, you will realise how different it was. And if you go further back to Charjapad, you can hardly recognise it as Bangla. But it was Bangla, despite its primitive look. Bangla has been used by common people for ages, culminating in present state, with all its regional varieties. What we call 'standard Bangla' is one variety which has got its recognition as such only recent, say, after the independence of Bangladesh. The standard Bangla, which is used in text books and spoken practically only by a small number of people with a sense of appropriateness, will also not be the same in future, after one hundred or one thousand years. The change will be caused by various socio-economic realities. All the apparently odd words and odd pronunciations detected by the critics now are nothing but indicative of change. We often fail to accept them because of our deep-rooted conventions which shape up our patterns of thought.
Change is desirable too, for it makes way for enrichment of language. New words are incorporated in language and existing words are extended to newer meanings. Just think how indebted we are to Sanskrit, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi and Urdu for giving Bangla so many loans in words and otherwise. And English? Our today's Bangla carries the legacy of two-century British rule. Turn over the pages of a Bangla dictionary, or think yourself, you can easily spot the marks. Our shirt, pants, coat, tie, shoe, office, chair, table, glass, jug, ice-cream, noodles, school, college, board, chalk, pencil, marker, academy, lecture, radio, television -- all these and thousands more have come from English, directly or indirectly. English continues to contribute even today to our vocabulary via science and technology, immigration and diplomacy. We are so intimately associated with computer, printer, monitor, hardware, software, pen-drive, lap-top, e-mail, mobile phone, SIM, pre-paid, post-paid, SMS and flexi-load that we often forget these are English words. Bangla equivalents for them? Try a bit. The prevalence of English has already made our language Banglish, strictly speaking. You can't prevent the onslaught of English in your life and language, can you?
The writers have found my use of the terms 'code-mixing' and 'bilingualism' contradictory in the article. They have claimed that 'bilingualism' cannot come where 'code-mixing' is used. I think they have not any clear understanding of the two terms. The non-interface between 'code-mixing' and 'bilingualism', as they have imagined, might be the result of their myopic theoretical vision. When two languages are mixed in somebody's speech under some psychological and sociological constraints, it is technically called 'code-mixing'. And 'bilingualism' is the use of two languages either by an individual or by a group of speakers (See 'Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics'). Code-mixing and bilingualism are closely related.
Code-mixing arises from bilingualism with the speciality of mixture, or the other way round, bilingualism gives rise to code-mixing in certain contexts. A code-mixer is undoubtedly a bilingual; a monolingual cannot be a code-mixer. Now, don't confuse with the use of the term 'bilingual' again. Let's see how David Crystal defines 'bilingual' in his 'A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics' (firth edition/2003). He says: 'Bilingual' is 'a person who can speak two languages … it contrasts with monolingual.” He further says, definitions of bilingualism reflect assumptions about the degree of proficiency people must achieve before they qualify as bilingual. Read Roger T Bell (“Sociolinguistics: Goals, Approaches and Problems”) to check how the degree of proficiency is measured -- how one becomes compound or co-ordinate bilingual depending on the manner he/she exploits the two linguistic codes available. And we must not forget how Bell assesses the use of multiple languages (multilingualism): “Multi-code usage is normal linguistic behaviour, whether it be intra- or inter-language switching, and in rather simplistic terms, it might be better to think of the bilingual, not as an oddity but as an ordinary individual, whose repertoire happens to contain codes, which, in others, would be labelled as separate languages.” (p. 118)
The use of Banglish in the FM Radio channels which I called 'FM register' has proved to be an anathema to the writers. I cited FM register as an example of Banglish, marked by extreme mixing of Bangla and English. Here the mixing seems to be done intentionally with a view to providing humour to the audience. Not that the presenters could not use only one language (either Bangla or English), but that would not probably have the desired effect. Bangla and English are mixed in other practical situations too. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, computer scientists and all other professionals in Bangladesh, who know the jargons of concerned fields, always mix Bangla and English, out of sheer necessity, while conversing among themselves and with others. I am not an advocate of any register. What I believe is that registers bring variety and vibrancy to a language and these are the evidence of strength rather than weakness of a language, contrary to apprehension of my respectable colleagues. There is nothing to be afraid of FM register or so!
I am acquainted with some Bangladeshi fellows, who, thanks to their English-heavy education, tend to mix Bangla and English. Of course, they do not do this intentionally; their brains just fail to process two linguistic codes separately like a monolingual Bengali or English person. They are characteristically bilingual and helplessly speak Banglish. They pronounce Bangla in a different way, for which they are often accused of speaking with affectation or pretence and made fun of, leading to inferiority complex eventually. But they do not deserve this maltreatment, be sure, flowing from the pretension of the standard Bangla speakers. The Banglish haters cannot understand that their victims have no other choice but speak Banglish. Observe the language of your relatives who have returned from an English speaking country after long stay there. You will unfailingly discover what you will call Banglish. Or notice the speech of an English chap trying to speak Bangla around you. You must find Banglish in him/her. You may hear him/her saying “Ami bhalo achchey” or so, with wrong grammar and pronunciation. Will you attempt to ostracise them for this 'offence' (speaking Banglish) none of their own?
Banglish is not anything objectionable, per se, as many would blame it to be. It is only the attitude which makes it objectionable. It is merely a prejudice. The learned writers must know that dialects or regional varieties of a language are commonly thought inferior to the standard form. But it is only an attitudinal problem. Inferiority is not inherent in any dialect. The dialect of Noakhali, Barisal, Chittagong or Sylhet is as good as the standard Bangla, in scientific analysis. Similarly, it is only the attitude embedded in our socio-psychological convention which prompts people to devalue what is termed Banglish. The term has been rendered pejorative or derogatory, unfortunately, from misunderstanding, to mean a linguistic phenomenon so innocent and harmless intrinsically. We have imposed undue value on Banglish which forthwith evokes negative reaction to it.
It is only my personal conviction that Banglish is rightly existing and it is popular with a section of young generation (may be, they are lollypop teenagers, as the writers identify). Anybody can differ with me and I am not going to object. My article was a subjective account, subjectivity being explicit in the title of the article; a first person singular pronoun (“I”) was used, if you have noticed. I do not think everybody will think the way I do. In the introductory paragraph it was made clear that readers may have positive or negative reaction to Banglish -- they may love or hate it, freely. I did not dogmatically claim the universal acceptance of Banglish. 'Beauty' and 'stylishness' were also my personal discovery. These were not necessarily intended to be shared by all. The aesthetic sense of the honourable quintet may in fact be diametrically opposite to mine and I have nothing to say when they find Banglish unnatural and unacceptable.
Let us try to define Banglish. Correct me, if I am wrong. Banglish is the linguistic phenomenon (spoken or written) in which Bangla and English are mixed by an individual or community in particular instances conveniently taking words from the two languages in varying proportions, which may (or may not) deviate from normal structure and pronunciation. It is really a matter of sociolinguistic research how words are mixed in Banglish and in what situations -- how the sentence structure and pronunciation are affected. There is a sense in investigating Banglish objectively -- it has important implications for our language planning, education policy and textbook writing. So long as we hate Banglish, we cannot attain the objective.
If the writers really hate Banglish, I would like to invite them to look into their own utterances. Don't they use Banglish, mixing up Bangla and English, to any degree, at any time, in practical situations? Whoever know two or more languages are liable to use them in mixture, at times, if not always. The mixture comes out spontaneously, and often unconsciously. This is unavoidable and there is no escape, because the two linguistic codes are processed in the brain according to the psychological/neurological laws which mostly remain out of conscious control. Despite knowing two languages, one may try strictly to restrict to only one language or the other during a conversation, but he/she will not be successful in doing so all the time. One time or other he must fall into mixing, naturally.
It must be remembered that by learning two languages people commit a 'sin' of being thrown into bilingualism, which at personal level results in linguistic hybridisation that others hate so much. (I compare learning multiple languages with marrying multiple persons (of opposite sex, hopefully), which puts one to polygamy!) In Bangladesh, if we happen to know Bangla and English, we all use Banglish, more or less, now or then. We are doomed to do so, by definition.