Shopno (Not swapna) Dekhbo Bolay
up in Dhaka in the 1980s, and while I have never been a great
fan of the martial law under which we spent the bulk of the
decade, one must give credit where credit is due. The one
piece of legislation that was passed in the 1980s that I thoroughly
approve of was the change in the spelling of our capital from
Dacca to Dhaka.
think that this is a little on the trivial side and that there
are more important functions of government than determining
how place names should be spelled. Actually, I would suggest
that the opposite is true. Frankly, with the various missteps
taken by successive governments, I think we would all be a
bit relieved if they focused a little more on the micro (such
as spelling) instead of the macro (such as banning books).
that Bangla is transliterated into English has been a pet
peeve of mine since I returned to the country with my parents
in 1980 and set about the thankless task of relearning how
to read, write, and speak Bangla from scratch (yes, yes, I
had forgotten all my Bangla in my years abroad, don't get
me started, it's a long story).
that govern the transliteration of Bangla into English didn't
make any sense to me then and they still make no sense to
me today. I have no real idea how this sorry state of affairs
came to be and who is to blame for the travesty of transliteration
that has been foisted upon us.
I can hazard in terms of a guess is that it has something
to do with going back to the Sanskrit roots of the language.
Not that that makes any sense. After all, when it comes to
transliterating English into Bangla, who cares what the Latin
or Anglo-Saxon root of the English word is?
rogue transliteration has seeped into every aspect of life
here and it is impossible to pass a day without being subject
to its scurrilous effects.
is so bad that people to this day routinely spell their names
wrong. I don't get it. If your name is pronounced Onol wouldn't
that be a better way of spelling it than Anal?
that may be an extreme (though I swear to you true) case,
but the same goes for many other names where the spelling
is not embarrassing but merely confusing: there is Shopon
that is routinely spelled Swapan, and Bishash that is spelled
Biswas -- I could go on and on. Basically, anything which
should be spelled with an O (which is a pretty common vowel
in Bangla) is spelled with an A, anything that should be spelled
with an S and an H (also very common in Bangla) is spelled
with just an S, and don't even get me started on Js and Zs
and transliterating “chondro-bindus” as Ns.
argue that English is full of odd spellings, and that is certainly
true -- names such as Geoffrey or Thomas spring instantly
to mind -- but that's their problem! Why add to the confusion?
I mean, when we write these names in Bangla, we don't write
them the way they are spelled, but the way they are pronounced.
Thomas in Bangla is spelled with a “taw” not a
really hit home to me when I was helping prepare the various
special supplements that we put out on important days. Like
March 26th. What, pray tell me, do we celebrate on this day?
Why, our swadhinata of course! What in God's name
is that? What is swadhinata? What is wrong with writing
I know that in Bangla it is spelled with a “shaw-e-baw-phola”
but the fact of the matter is that in Bangla the “baw-phola”
sound is silent and so there is no need to reproduce it when
we put together our special Bangla New Year issue. It was
a really nice supplement, and I am very proud of the (small)
role I played in its production, and am filled with admiration
for those who did the bulk of the work on it.
only thing marring an otherwise excellent effort was the absurdity
of the transliteration.
on. Am I the only person who finds it strange when we wish
one another a shubho nababarsha in print? Nababarsha?
What the hell is that? I do believe that what we are trying
to wish one another is a shubho noboborsho. It seems
bizarre to me that quintessential Bangali celebrations such
as Bangla New Year and Independence are subject to these indignities.
to the nababarsha supplement. It was a wonderful
effort -- filled with moving and interesting encomiums to
festivals celebrating the seasons of the year. All well and
good. But am I the only one who is disturbed reading about
the wonders of Basanta and Barsha and Sharat?
I mean, what is this? And please note that according to current
convention both borsho and borsha are spelled
the same way in English -- barsha -- am I the only
person who finds this madly confusing? Surely not.
extends beyond names and seasons to place names and this is
where most of the mischief occurs.
I spent two months travelling the length and breadth of the
country. It was an amazing trip, and one that I will never
forget. But it was on the road and armed only with my trusty
Lonely Planet guide-book that I really became aware of the
absurdity of the situation. Village after village, town after
town, city after city -- all seemed to be spelled in such
a way as to engender the maximum confusion.
was invaluable in telling me how to get to places and where
I might find cheap accommodation and what I might want to
see, but the one thing it couldn't do was to tell me how things
are pronounced. This was kind of a problem. It makes asking
trying to locate an area of Chittagong identified in the guide-book
as Paterghatta. But how is that actually pronounced? The way
it is spelled? Maybe it's Patherghatta or Potherghatta or
Pathorghatta. You know something, even today I still don't
have a clue how the damn place should be pronounced!
speak Bangla (admittedly it's a little rusty). Imagine the
confusion if I couldn't.
would imagine that the confusion for those who are working
hard to learn English is endless. There you are sitting in
a bus after an IELTS class somewhere. You think you are learning
how to speak and read and write English. What better way to
test yourself than to read the signs on the road and on buildings
that you pass. It must be quite perplexing that the English
letters you see before you do not match up properly with the
Bangla ones below or above them.
English is difficult enough for anyone. But the problems for
a Bangladeshi are even more acute, as when he or she learns
English it is not enough to learn the language and all its
oddities and conventions, but one must also learn the conventions
of Bangla transliteration, which adds another layer of difficulty
to the process.
names are changing in India, but I don't think that we need
to go so far. I have no problem with the fact that Chottogram
is Chittagong in English. Different places have different
names in all languages. I suppose I can even live with Bogura
being Bogra in English.
what I don't get is when something is pronounced the same
way in both Bangla and English, but in English is spelled
funny. Take Sylhet. Where the hell did the H come from? Let
me take you through the Bangla spelling. All together now
-- donto-shaw-e-eekar-law-e-ekar-taw. No H anywhere.
Is it any wonder that foreigners pronounce Sonargaon as Sonner-gone
instead of Shonargao?
comes down to a question of pride. Do we name people and places
ourselves or are we happy with the naming that has been handed
down to us from who knows where (I strongly suspect the heavy
hand of colonial rule is not guiltless in all of this)? Do
we define ourselves or are we defined by others? Do we spell
things in a way that make sense to us or in a way that makes
sense to other people?
don't know who's in charge of languages and how we can go
about changing this sorry state of affairs. But we could all
start by making a change in our own writing and this is what
I henceforth resolve to do. No longer will I be bound by the
tyranny of conventional transliteration!
to me a terrible affront to us all that even the seat of government
-- our parliament building -- is spelled wrong. After all,
if we can't even bring ourselves to spell the very seat of
government in the country correctly, what can we motivate
ourselves to do? Sangsad Bhaban my foot. Come on people, would
it kill us to spell it Shongshod Bhobon?
Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.