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     Volume 4 Issue 2 | July 2, 2004 |


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A Roman Column

Towards the Same


Neeman Sobhan

Thank you Zafar Sobhan for snatching the words from my mouth in your last article [June 25 'Shopno (not swapna) Dekhbo Boley']. We have something more in common than just the coincidence of possessing the same surname: I share your indignant views about the sorry state of Bangla transliteration. Thank you for being a discerning 'Bongo-shontan' (NOT Banga-santan) and making the case for our mangled mother tongue in her printed version. For years I have been fighting this cause to no avail. Whenever in my writings I insisted on spelling a Bangla word to represent what it sounds like in normal speech, say, ‘bhodro' for decent, ‘shaastho' for health or ‘sriti' for memory, some editorial pen, schooled in the conventional methods, immediately changed it to the alien or Hindi sounding ‘bahdra,' ‘swasthya,' and ‘smriti'! Go figure!

Archaic rules of English transliteration of Bangla have always irritated me. I realised just how counter-productive this could be when I was teaching my sons their mother tongue here in Italy and picked up a Bangla-for-Foreigners type of book. I promptly trashed it in disgust for it sounded like Maiythali-resurrected-for Beginners! I mean, easy to pronounce and simple Bangla words had been complicated beyond recognition, turning, for example, the word for 'good' into ‘bhala,' 'speech' into ‘katha', 'story' into ‘galpa' and 'thank you' into ‘dhanyabad.' I decided that if this subversive book fell into the hands of my impressionable boys this would not be ‘bhala khabar' at all.

Left to such teach-yourself-books, many foreign enthusiast friends and acquaintances of ours learnt to speak gibberish, which I have had to help them unlearn. One gentleman very proudly complimented me in his newly acquired language as being a ‘shundar mey-yay'. "No, no," I clicked my tongue impatiently. He thought I was being over-modest. "No really," he insisted. "No silly, I meant ‘may', without the 'yay', as in April-May." "But the book said ‘may-yay'," he looked annoyed but rolled the phrase ‘shundar may' for practice. I didn't dare correct the adjective; compliments don't grow on trees and Ekushey February is far off.

Still, generally undeterred, I do go around correcting the mispronunciations of innocent foreigners who learn by reading our faulty books. When I tell the victims of self-learning that banana is not ‘kala' not even ‘kola' as in coca-cola but 'call-a' as in call-a-friend, and that the word ‘basundhara' is pronounced ‘boshoondhora' and not 'bay-sun-dhara' or ‘Ananya' is ‘Onnonna' or the river Padma is ‘Podda', they are rightly miffed for being violently misled, and I hang down my head as if it were my fault. I ask myself why we persist in complicating the way our language is viewed, read, learnt and pronounced in English? Are we, perhaps, part of a conspiracy to keep Bangla from spreading?

Meanwhile Urdu and Hindi are alive and well and blossoming among non-native speakers because what is written represents what is pronounced and not contradictory as in Bangla. My boys who, unlike their parents, don't speak a word of Urdu or Hindi, could still read aloud and pronounce correctly any Hindi film title (albeit without comprehension) but were baffled when reading the title of the Bangla CD called ‘Chokh bhese jaay jaley' of a singer called Mahmudduzzaman Babu which I bought for them because it contains one of my favourite songs ‘Banglaye gaan gayeei'. "’Jal' is net, right?" my heir apparent hazarded. The second in line to the throne mumbled, "So his eyes are doing what in the net?" It takes me a moment to realise that what is evident to me is not so clear to my princelings, so I rewrite the title ''Chokh bheshey jaaye jawley' and immediately their expressions clear up "Water!" they groan. " That's easy: 'My Eyes flood with tears'!" Mine too-- at our insistence on making our language so needlessly difficult.

I hope you noticed my use of ‘aw' instead of ‘o' for 'water.' I agree that it is hard enough to change the conventions of spelling water as ‘jal' to ‘jol' without further fine tuning, but foreign speakers could easily misinterpret the 'o' sound as ‘jole' rather than ‘jawl' And this confusing of the open and close 'o' sounds can cause terrible sounding Bangla.

I first noticed this from the time I listened to a recording of Lata singing Bangla modern songs and Asha Bhosle singing Tagore. In the latter case, I had no problem with her singing style since I am open to a natural and non-Shantiniketoni style, but my nerves were jarred by the confusion of ‘owe's and ‘aw's by both the sisters destroying the beauty of the music. I blame whoever provided the singers with a written text of the songs, probably using the English 'o' indiscriminately for both the open and closed sounds. In English we have the ‘o' of 'not' which is the closed sound in the Bangla word for sickness or ‘Awshookh'; and the open ‘o' in English that normally needs an ‘e' after the adjacent consonant as in 'note' which is in the Bangla word for rights or ‘odhikar'. Using an ‘o' for both sounds can be misleading especially when the same word incorporates both sounds as in the word dream or ‘shopno.' Those who know Bangla can discriminate between the two types of 'o' but a non-bangla speaker like Asha Bosle would not, thus mangling the song ‘Shawp-ney aamar money holo' to ‘Shope-ney amar money holo'. Some other words of this kind that Asha and Lata stumbled over were: ‘rojoni' ‘choron' 'jogot' 'ridoyo' 'gogon' which should be transliterated, perhaps as rawjoni, chawron, jawgot, ridawyo, gawgon etc.

I am not qualified to prescribe anything but am merely mapping the danger zones of Bangla pronunciation where transliteration needs special attention and am suggesting solutions that have worked for me and the non-Bangla speakers I have tried to help. I learnt Bangla at home from my mother who was also a talented but homespun singer of Robindro-shongit (stay thy editorial hands ye who would change that to Rabindra-sangit!) and in my enthusiasm to learn the songs I would transliterate my favourites into Roman English. In the process I found my own system which best carried the actual sounds of spoken Bangla into English, which even my Urdu speaking friends could pronounce the words as well as I.

Recently I helped my Bengali-Indian singer friend when she was doing a CD recording of Tagore's songs for an Italian producer. She needed to have the songs transliterated and translated into Italian from her competent English translations, and I was going to help an Italian to do that. The day I looked at the transliteration that she provided and found myself in certain unfamiliar songs unable even from the context to surmise whether a word like ‘amar' was the possessive ‘mine' or the ‘awmor' of eternal, whether ‘shakal' refered to the ‘shokal' of morning or ‘shokol' as in 'everyone', I begged her to discard the old-fashioned system, and we re-wrote the songs in simple Roman English. Although the final version sported diacrtical phonetic marks and retained many mistakes, it was a vast improvement and easy for Italians to follow.

In my experience, transliterating Bangla into Italian was no problem since we by-passed the self created obstacles of Bangla into English rules that mindlessly follow the written spelling. The Italians pronounce Bangla beautifully; I am convinced any foreigner could pronounce Bangla flawlessly if we just simplified our approach. ‘Shopno' or ‘Shawpno', as long as we say farewell to the nightmare of ‘swapna', we can dream of a representative, shawhoj, shoondor Bangla.

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