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    Volume 10 |Issue07 | February 18, 2011 |


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Taking Liberty with Bangla

Shah Husain Imam

A lot of young men and women get their face painted with the image of Shaheed Minar during the month February.Photo: zahedul i khan

Immediately after Bangladesh was born, for months together, the air around us would be abuzz with warbling dialects. That is how these sounded at that time. Dhakaiya, Noakhailya, Jessorite, Chittagonian, you name it, these were the terms wafting into your eardrums in a new clime of receptivity. The dialects or their derivatives came in vogue as though the tongue, breaking loose of all artificial trappings and frills, had found new eloquence. By a strictly literati reckoning, these could perhaps be termed ‘pedestrian’ but that would be far from the truth. As a matter of fact, the proclivity towards coming into one’s own was not confined to the common man. Even the educated and the literati, regardless of where they came from, would take a pick and converse in the ‘new’ language. It was the sweet hang-up of the mingling between classes, both in the mind as well as through physical proximity that owed to the human bondage formed through the war of liberation. The class, ethnic and religious distinctions evaporated for the first time in known history as people taking shelter in or passing through villages, shared food, space and concerns with each other. With the residual imprint of those days on their minds at independence, freedom fighters, secretariat officials, businessmen, teachers and students without even so much as realising it developed a hybrid spoken language with a dash of Dhakaiya in it. There were also the war-time imageries quietly ambling into the vocabulary. At the other pole, the purists, busy finding appropriate Bangla equivalents for English words and terms stuck to the Sanskrit, Prakrit roots of Bangla language. As a result, some difficult words were coined and came to be used in written script, even in formal speech-making, even though the efforts to make Bangla equivalents, easily intelligible to most people, ran concurrently. The quest goes on. The linguists, however, insistent they might have been, on the use of chaste Bangla, would somehow let go of the liberty taken with the spoken language.

Spirit of the language movement is vibrant among the youths. Photo: zahedul i khan

From that heart-warming, mellifluous phase we have now dropped off to a low in spoken Bangla. The pidgin variety that most of the private radio channels spews out with not a single sentence uttered ever free of English words, is leaving the listeners neither here nor there! They are unlearning both Bangla and whatever little of the English they might learnt before. It is hardly hearing-friendly, nor perhaps expressive of the ideas sought to be conveyed, although the springy intonation might have its following among the youngsters. Actually, the capacity to string out full sentences is being stifled among the youngsters because of such affectations creeping in. No wonder, standards of elocution have fallen so sharply. On a lighter side though, the rickshaw-puller or CNG driver can make do with a smattering of English words to communicate with a foreign tourist. By comparison though, his counterpart in India or Sri Lanka do a better job of speaking English. All this is not to gloss over the benefits of objective information dissemination derived from the private radio channels, some of their programmes being popular and useful, too. On a broader plane, perhaps it is in our DNA to be pendulous in our choices, from one extreme we swing to the other. We are caught in an either-or tangle, there being apparently two alternatives for us when opting in or out. That there could be a third, more balanced middle-road of an option, rarely weighs with us.

This is what has happened with the place of English in our country. After independence, the place of Bangla was a settled fact of life. Rather than using it to spread literacy we became obsessed with it at the expense of English. The latter had a legacy of good curricula and a reservoir of teaching skills which were to fall into disuse. For years in the beginning, we allowed linguistic chauvinism to play out, admit it or not. In our enthusiasm for Bangla, we relegated English, setting in a process of disorientation from it. The clock of progress ticked backwards. It’s only lately that English has been elevated to its rightful place but years of neglect has taken its toll. By contrast India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal have had their state languages while at the same time cultivating their links with English, some of them enriching its literature with their original contributions. India practically treated English as the lingua franca despite Hindi being the state language. Result: she has been confidently co-travelling and co-sharing with the western world in terms of strengthening a knowledge-based society, high-tech acquisition and market inter-penetration. China, another emerging world power, is massively embracing English.

A final word, as the harbinger of the UNESCO-declared International Mother Language Day which is suffused with respect for all indigenous languages, we are obligated not to let down any of our own aboriginal languages. Instead, we should promote them. Simultaneously, Bangla should benefit from our rich cultural heritage, newer depths of which are unfolding to strengthen our belief in liberalism and opening out to the rest of the world.



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