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Ami Shopno (Not swapna) Dekhbo Bolay
Zafar Sobhan

I grew 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.

You might 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).

The way 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).

The conventions 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.

The best 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?

But this 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.

The situation 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?

Granted 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.

One might 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 “thaw”!

It 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 it shadhinota?

Yes, yes, 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 transliterating.

Recently 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.

The only thing marring an otherwise excellent effort was the absurdity of the transliteration.

Come 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.

Back 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.

The problem extends beyond names and seasons to place names and this is where most of the mischief occurs.

In 2001, 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.

The guide-book 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 directions impossible.

I recall 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!

And I speak Bangla (admittedly it's a little rusty). Imagine the confusion if I couldn't.

And I 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.

Learning 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.

Place 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.

But 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?

It ultimately 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?

Now, I 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!

It seems 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?

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.








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