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     Volume 8 Issue 58 | February 20, 2009 |

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Special Feature

The Spirit of Universality

Dr Sameer Ud Dowla Khan

Racial, religious, national, tribal, and ethnic lines are meaningless on 21 February. Unlike independence days, religious holidays, cultural festivals, or birthdays of national figures, International Mother Language Day celebrates something everyone can appreciate: our right to use our native tongue. Whether we speak a national language whose use is promoted by the government or a local language spoken only by a handful of underprivileged people, we celebrate. Whether our language is written in letters, syllables, characters, Braille, or not written at all, we celebrate. Whether we communicate our language through our mouths or through our hands, we celebrate. The essential beauty of this holiday is its universality and accessibility. And yet, ironically, it is now celebrated in the land of its origin lacking the spirit of universality it has inspired abroad.

Of course, the differences between the way Bangladeshis tend to view Ekushey February and the way the rest of the world views International Mother Language Day are rooted in the holiday’s special place in Bangladeshi history. Before being recognised worldwide by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999, the tradition of commemorating Ekushey February began when Bangla-speaking students were killed protesting the adoption of Urdu as the single official language of Pakistan. And as we all know, the protest became part of the nationwide Bangla Language Movement and sowed the seeds for a revolution which ultimately gave birth to Bangladesh. Because the story of Ekushey February is so tightly intertwined with our identity as Bangladeshis and as Bangalis, we have come to view the holiday solely as a celebration of the Bangla language—or more specifically, of the standard variant of the Bangla language—instead of a celebration of the mother tongues of all Bangalis, of all Bangladeshis, and of all people. In this way, the celebration of Ekushey February has simply reduced to another ethnic and national holiday in the country of its conception.

Now, one may claim that Bangladeshis are simply so ethnically and linguistically homogeneous that it would not make sense to celebrate any language other than Bangla, but in fact we are all aware that this is not the case. Not only is Bangladesh ethnically heterogeneous—with Bangalis coexisting with lakhs of Santals, Biharis, Khasis, Garos, Bishnupriya Manipuris, Oraons, Mundas, Chakmas, Marmas, Tipperas, Mros, and other peoples—it is also highly diverse linguistically. In addition to the myriad of Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic, and Dravidian languages spoken by the non-Bangali groups, the country is rich with countless dialects and sub-dialects of Bangla. The term “dialect” is used here in the scientific sense, denoting any variant of a language, whether it is the “standard dialect” or otherwise. Indeed, experts have long described Bangla as a “dialect continuum”, a large group of related variants of the same language, where neighboring dialects—such as those of Tangail and Gazipur—are mutually intelligible (people from one group can easily understand those from another), and dialects spoken geographically far from one another—such as those of Noakhali and Dinajpur—are mutually unintelligible. The dialects at the geographical extremes of the continuum, such as Sylheti, Chittagonian, Mal Paharia, and Rohingya, are often so unintelligible to speakers of other dialects that they are considered completely separate languages. In the Linguistic Survey of India, conducted in the early 1900s, Irish linguist George Abraham Grierson identified eight major Bangla dialect groups, later narrowed down to seven: Central, Northern, Western, Southwestern, Eastern, East-Central, and Southeastern. Each group is then further subdivided into individual dialects, which often show a great deal of variation in their own right; the Eastern group, for example, includes dialects as distinct as those of Dhaka, Barisal, and Sylhet.

As with other languages, the diversity of Bangla dialects is the result of centuries of natural language change, further influenced by successive waves of migration, colonisation, and globalisation. Every dialect has evolved in its own way, with each generation making small changes in pronunciation or intonation, adding or losing vocabulary items, or even slightly adjusting some rules of grammar. Since every dialect has undergone a long history of evolution and has been affected by various internal and external influences, no single dialect can be scientifically shown to be “better”, “more refined”, or “pure”. Nonetheless, there remains an widely accepted belief amongst speakers of many languages that only one dialect of the language should be considered worthy of speaking; in the case of Bangalis (from both India and Bangladesh), it seems that a version of the dialects native to the regions north of Kolkata and west of Kushtia have been elevated to a status not shared by any other dialect of Bangla. While in linguistic circles it is often called “Nadia Standard”, referring to the fact that it is loosely based on the local speech of Nadia District in India, the dialect is widely called cholito bhasha or cholti bhasha (“current language”), shuddho bangla (“pure Bangla”), or even bhalo bangla (“good Bangla”), whose very names reveal our sociolinguistic biases toward it.

Of course, the term cholti bhasha (“current language”) is not a jab at other dialects per se, but an acknowledgment that the other commonly-written form of Bangla—called either shadhu bhasha (“language of sages”) or boier bhasha (“language of books”)—does not reflect the actual or current speech of any region of Bengal at any time in history. As was noted in Grierson’s A Linguistic Survey of India, and as is the case today, each region has its own way of producing the same sentence. He found that to express “a man had two sons”, speakers from northern dialects would typically say something like ek manusher dui chhaoa chhilo (Dinajpur) or ek zon mansher duikna beta asil (Rangpur). In the southwestern region, a sentence like ek lokkar dutta po thailo (Medinipur) would be more common. In the east-central region, one could say ek zoner duto sol sel (Jessore) or kero mansher duga pola asil (Faridpur). In the eastern region, people would say ek zoner duidi saoal asilo (Dhaka), ek bedar dui put asil (Comilla), or kono mainshor dui fua asil (Sylhet). In the extreme southeast of the country, speakers would say ek zon mainsher duga hola asil (Noakhali), ugga mansher duo poa asil (Chittagong City), or ek jontun diba poa el (Chittagong Hill Tracts). On the other extreme, speakers of far western dialects would say ek jonor duito beta achhlek (Mal Paharia) or yahok noker duita chhaoga rohina (Kharia Thar). What Grierson noted was that no one at the turn of the 20th century was saying kono ek bektir duta putro chhilo, although under the constraints of shadhu bhasha, that was the only way to write such a sentence. Having such an artificial written form was beneficial in one way: speakers from all regions encountered roughly the same level of difficulty in learning this written language, as no dialect was exceptionally similar to it. It was not until many prolific Bangalis of the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to write in the style of their own regional speech that the use of shadhu bhasha began to wane. In its place, a compromise dialect between the pronunciation and grammar of shadhu bhasha and those of the central districts was created, in which the aforementioned sentence would be produced either kono loker duti chhele chhilo or ek joner dui chhele chhilo. Unfortunately, there were no other writers at the time working to promote their own regional dialects, so the new standard that we know now as cholti bhasha remained based on what was essentially a local dialect of the central region (roughly, the eastern and southeastern parts of West Bengal). By the end of the 20th century, all major publications in both East and West Bengal had converted to the central dialect-style cholti bhasha.

Of course, having a written form so closely related to the spoken form is not a bad thing at all; typically, this encourages literacy and pursuit of scholarly activities, and makes the literature of a language more accessible to its speakers. However, this is not exactly the case with the transition from shadhu bhasha to cholti bhasha; in basing the new form of written language solely on the central dialect group, speakers from all other dialect regions found themselves having to learn an entirely new set of pronunciation and grammar rules. Words like tahadigoke (“to them”) now had to be written tader, which was even more foreign than the shadhu form to someone who would say hegore at home. Furthermore, a new set of colloquialisms had to be learned; over time, it has become increasingly fashionable to imitate the casual vernacular of the central regions, pronouncing hishab as hisheb (“calculation”), jutar phita as jutor phite (“shoelaces”), and duita as duto or duti (“two”). Some words and phrases have simply given way to their central dialect counterparts, such as shonge instead of shathe (“with”), or amar khidhe peyechhe instead of amar khidha legechhe (“I’m hungry”). For many younger speakers, these central dialect colloquialisms have totally substituted the colloquialisms of their own local dialects, which are regarded as coarse or uneducated. But what makes jonne more educated than jonno (“for”)? Is calling someone a buro lok more sophisticated than calling them a bura lok (“old man”)? Is a kutta more boorish than a kukur (“dog”)?

While in transit at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata, my mother (who had never before been to West Bengal) found herself in a very peculiar scene: here she was surrounded by presumably uneducated porters and child laborers in the airport terminal, and yet every one of them was speaking shuddho Bangla! Kothae jachchhen, moshai? Ei, ki bolchhish tui! Besh korechhile. For a moment, she was astounded by how “well” everyone was speaking, when she was so used to hearing such “impure” Bangla on the streets of Dhaka. Of course, she quickly realised that she had unconsciously assumed that using words like jachchhen, bolchhish, or korechhile instead of zaitesen, koitesos, and korsila somehow marked someone as educated or upper class, forgetting that this so-called shuddho pronunciation simply originates in the local dialect of regions very close to Kolkata—a dialect that can be spoken by people regardless of social class—and that there is nothing exceptionally academic about the dialect that would restrict it to educated people. Those children in the Kolkata airport probably haven’t a clue that their style of speech is so closely imitated by even the most posh residents of Bangladesh.

Calling one form of Bangla shuddho assumes that there was once a stage of Bangla that was “pure”—stable, complete, and devoid of all external influences—and that a “pure” dialect should be more faithful to it. Such a stage of Bangla, however, has never existed. All languages are constantly in a state of flux, evolving from an earlier form to a newer form. In the case of Bangla, these stages can be thought to have begun with the millennium-long development of Old Indic (the language that also gave rise to Classical Sanskrit) into Magadhi Prakrit, thought to be the language of Gautama Buddha. During the transition to Magadhi Prakrit, many features of Old Indic were lost; for example, the three distinct sibilant sounds of Sanskrit (still represented by talobbo-sho, murdhonno-sho, and donto-sho in the Bangla script) started to sound more and more similar, and eventually came to be pronounced identically in Magadhi Prakrit—as they essentially still are in Bangla. By the time Magadhi Prakrit evolved into Apabhramsa Abahatta, many consonants were produced so faintly in the vernacular pronunciation that they completely disappeared in later stages of the language. By this point, Apabhramsa Abahatta gave way to the early stages of the modern Eastern Indic languages: Assamese, Bangla, Oriya, and the Bihari languages, among many others. Since diverging from Apabhramsa Abahatta in the 10th century, the Eastern Indic languages have changed considerably, completely abandoning the Old Indic system of grammatical gender (where all nouns were classified as either masculine, feminine, or neuter) and infusing the lexicon with archaic Sanskrit vocabulary. The vowel systems of these languages began to change, losing the distinctions of vowel length (even though we still spell things with hroshsho “short” and dirgho “long” vowels) but gaining a distinction in vowel height (such as the different pronunciations of the e vowel in ekta and ekti). Furthermore, as Bangla continued to develop apart from the other eastern languages, each dialect of Bangla began to take on slightly different modifications; for example, the sixteenth-century word amadiger (“our”) simplified to amago in many eastern dialects and amader in many western dialects. Similarly, the word khaitechhilam (“I was eating”) lost two of its vowels in western dialects, becoming khachchhilam or khachchilum, while the eastern dialects preserved the vowels but softened the chh sound to s in khaitesilam. Furthermore, all dialects have picked up various words from Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, Chinese, English, Portuguese, and indigenous Austroasiatic languages. Once foreign words such as kharap “bad”, pochhondo “like”, chabi “key”, jinish “thing”, cha “tea”, and alu “potato” have all been fully incorporated into the shared vocabulary, while some dialects have also taken on additional borrowings such as ashman “sky” and byakkel or byakkol “idiot”. Each dialect has remained faithful to some aspects of the older stages of the language, while also innovating and remaining open to external influences in other aspects. As every stage of the development of Bangla has been characterised by constant transformation, all of its dialects—standard and non-standard alike—can be seen as having roughly the same amount of “purity” or faithfulness to the language.

A third term for the standard central dialect of Bangla—bhalo bangla—is even more damaging to our views of non-central dialects. One of the essential tenets of modern linguistic theory is that all forms of language—signed, spoken, written, standard, and nonstandard—are equally grammatical, equally developed, and equally complex. Native speakers of every dialect of every language can express an infinite number of concepts through their mother tongue, drawing on the basic universal structures and patterns that underlie all human languages. Each dialect has its own system of pronunciation, its own rules of grammar, and its own culture of rhetoric. So what makes one dialect of Bangla “better” than the others? Is the sound chh more pleasing to the ear than the sound s (as in bhalo achhi versus bhalo asi “I’m well”)? Is the construction chole gelo more logical than gelo ga (“they left”)? Is it better to drop the i in narikel (“mature coconut”) to narkel than to pronounce it earlier as in nairkel? For some people, the answers may be “yes”. But in an objective, linguistic view, there is no way to measure what sounds are “pleasing” or what is “logical” or “better” in language; these are notions that individual speakers have. Typically, it’s not the dialect itself that people find unpleasing, but the speakers of those dialects; it’s not that gelo ga is hard to understand, but that it is spoken by a class of people that others might find backward. This sort of sociolinguistic prejudice is common in all languages; for example, English speakers consider “double negatives” such as I don’t know nothing to be illogical and objectionable when spoken by rural Americans, but refined and educated when used in French (je ne sais rien). Research reveals that speakers of all languages tend to conflate their attitudes towards certain groups of people with their notions on the features of the dialects spoken by those groups, meaning that if you don’t like a particular class of people, you will start to dislike their way of speaking too.

But what does all this background on the history of Bangla dialects have to do with how we celebrate Ekushey February? The answer lies in the spirit of the holiday: recognising and appreciating your own mother tongue, whatever it may be. For most Bangladeshis, their mother tongue is a form of Bangla, but only a few urbanites can claim that their mother tongue is truly the same as what’s written in the books they read at the Ekushe Boi Mela. The overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis speak one of the many nonstandard dialects of Bangla, not the standard central dialect from West Bengal—and as we’ve already established, no one dialect of Bangla is more pure, pleasant, or grammatical than the others. So why do we assume that our language should emulate a form of speech from beyond our own national borders? Isn’t that exactly the reason why we protested the establishment of Urdu as our official language? What makes this form of linguistic supremacy any better than that of the Pakistani era? Of course, the point of this argument is not to force our literature and media outlets to adopt Sylheti, Dhakaiya, or Rangpuri dialects, or to rid the language of central dialect features and revert to the use of shadu bhasha, or to divide our language into several local standardised forms. The point is that as individuals, we should recognise and respect our own speech—our own native dialects, our genuine mother tongues—and promote all forms of language in general. At the fundamental core of International Mother Language Day is the appreciation of diversity; to truly honour its spirit of universality, 21 February shouldn’t just be a celebration of one standardised variant of our language, but of the rich, diverse forms of Bangla and other languages spoken in this country.

Dr. Sameer ud Dowla Khan is a professor of linguistics in California

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