Is Bengali Dead?

In a video that has now gone viral in the Bengali interwebs, noted Bengali intellectual Chandril lets loose on the moribund state of the Bengali language. To sum up his arguments: Bengali as a language is progressing to its death. This is because speaking in English and Hindi has a premium feel to it, while Bengali, in its most traditional form, reeks of “I am sorry, I couldn’t do any better in life”. While recognizing the inevitability of a language changing, he draws a distinction between a type of change that is inevitable, like developing a bald spot, and the type of change that is death, like having the head cut off. Bengali, he posits, is on the latter path, and while one may have issues with his basic premise, one cannot but be amazed by the way he delivers it, the turn of phrase, the Bengali he himself uses, and the examples he digs out to support his contention.

For me personally, the change in Bengali is disquieting, in the way many other changes to Calcutta and Bengal are. I first started being aware of this change through the lyrics of Bengali movie songs like “Yeh haowa silky silky bole jaaye baatein dil ki, chalo na bheshe jaai jowaare, rubaro, masti maange dil maahi we” and “Ooh lala I love you my Soniye ooh lala” where the sheer number of Hindi words overpowered Bangla. And then I happened to watch some Bengali movies, and listen to Bengali celebrities talk, and it’s not just the words that hit me in the stomach, it was the effing pronunciation. For some strange reason, Bengalis born and brought up in Kolkata can’t seem to pronounce Bangla any more.

Where I disagree with Chandril is on the concept of death. A language does not die as long as it is used by people. Here his counterpoint is that just because a language is used by a lot of people does not mean it is alive, it matters only if it is used by rich people. This to me is elitist BS. Bangla has mutated, no doubt, and this makes many of us uncomfortable, but that does not de-legitimize what it has become.

And to me what’s important is not that Bengali has mutated, but why it has mutated. It is because the classical model of the pure tongue has failed, decades of Communism by name and now Communism by proxy, has led to flight of those who spoke in classical Bangla, to other states and to other shores. Calcutta, the bastion of the fair tongue whose demise Chandril laments, has been gutted of its middle class, leaving either the super-rich, many of whom non-Bengalis by birth, or the poor, immigrants from Bihar and UP and Bangladesh, and the mutations of Bangla, the influx of Hindi words and the twisting of the pronunciations, reflect that shift in the underlying demographics.

What Chandril ends up doing is articulating, in a very articulate way, the anger of the last vestiges of the intellectual middle class still in Calcutta, the reduction in prominence manifesting itself as rage at the change in what was once a comforting constant, the words they hear.

Which also explains why there is the strong whiff of persecution-mania that runs through this argument that Bengalis are ashamed of Bengali. As I had once said in a debate with the editor of Desh, the language you will find most Bengalis want to learn is Java, (and yes Java has all the characteristics of a language, there is good code and there is bad code and there are rules of grammar), and its not because they feel ashamed of the languages they know, but because Java is the language that affords them the most opportunities. Bengalis write in English because they want to be read by more people, not because they find it downmarket.

If there is something the Bengali intellectuals should be angry at is the manifestation of the mutation, but what caused it, and most importantly, their own continuing complicity in that very change. To put it simply, you can’t go on lobbying for Bongosommans by anointing Mamata Banerjee as Rabindranath Tagore reborn and then turn around and rue the fact that people use “keno ki” as a surrogate for “kyon ki”.

Sorry boss, it doesn’t work like that.

9 thoughts on “Is Bengali Dead?

  1. I agree with the opinions but its not just Bengali but other languages too, may be apart from the ones south of India. I’m from Orissa or Odisha (one is anglicized while other more authentic) brought up in Delhi and it is surprising that my pronunciation & command is as good as (if not worse) than those from cities in Odisha. I agree that cine-stars are the worst offenders.

    I advocate for common language, Hindi, for communication having faced hardships in south India but definitely not expense of our own traditional language. Yet, here we are “Press 1 for English, 2 for Hindi/other language, 3 for Hindi (if 2 is other language)”

  2. Great post, makes sense…a link to the said video in the post would have helped those who haven’t seen it.

  3. Very true. Most of our Indian languages are undergoing much change due to the modern-cultured people and the growth of Technology. Most people twist their original language by including many foreign words during their communications with people. It may grow into a cosmopolitan language in the long run.

  4. “Here his counterpoint is that just because a language is used by a lot of people does not mean it is alive, it matters only if it is used by rich people. ”
    Not sure that’s what he said, actually. If I understood correctly, Chandril’s counterpoint on this issue is that the mere fact of a large number of people speaking Bengali at this moment in time does not necessarily mean that the language commands respect (which is where he raised the (i) poor people/wealthy people and (ii) stupid people/intelligent people analogies).

  5. Agree to an extent. Language is just a vehicle for communication – if any other language (or mix of these) allows us to communicate our feeling fast, why bother learning exotic languages… so there is no natural urge.
    That leaves this to intellectuals to “conserve” a language, they should feel free to do it. It will survive long after the so called “demise” here — like Sanskrit, Latin or Hebrew has done.

  6. I studied in Bengali medium schools, though later I also studied in English medium colleges and universities in India and abroad. I enjoy good read in both Bengali and English but I have to say that the quality of thoughtful analytical writings in Bengali has gone down over the years. Many Bengali intellectuals in earlier days were equally adept in expressing their thoughts in both the languages, though most of them were products of Bengali medium schools and hence, their accents in spoken English were often ‘Bangali’ type. Now-a-days, the children of most affluent Bengali families go to English medium schools (unlike today, in earlier days most of the best schools in Bengal were Bengali medium schools), mostly watch Hindi/Hollywood movies, have non-Bengali friends in schools and colleges and also at work places. So, it is not surprising that the current generation of young people in cities like Kolkata is not that comfortable in speaking or writing in ‘pure Bengali’, without mixing English and Hindi words. Outside of school syllabus of Bengali, their second language, their exposure to Bengali literature is often minimal (of course, there are exceptions in some families). The situation is a lot different in small towns and rural areas in Bengal and, of course, in Bangladesh where literature and cinema are still very much in Bengali as they have a single mother tongue in the entire country and Bangladeshis also take pride in their language, may be because they have sacrificed so many lives for their language, unlike in West Bengal.
    The other day, I attended a talk in Bengali by Prof. Amartya Sen in Kolkata. He was not at all fluent in Bengali…halting and fumbling for Bengali words and in many cases was finally settling for equivalent English words. This is despite the facts that his initial schooling was entirely in Tagore’s Santiniketan and his first wife is a well-know Bengali poet and writer. The contrast with another Bengali intellectual, Prof. Amlan Datta , comes to mind. Prof. Datta was equally fluent in both English and Bengali. And he could easily lecture on any subject in Bengali, without using a single English word. This difference may be due to the fact that Amlan Datta stayed in Kolkata throughout his life and was a prolific writer in Bengali, while he was also the editor of a couple of English magazines where he regularly contributed articles in English. So, it is basically a matter of habit and being in touch. Amartya Sen has stayed abroad most of his life teaching in British and American universities, his wives (other than the first one) are non-Bengalis.. so over time he lost the touch, like many Bengali families settled abroad.
    I guess, there is another technological reason, at least for some people like me. Now-a-days, we don’t write long hand. Even for writing letters (emails) to relatives we type on computers keys. I have been used to only English alphabet keyboard.. I find it hard (and don’t feel like spending the time and effort to learn typing in Bengali at this age) to type in Bengali. So, I have lost the habit of writing in Bengali. Even when the Editor of a Bengali newspaper requests me to write something for them, I prefer to write it in English by using my English alphabet keyboard and ask them to get it translated in Bengali for their use. Since they are willing to do it, I don’t feel the compulsion to write in Bengali, despite my Bengali medium schooling and upbringing. I am mentioning my personal case as, I guess, the same may be true for many people of my generation, unlike my teacher Amlan Datta’s generation who did not use typewriter or computer keys to write. However, because I regularly read books and magazines in Bengali, I have no problem in reading even voluminous books in Bengali and continue to enjoy reading classical and contemporary Bengali literature. So, for people like me, Bengali language is not at all dead, though writing in Bengali is becoming increasingly difficult over time.

  7. Your habit of missing articles and prepositions in your sentences is very disconcerting. Apologies for a troll comment, but wanted to point it out.

  8. Everytime I went to Kolkata I used to be impressed (as a Marathi) how well the Bengali is used in daily conversations in Kolkata (in sharp contrast to say Pune, where somehow Marathi is spoken as the last choice – in my experience)

    There is no communism in Maharashtra yet the situation is same if not worse with respect to the language.

    This has to do with two things IMO – one is the limited outreach when a person uses regional language. Second is the new world evolving before us is evolving in English. So for most new things we see these days, there are simply no vernacular names for instance. A smartphone will be called smartphone in all languages.

    I still feel that after some years the tide will turn and people will revert back to their native languages, but after thorough mutations.

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