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Love for a language, respect for others

LOVE for letters, or the alphabet for that matter, of the Bangla language is all what Ekushey February has often been reduced to in the public sphere. We love the alphabet, and the shapes of its letters and the class they are ordered in, making a nice table. We have 49 of them in our language. There were once a few more — including a conjunct letter in the alphabet — khiya, a combination of ka and murdhanya sha, which evolved in a moulded form long before Bangla letters got in print, before the moveable metal type arrived in 1778 at the hands of Panchanan Karmakar and Charles Wilkins. But a normalisation process affected by the great Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar dispensed with them; he also rearranged a few, sending them down the consonant table from among the vowels.

Having been through a normalisation process during the initial days of Bangla primers and the rationalisation of the conjunct letters — two, three, or even four, written conjointly, laterally, vertically, and often in moulded forms — later when movements for spelling reforms began towards the closing years of the nineteenth century and much later when textbooks came to be considered seriously, both in Bangladesh and West Bengal, we now have only 49 letters, with a number of vowel indicators and some punctuation marks, along with the numerals. They all mostly dominate our love for the Bangla language, our mother tongue, or the first language, in linguistic parlance, for which a few of us sacrificed their lives.

In the whole process, at least in public sphere, the language proper — words, use of the words, the semantics and their organisation in sentences — has often come to be neglected. We have countless signs along the road, on the facades of shops, houses and offices, public and private, mostly written in Bangla letters, or Bangalipi, as it is known deriving from the ancient Brahmi script, modelled on the Sanskrit alphabet. We take pride in these signs, being written in the Bangla letters, even when a few words are English, transcribed to look like our own. We have in our constitution, ‘The state language of the Republic is Bangla.’ Efforts for writing these signs, for whatever they are, gained a bit more of ground after the passage of an act, in 1987, called the Introduction of the Bengali Language Act. It has never been fully implemented though, it has helped us a lot to shape up our outlook towards the use of the Bangla language in all spheres of life.

On top of all this, we have our beacon of light in research on and studies of our language, Bangla Academy, which had until recently, towards the close of 2014, written its name, since the days it laid out the Bangla Academy rules for standard Bangla spelling (the booklet is in Bangla, of course) in 1992, flouting two of its rules. A little more than a year ago, the academy complied, on one count, with its rules in the spelling of the word academy in Bangla, replacing the long vowel-i with the short vowel; it still has to comply with another rule of its spelling regulation.

The other agency having authority of a sort by way of influencing the minds of young learners to write spellings in the way intended, the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, earlier, towards the close of the 1980s, had laid out a booklet of spelling rules. It had two editions of the booklet, meant especially for the writers of textbooks. But in 2010, the textbook board, which has the widest of influence on such matters as it leads the learning of the Bangla language for more than four million students (this is the number of students beginning their primary schooling in 2014, according to the statistics of the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics), decided not to go ahead with its own rules, beginning with 2012, and to follow the Bangla Academy rules to avoid discrepancies and incongruities.

Even after all this, the language proper, not just the writing system, Bangalipi that is, (there are many who think that the writing system constitutes the language, which it does not, as Bangla written in another script, Roman, Cyrillic, or even Perso-Arabic, essentially remains Bangla) has all along come to be neglected. The media, more electronic and less print, as it seems these days, are often less discerning about their use of the Bangla language. Even in February, the month of the language movement that happened in 1952, television screens, sporting Bangla letters, one or a few of them, in a corner paying respect to the martyrs of the language movement and commemorating the spirit of the movement, display, in news tickers and bulletin graphics, flagrant spelling mistakes, even in the spelling of the name of poet Rabindranath Tagore (in Bangla).

While there is no dearth of such examples, the newscasters, or even reporters covering events on location, are often heard to have mixed their verb forms beyond the standard colloquial Bangla, or SCB — shuna jay (it is heard) in place of shona jay or uni diben (he will give, honorific) in place of uni deben. People make mistakes and mistakes creep in. But when such substandard grammatical constructions, not to speak of pronunciation, becomes commonplace, there is hardly any other reason not to believe that all these people and institutions are not linguistically attuned. And the problem becomes grave when people start accepting this to be the order. This also betrays a failure that all our efforts, individually and collectively, have failed to ensure adherence to the standard form of the language and, thereby, love for the language, in both public and private spheres.

The display of professed love more for the letters and less for the language could be seen in the sales of the Bangla Academy’s diachronic dictionary of the Bangla language, Bibartanmulak Bangla Abhidhan, in three volumes, when it came out in 2013. It sold well, too well, too. People staffing the academy sales outlet on its premises and in stalls in the Ekushey Book Fair appeared nonplussed — and excited, too, at the thought of business prospects — about the frenzied buying of the dictionary, which is heftily priced, by as much scholars and academicians as enthusiasts or ordinary users of the language. People hardly get to thumb through such dictionaries based on historical principles of language, which often gather dust even in the corner of a scholar’s study.

This collective failure about the learning and teaching and the use of the Bangla language, our mother tongue, may hardly ever influence the course of the language, in the short and the long run. Language is larger than life, larger than a nation and larger than a specific period of time. Yet the failure painstakingly holds up our glaring indifference to the language and the movement centring on the language and, thereby, our deviations from the concept of mother tongue. When we talk about mother tongue, we, in the back of our mind, think about our right to mother tongue, the premise that led us to fight for Bangla to be one of the state languages in the erstwhile Pakistan. Every language is a mother tongue, of one or the other, in some corner of the world. All the people, thus, have the right to the use of their mother tongue, be it Urdu or be they other languages that are still extant or about to be extinct in Bangladesh. Mother tongue means love for one language and respect for other languages. This love and respect are mutually exclusive, one cannot happen without the other.


Akkas, Abu Jar M (2016 Feb. 21) Love for a language, respect for others. New Age. 8


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