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Backtracking Bangla

The Bengali is the most elegant and easiest to write of all the Indian alphabets. ... the modern Bengali character can now be written with greater rapidity and ease than any character derived from the ancient Indian alphabet.
--- John Beames
A Comparative Grammar of
the Modern Aryan Languages of India

Until recently, Bangla was the state language only in Bangladesh and one of the 18 official languages in India, second after Hindi in the number of speakers. Also spoken in Nepal and Singapore by a significant number of people, the Bangla language now ranks fifth in usage among the nearly 7,000 languages in the world. Curiously, Bangla was recognised as an official language by Sierra Leone at the fag end of 2002 to honour Bangladeshi peacekeeping efforts on the African soil.

The language has around 207 million speakers, according to the SIL International's Ethnologue: Languages of the World, accounting for about 3.45 per cent of the world's population in 1999.

Ekushey February

February 21, 1952 was the day signifying the culmination of our Language Movement, when numerous Bengalis gave their lives in a struggle to establish their language as an official language of the state. The students of Dhaka University were the first to protest the declaration by the then West Pakistani administration that Urdu, and Urdu alone, would be the state language of Pakistan, contemptuously ignoring the fact that almost all the people in the then East Pakistan spoke Bangla. The university students also resisted the government's move to impose the Urdu script for Bangla.

On February 23, 1948, in a session of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in Karachi, Dhirendranath Datta, member of the Assembly from East Pakistan, tabled strong arguments in favour of using Bangla in the session along with Urdu and English. He put forth a resolution that caused an uproar in the House. His resolution was turned down and the West Pakistani administration said that it was contemplating making Urdu the state language of Pakistan.

The Bangla alphabet, which is identical to that of Sanskrit in Banga Lipi, or the Bangla script, had a varying number of letters at different times. A Grammar of the Bengal Language, by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, in 1778 was the first book to use moveable Bangla types. But a few books that had been printed earlier had the Bangla alphabet, in full or part, printed on their pages.

The first such attempt is traced back to Crepar Xaxtrer Orth,bhed, by Manoel da Assumpçam, a clergyman who lived in the Bhawal region in Bangladesh. Published from Lisbon in 1734, the book describes the Bangla alphabet as having 16 vowels and 34 consonants in the preface. In Aurenck Szeb by Georg Jacob Kehr, published from Leipzig in 1725, gives only the 34 consonants. In Dissertiones Selectae by David Mill, published from Leiden in 1743, gives the full picture of the Bangla alphabet - 16 vowels and 34 consonants.

The number remained the same in the Gaudiya Vyakarana (Gaudiya grammar), by Raja Rammohun Roy, published by the Calcutta School Book Society in 1833, and in the primer Shishu-Shiksha by Madanmohan Tarkalangkar, published in 1849.

The vowels came down to 12 and the consonants increased to 40 when Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar normalised the alphabet, in his primer Barna Parichaya published in 1855.

The number for long remained the same. Rabindranath Tagore then dispensed with one more vowel. But he reverted to the pre-Vidyasagar consonant scheme. In the course of time, one more letter dropped off from the consonant section.

The Bangla alphabet now has 11 vowels and 39 consonants, totalling 50.

In a speech at the Paltan Maidan on January 27, 1952, East Pakistan's chief minister Nazimuddin said that Urdu alone should be the state language of Pakistan. Immediately after the speech, a group of students brought out demonstrations demanding that Bangla be included as a state language. An all-party Rashtrabhasha Sangram Parishad was formed on January 30, which called for a countrywide general strike, along with demonstration and rallies, on February 21. The government imposed Section 144 in Dhaka city on February 20 and opened fire on the agitating students the next day on the Dhaka University campus, in which five died. Soon after, efforts to make Urdu the sole state language were dropped.

The day again made a mark in the international arena on November 16, 1999 when February 21 was declared the International Mother Language Day by the United Nations. A group of ten people, from seven different nations speaking seven different languages, sent a letter to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan from Canada on March 29, 1998. The group said that many mother tongues with a small number of speakers are being forced into oblivion in South America, Asia and Australia. The letter further said that Bangla also passed through such a crisis, explained the background of the Language Movement of 1952 and requested the UN to announce the day as the International Mother Language Day. The group included two Filipino speakers, two English speakers, a Cantonese speaker, one speaker each of Kachhi, German and Hindi and two Bangla speakers.

The UN headquarters replied that the issue needed to be tabled before the UNESCO, and the UN cultural agency informed the group that the request should come from a national commission. A member of the group contacted the Bangladesh education secretary who later informed the Bangladesh National Commission for UNESCO. The national commission, on approval of the Ministry of Education and the prime minister, tabled the resolution at UNESCO.

The 30th general assembly of the UNESCO in Paris passed a resolution announcing February 21 as the International Mother Language Day. Twenty-eight countries seconded the resolution, moved by Bangladesh along with Saudi Arabia. Ironically, Pakistan, which once tried to put Urdu forcefully in the mouth of Bangla speakers, was one of the countries that seconded the resolution.


Bangla is, after Assamese, on the easternmost of the linguistic boundary of a group of languages known as the Indo-European family. Bangla belongs to the eastern group of the Indo-Aryan, a group under the Indo-Iranian sub-family of Indo-European. Major languages of the world like English, French, Greek, Russian, Persian, etc. are remotely related to the Bangla language. The geographical location of the Bangla language is flanked by various Austric languages like Santali, Mundari, Khasi and Sino-Tibetan languages like Kachhari, Boro, Garo, Tripuri, etc. The new Indo-Aryan languages are called Indic languages in linguistic parlance.

Bangla emerged as a new Indo-Aryan language between 900 and 1000 AD through Magadhan Apabhramsha and the supposed form Abahattha of Magadhan Prakrit, which was current from 600 BC to 600 AD. The oldest specimen of the Bangla text dates back to some time around 1000 AD. The specimen, Charyapada, is a collection of esoteric Buddhist-Tantric traditions, in a form classified as Old Bangla. The evolution process of Bangla was accompanied by two other modern Indo-Aryan languages of the eastern group --- Assamese and Oriya. Assamese had little linguistic difference from Bangla until the 14th century. This is why Assamese also claims the Charyapada to be the specimen of its ancient text.

The evolution of the language till this day has been explained in three phases: Old Bangla, starting from 900 AD to 1350 AD; Middle Bangla, starting from 1350 to 1800; and Modern Bangla, after 1800. A collection of poems called Shri Krishna Sandarbha, or Shri Krishnakirtan, by Baru Chandidas marks a distinct turn in the evolution, pointing to the beginning of the Middle Bangla period.

Other specimens of the Middle Bangla language are the translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Vaishnava Padabali, poetical works on Chaitanya's life, the lyrics written in the court of Arakan and Rosang, and the Purba Banga Gitika (songs from East Bengal).

The vocabulary of the Bangla language has words derived directly from the old Indo-Aryan languages like Vedic and Classical Sanskrit, middle Indo-Aryan forms like Pali, and various forms of Prakrit and Abahattha.

Foreign words started entering the language from the end of the 12th century, beginning with the Turkish expedition to Bengal. Many Turkish words gained ground in Bangla. Until the 18th century, when Bengal remained a part of the Mughal Empire, there was a great influx of Perso-Arabic elements into the language.

Along with Perso-Arabic words, there are many English words in the language, some naturalised and some others remaining as they are in English. English words started entering the language from the middle of the 18th century. A number of Portuguese words had entered Bangla, when the Portuguese started trading with Bengal in the 16th century. But most of these words have been naturalised beyond recognition. There is an insignificant number of French, Dutch, Old Persian (Dari), Greek and Burmese words in the language. Old Persian and Greek words have become part of the Bangla vocabulary through Sanskrit.

The oldest Bangla poetry In the oldest collection of Bangla poetry, the Charyapada, there are 50 poems of up to 10 lines. Haraprasad Shastri dug out the old manuscript containing the oldest specimen of the Bangla language and literature from Nepal's royal court library in 1907. He published them in a volume called Hajar Bachharer Purana Bangala Bhashay Bauddha Gan O Doha (the Buddhist songs and distiches in the Bangla language of a thousand years).

The first part of the volume, Charyapada or Charyagiti, was in verse. The dohas, or couplets, are in a Middle Indo-Aryan language called Abahattha. The charyas talk of the ways of mystic indoctrination of the Buddhists. The metaphors used in the verses are hard to decipher, which is why Shastri called the language Sandhya Bhasha (dusk language), and aptly so, since this shows the formation of Bangla, when the language was diverging from Prakrit and Apabhramsha-Abahattha.

Bangla poetry took shape at the hands of native speakers, and the Middle Bangla prose at the hands of the biographers of Shri Chaitanya. The modern Bangla prose was moulded in the College of Fort William where textbooks were written in Bangla to teach the English the native language. This is one of the reasons why many words of the middle Indo-Aryan languages on their journey to the modern Bangla were replaced with words from Sanskrit, which the pundits of the College mastered fast and thought of as the base.

There are four broad-based dialectal groups of Bangla: Rarh, Banga, Kamrupa and Barendra. The Rarhi dialect is the base of the present-day standard colloquial Bangla (SCB). Bangla has two literary dialects: sadhu bhasha (chaste form) and chalit bhasha (colloquial form), and the difference is not strictly to the extent of diglossia. The sadhu form is still used in literature, essays, or in correspondence. Mostly before 1965, newspapers used the form in reports and editorials (Ittefaq made the transition to chalit only last year!). The mix of sadhu and chalit forms is seen mostly in poetry.

The Assamese-Bangla script was derived from the Brahmi script that was current from 400 BC to 300 AD. This is the case with most scripts of the region, even the languages that are not Indic.

The northern form of the Brahmi script resulted in a writing system called Gupta Lipi in the 4th century, which took the form of Siddhamatrika in the 6th century. The 7th century version of the Siddhamatrika was called Kutila Lipi, the eastern form of which gave birth to a form that developed into the proto-Bangla type. The Charyapada is written in this form of the 10th century. By this time, Bangla letters started taking distinctive shapes, to be called proto-Bangla. The earliest proto-Bangla inscription is the Bangarh grant of King Mahipala I (circa 975-1026 AD); the earliest proto-Bangla manuscripts belong to the 11th and 12th centuries.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, Bangla letters appeared to be fully developed. Over the next two centuries, there were no changes at all. But the script system became burdened with numerous variants of certain symbols. In the 19th century the forms of the letters became stereotyped by the introduction of the printing press. This was later normalised at the hands of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar in the 19th century.

The script system now has 11 vowels and 39 consonants. In the writing system, often more than one letter form new shapes, called conjunct consonants. And although an exhaustive list of the conjunct consonants might exceed 500, around a couple of hundred conjunct letters do the job of fairly complex writing very easily.

The Bangla script is also used to write Manipuri and Santali. Banga Lipi apart, there are a few other scripts that are, or were, used to write Bangla. Prominent among the scripts are Sylheti Nagari, mainly used in the Sylhet region, and Perso-Arabic script, which was used to write manuscripts in the Middle Bangla period.

Vocabulario em idioma Bengalla, e Portuguez (Vocabulary and idioms: Bangla and Portuguese) was the first lexicon printed from Lisbon in 1743. The 592-page book has discussion on grammar from Page 1-40, Bangla-Portuguese words from Page 41-306, Portuguese-Bangla words from Page 307-570, and other types of words from Page 571-592. The book is entirely printed in Roman letters. The title page of the book says that the author was Manoel da Assumpçam (or modern Assumpçaõ), but there has been a debate over his authorship.

Halhed's book A Grammar of the Bengal Language, printed at Hooghly in Bengal in 1778, is the first elaborate grammar of the language. The book is also the first to use moveable hot-metal types for the composition of the Bangla text. Sankritist Sir Charles Wilkins, assisted by Panchanan Karmakar, cut the Bangla fonts of types. The principal objective of the book was to help the English people learn the language so that they could interact better with local people. Though Halhed's book is not a great grammar, it had a far-reaching impact on the development of the Bangla grammar and typography. With the book's publication, the Bangla letters started becoming stereotyped and the book further showed some rationalised formation of conjunct characters which were much later adopted in the Linotype printing system that was launched in Kolkata in 1935.

Bangla is also written using Roman script. Although Roman script is regularly used to cite Bangla text in English or other European language essays, there are only three known instances of long Bangla text published in Roman script. The first was a collection of Aesop's Fables in six Indian languages called Oriental Fabulist, published in 1803. The volume, edited by John Borthwick Gilchrist, head of the Hindostanee Department of the College of Fort William, contained a translation in Bangla by Tarinicharan Mitra. Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya's Durgeshnandini was published in Roman script in 1881 and Sukumar Sen's An Etymological Dictionary of Bangla was printed in Roman in 1971.

There is a Braille version of the Bangla writing system. There are also one or two organisations in Dhaka that print Bangla books in Braille.

Over all the period of the Modern Bangla, there has been many an attempt at reforming the language, script and even the alphabet, sometimes by dispensing with existing letters, sometimes with the inclusion of newly devised letters. But nothing after the normalisation by Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar gained ground, both in Bangladesh and West Bengal.

Towards automation

The development of the Bangla printing type is broadly marked by four different stages. The first ranged from 1667 to 1777 when specimens of the Bangla alphabet were printed in several books published mainly from Europe; this is regarded as the preparatory period.

The second stage began from 1778 and continued till 1834, when the shapes of Bangla letterforms started becoming stereotyped with the printing of Halhed's A Grammar of the Bengal Language; types started becoming smaller in size, advancing towards beautiful forms, shedding complexities. Three institutions like Serampore Mission, College of Fort William and Calcutta School Book Society that played the most important role in the advancement of printing were founded over this period.

The third stage, 1835 to 1935, saw the old-style shapes of letters becoming almost extinct. Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar normalised the alphabet; types also become stable at his hands.

The modern stage started from 1935 when Linotype for Bangla was introduced by the Anandabazar Patrika in Kolkata on September 28 that year. Printing at this stage was marked by speedy composition and simplification of conjunct consonants. Then came the Monotype machines, even Intertype machines for Bangla printing.

People gradually felt the need for a Bangla typewriter for office automation and similar jobs. The first Bangla typewriter, by Remington, hit the market in the 1940s; but because of some complications, the device could not be widely used. In the 1960s, Munier Chowdhury took up a project and designed a changed Bangla typewriter. The framework of both the typewriters was that of an English typewriter; only the keyboard overlay and the keys were changed.

Notable among the people who worked on computerisation of Bangla were Saif ud Doha Shahid, in 1983, followed by Muhammad Zafar Iqbal for a Mac system at CalTech in the USA. Palash Baran Pal of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in India in 1986 worked out a system of writing Bangla on micro-computers.

The first laser font for Macintosh, Bankim, was developed by a Kolkata-based company called Rahul Commerce. A man from Bangladesh, Gautam Sen, was the creator of this font. At this stage, Shahid started working on a good-looking font, but Bankim had reached Dhaka before he finished his job. The second laser font was designed by Mahmud Hossain. By then, Shahid had finished his font. Mainul Lipi came out in 1987, and was used in a publication called Anandapatra by Ananda Computers Ltd. The same year in December, Mustafa Jabbar developed a font called Ananda and used it to print a Bangla-language newspaper, the Azad. Jabbar also designed a keyboard overlay called Bijoy in 1982 with the assistance of an Indian programmer named Devendra Joshi in Delhi. He released his software, for Mac, on December 16, 1988.

Several applications, mainly DOS-based on IBM-compatibles, began coming out by then. A firm named Computer Land went for customisation of a multilingual word processor, Duangjan, used in the USA around 1986. The word processor hit the market in 1988.

Subsequent years saw a number of DOS- or Windows-based applications for Bangla --- Abaha in 1988, Anirban and Barna in 1990 --- all on DOS. The Windows applications include Bijoy, Basundhara and Barnana in 1993, Proshika Shabda, Lekhani, Asha and Prabartan in 1994, Falgun 8 in 1998, Duranta Bangla and Natural Bangla in 1999. Basundhara and Lekhani for Mac came out in 1992 and 1994 respectively. The latest Unicode-compliant application called Alpona was released last year.

All these applications also contributed to the chaos of keyboard overlays. There are currently at least a dozen keyboard overlays, including that of the typewriter. Of all the overlays, the Bijoy layout has the most market penetration, like the early bird catching the worm.

For over a decade, there has been a standard worked out by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) for inclusion of all the major writing systems of the world in one fold. Universal Multiple-Octet Coded Character Set (UCS)-ISO/IEC 10646, the new encoding standard, easily allows for storing and retrieving Bangla texts. Microsoft Corporation has recently started working on the Bangla version of Windows and MS Office, to be made available by October this year.


This article was first published in
February 2003 issue of the Slate.


Revised: 5 April 2011