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Collocation of Pahela and Pratham

About 36 per cent of the Bangla words are tatsamas (words that are spelt roughly the same as they are in Sanskrit), according to an estimate by a lexicographer. But the Bangla numerals are mostly tadbhavas (words that have changed their shapes and spellings in Bangla coming down from Sanskrit through Middle Indo Aryan forms like Prakrit, Apabhramsha etc.)—such as ek, dui, tin, char, panch, chhay, sat, at, nay, dash, etc. as opposed to eka, dvau, trini, chvatvari, pancha, shat, sapta, ashta, nava, dasha etc.

There are four types of Bangla numerals—cardinals, which denote numbers, such as one, two, three, etc.; ordinals, which denote the number defining a position in a series, such as first, second, third, etc; fractionals, which denote a division of a number, such as one-third, a half, two-thirds, etc; and multiplicatives, which denote adding a number to itself a particular number of times, such as once, twice, three times, etc.

The types of Bangla numerals present a complicated picture. Logically, speaking the all other three forms should have been formed from the cardinals; but no such ideal situation exists in any language, not even in English, one becomes first and two becomes second in ordinals. The fractional forms are like a half, one-third, two-thirds, etc. In multiplicatives, the forms are once, twice and thrice; but the word thrice is obsolescent in the so-called King’s English; using three times is now the style; and there is no multiplicative form above three; the English speakers use four times, five times and so on. So is the case with French where ‘one’ is ‘un’ or ‘une’; but ‘first’ is ‘premier’ or ‘première’. Likewise in Bangla, the four forms of the numerals are derived from different types of etymon, or origin of words.

Although the Bangla cardinals are mostly tadbhavas—‘mostly’ because words like ek, dash, sahasra (hazar is a foreign word, Persian), laksha (lakh is native) and few others are tatsamas—there are two types of ordinals in use, tatsama and tadbhava. While the tatsama series has forms for all the cardinals of the language, the tadbhava series range from first to usually thirty-second. The tadbhava ordinals are used only to denote the days of the month, and since there were only 32 days in a Bangla month, still in West Bengal and among the Hindu community in Bangladesh (the Bangladesh government adopted an amendment to the Bangla calendar during the Ershad regime; the correction was earlier made by Muhammad Shahidullah), they usually range up to thirty-second.

This is customary in Bangla to use tadbhava ordinals for the days of the months and tatsama cardinals for other uses. The tadbhava ordinal for ‘first’ is explained with the affix –ila, like pahela or payla; ‘second’ and ‘third’ with –sra, like dosra, tesra; ‘fourth’ with –tha, like chautha, from ‘fifth’ to ‘eighteenth’ with –ui, like panchui, chhaui etc.; from ‘nineteenth’ upwards with –e, like unishe, bishe, etc.

There might be a point in saying that tatsama ordinals can also be used to denote the days of the months. True, they can be used for the purpose. But our ears need a bit getting used to for this. In addition, to say the 22nd January, the tatsama ordinal dvabingshatitama January would sound far-fetched. The tatsama expression for one hundred and twenty-fifth is pancha-vingshaty-adhika-shata-tama. And if we start using pratham for the first, especially in denoting the days of the months, we must continue using the tatsama forms for other days for the sake of consistency.

There were once efforts to introduce the tatsama –tama affix with tadbhava cardinals, such as baish-tama, but the endeavour did not gain ground. The electronic media of the country for some time now have started using cardinals, in place of ordinals, to denote the days of the months, such as ek January (January 1), dash March (March 10), etc. For the uninitiated people, making such sound sequences requires an additional effort in the muscular movement. There is another method in practice for ordinals to be used for other purposes. This is the genitive form of the cardinals, such as dasher pata, the tenth page, or pancher jan, the fifth man, etc. But this method too is in restricted use.

The use of tadbhava ordinals is not new in the language. The word pahila, or in its variant spelling, is found in two instances of the Charyapada, the specimen of the earliest Bangla. Both the tadbhava and tatsama series are in use in both high and low forms of the language, sadhu-bhasha and chalit-bhasha.


Published in Holiday, p 4, 11 October 2002


Revised: 5 April 2011