Racial, religious, national, tribal, and ethnic lines dissolve on February 21. Unlike independence days, religious holidays, cultural festivals, or birthdays of national figures, International Mother Language Day celebrates something the whole world can appreciate: our right to use our native tongue. Whether we speak a national language sanctioned by the government or a local language spoken by only an underprivileged minority, we celebrate. Whether our language is written in letters, syllables, characters, Braille, or not written at all, we celebrate. Whether we produce our language through our mouths or through our hands, we celebrate. The spirit of this holiday is universality. And yet, ironically, it is celebrated in the land of its origin lacking the spirit it has inspired abroad.
Of course, the differences between the way Bangladeshis view Ekushey February and the way the world views International Mother Language Day are rooted in the holiday's special place in Bangladeshi history. Before being recognised worldwide by UNESCO in 1999, the tradition began as a commemoration of the deaths of Bangla-speaking students by the Pakistani authorities in 1952, as they were protesting the adoption of Urdu as the single official language. And as we all know, their protest became part of the nationwide Bangla Language Movement and sowed the seeds for the revolution which ultimately gave birth to Bangladesh. Because the story of Ekushey February is so tightly intertwined with Bangladeshi identity, many have come to view the holiday as a celebration of Bangla—or more specifically, of one variety of Bangla—instead of a celebration of the mother tongues of all Bengalis, of all Bangladeshis, and of all people. In this way, Ekushey February has been reduced to another ethno-nationalistic holiday in the country of its conception.
Now, one may try to argue that Bangladeshis are simply so linguistically homogeneous that it is natural to recognise only Bangla, but in fact we are all aware that this is not the case. Not only is Bangladesh ethnically heterogeneous—with Bengalis long 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, Austroasiatic, and Dravidian languages spoken by the indigenous non-Bengali groups, the country is rich with countless dialects of Bangla. (The term “dialect” is used here in the scientific sense, denoting any distinct variety of a language, whether it is the “standard dialect” or otherwise.) Indeed, experts describe Bangla as a “dialect continuum”, where neighbouring dialects—such as those of Tangail and Gazipur—are mutually intelligible (people from one group can easily understand those of another), but dialects spoken geographically far apart—such as those of Noakhali and Dinajpur—are mutually unintelligible. At the geographical extremes, Chittagonian, Sylheti, Mal Paharia, and Rohingya are so unintelligible to speakers of other dialects that they are almost universally considered by linguists to be separate languages on their own.
This 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 slightly adjusting some rules of grammar. Since every dialect has undergone these processes, no single dialect can be scientifically shown to be “better”, “more refined”, or “purer”. Nonetheless, there remains a widely accepted belief amongst speakers of many languages that only one dialect of their language should be exalted above the others; in the case of Bengalis (from both India and Bangladesh), it was the dialect native to the regions north of Kolkata and west of Kushtia that were elevated to a status not shared by any other dialect of Bangla. While in linguistic circles it is called “Nadia Standard”, as it is loosely based on the local speech of Nadia and Murshidabad Districts, the dialect is widely called cholito bhasha or cholti bhasha (“current language”), shuddho Bangla (“pure Bangla”), or even bhalo Bangla (“good Bangla”), revealing our ideological biases towards 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. In the Linguistic Survey of India, conducted in the early 1900s, Irish linguist George Abraham Grierson found that each region of Bengal has its own way of producing the same sentence. To express “a man had two sons”, those in the north said ek manusher dui chhaoa chhilo (Dinajpur) or ek zon mansher duikna beta asil (Rangpur). In the southwest, 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 east, Grierson transcribed ek zoner duidi saoal asilo (Dhaka), ek bedar dui put asil (Comilla), and kono mainshor dui fua asil (Sylhet). In the extreme southeast, speakers offered ek zon mainsher duga hola asil (Noakhali), ugga mansher duo poa asil (Chittagong City), and ek jontun diba poa el (Chittagong Hill Tracts). On the other extreme, speakers of far western dialects said ek jonor duito beta achhlek (Mal Paharia) or yahok noker duita chhaoga rohina (Kharia Thar). No one at the turn of the 20th century was spontaneously uttering the sentence kono ek bektir duita putro chhilo, although under the constraints of shadhu bhasha, that was the way to write it. It was not until prolific Bengalis of the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to write the way they spoke 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 (where many of these writers hailed from) arose, in which the aforementioned sentence would be ek joner dui chhele chhilo. By the end of the 20th century, all major publications in both Bangladesh and West Bengal had converted to this central dialect-style cholti bhasha.
Of course, having a written form brought closer to the spoken form is a good thing; typically, this encourages
literacy, and makes a language's literature more accessible. 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 dialects found themselves having to learn yet another entirely new set of pronunciation and grammar rules. Now uhadigoke khaoaia ditechhilam (“I was feeding them”) was written oder khaie dichchhilam, which was arguably even
more foreign than the shadhu form to someone who would say oderke khaoai ditesilam at home. Furthermore, a new set of colloquialisms had to be learned; over time, it has become increasingly fashionable to imitate the more casual pronunciation styles of the central regions, pronouncing hishab as hisheb (“calculation”), jutar phita as jutor phite (“shoelaces”), and the combination of the numeral dui and the suffix -ta as duto rather than duita (“two”). For many speakers, these central dialect colloquialisms have totally replaced those of their own local dialects, which are regarded as coarse or uneducated. But what makes jonne more educated than jonno (“for”)? Is calling a man buro or bethe more sophisticated than calling him bura (“old”) or baittha (“short”)? What makes a kutta or bilai any less proper than a kukur (“dog”) or beral (“cat”)?
While in transit at Kolkata's airport, my mother (who had never been to India) found herself in a peculiar scene: here she was surrounded by presumably uneducated porters and child labourers, all speaking perfect shuddho! 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 then remembered that words like jachchhen, bolchhish, or korechhile in place of zaitesen, koitesos, and korsila aren't more correct or necessarily a mark of refinement, rather they are just the local pronunciations in that region. Those children in the Kolkata airport probably don’t have a clue that their speech is so closely imitated by even the poshest Bangladeshis.
Calling this 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 shuddho Bangla is more faithful to it. Such a stage of Bangla, however, has never existed; all living languages are constantly evolving. The evolution of Bangla began with the millennium-long development of Vedic Sanskrit (or a closely related Old Indic language) into Magadhi Prakrit, the language of Gautama Buddha. During this evolution, many Old Indic features were lost; for example, the three distinct “s”-like sibilant sounds of Sanskrit (still represented by talobbo-sho, murdhonno-sho, and donto-sho in spelling) started to sound more and more similar, eventually coming to be pronounced identically in Magadhi Prakrit—as they essentially still are in Bangla, 2500 years later. Magadhi Prakrit eventually evolved into Apabhramsa Abahatta, which gave way to the Eastern Indic languages: Assamese, Bangla, and Oriya, among others. By the 10th century, Bangla and its sister languages revived archaic Sanskrit vocabulary while also losing the system of grammatical gender and number, in which verbs reflected whether its subject was masculine, feminine, or neuter, and whether it was singular or plural (as the situation still is in only a few other Indic languages, like Gujarati). The vowels also began to change, losing the distinctions between roshsho “short” and dirgho “long” versions in pronunciation (though we still spell them differently) but gaining a distinction in quality (such as the different pronunciations of the “e” vowel in ekta versus ekti). This is when the Eastern Indic languages developed their characteristic “o”-like sound in jono gono mono where others say jana gana mana. Furthermore, as Bangla continued to drift away from its sisters, each dialect of Bangla also began to take on slightly different modifications; for example, the 16th century word amadiger (“our”) simplified to amago in the east and amader in the west. Similarly, khaitechhilam (“I was eating”) lost two vowels in the west, becoming khachchhilam, while the eastern dialects preserved the vowels but softened the chh to s in khaitesilam. Furthermore, all dialects have picked up various words from Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, Chinese, English, Portuguese, and indigenous languages. Once foreign words such as kharap “bad”, pochhondo “like”, chabi “key”, jinish “thing”, cha “tea”, and alu “potato” have all been incorporated into the shared vocabulary, while some dialects have also taken on additional borrowings such as ashman “sky” and 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. Thus, all dialects of Bangla— standard and non-standard alike—can be seen as having roughly the same “purity”.
The third term for the standard central dialect of Bangla—bhalo Bangla—is arguably the most damaging. One essential tenet of modern linguistic theory is that all forms of language—signed, spoken, standard, and nonstandard—are equally grammatical, equally systematic, and equally complex. 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 underlying 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 chh in bhalo achhi more pleasing than the s in 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 (“coconut”) to narkel than to pronounce it earlier as in nairkel? To some people, the answers may be “yes”. But in an objective, linguistic view, there is no way to measure what is “logical” or “better”; these are notions that individual speakers have. Typically, it's not the speech itself that people dislike, rather it's the speakers of those dialects that are being stigmatised; meaning, it's not that gelo ga is illogical, but that it is spoken by a class of people that others 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 when spoken by African Americans and Southerners, but refined when used in French (je ne sais rien). Research reveals that people conflate their attitudes towards certain groups with their notions on the features of the dialects spoken by those groups, meaning that if you don't respect a particular group of people, you find fault in their speech.
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: being proud of your own mother tongue, whatever it may be. For most Bangladeshis, this is a form of Bangla, but only a few urbanites can claim that their mother tongue matches what's written in the books at the Ekushey Boi Mela. The overwhelming majority of us speak one of the many nonstandard dialects, each with its own history, its own evolution, its own grammar, its own beauty. We mustn't feel ashamed of our linguistic heritage; just as we protested to protect our right to speak Bangla, so should we act to protect our local varieties of the language, alongside the standard variety taken from just across the border. At the fundamental core of International Mother Language Day is the recognition and appreciation of human diversity; to truly honour its spirit of universality, February 21 shouldn't just be a celebration of one powerful variety of our language, but of all the rich, diverse forms of Bangla and of all other languages spoken in this country.
Dr Sameer ud Dowla Khan is an associate professor of linguistics at Reed College.