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Can the names of the five districts be pronounced phonetically?

  • Published at 02:09 am May 25th, 2018
  • Last updated at 02:20 am May 25th, 2018
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Following the government decree, the districts will be spelled as follows - Chittagong as Chattogram, Barisal as Barishal, Comilla as Cumilla, Bogra as Bogura, Jessore as Jashore

With millions of Bangladeshis still puzzled over the recently changed English spelling of the five districts, experts and linguists are now divided on the question of whether the new spellings are phonetically correct or not.

On April 2, the government changed the English spelling of five districts- what were formerly known as Chittagong, Barisal, Comilla, Bogra and Jessore- at a meeting of the National Implementation Committee for Administrative Reorganizations Reform (Nicar), held by the Cabinet Division, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as the chair.

Following the government decree, the districts will be spelled as follows - Chittagong as Chattogram, Barisal as Barishal, Comilla as Cumilla, Bogra as Bogura, and Jessore as Jashore.

While the new spellings have evoked a lukewarm response from the locals of these five districts, linguists and experts have started questioning the accuracy of the current spellings.

Is the spelling phonetically correct, but confusing while pronouncing?

Professor of the Bangla department of Dhaka University, Soumitra Shekhor, says the new English spellings of the districts are phonetically incorrect, since they violate the rules of transliteration.

“The government did not follow the rules of transliteration when changing the spelling,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.

According to him, the government move was “anti-educational,” and even though pronunciation is a matter of personal choice, a language is much more structured.

“During transliteration, even though the Bangla letter ‘অ’ is translated into the English letter ‘A’, that particular rule has not been followed in case of the new district spellings,” said Soumitra.

“I do not know why the government took the decision to change the names of only five districts,” continued the professor. “The English spellings of Sylhet, Brahmanbaria, Lakshmipur, Mymensingh, and others, are still spelled in the old British style.”

Earlier on April 2, Secretary of Coordination and Reforms at the Cabinet Division, NM Ziaul Alam, commented that the names of several districts that date back to British colonial times need to be updated.

Professor of English at Jahangirnagar University, Dr M Maniruzzaman, says proper nouns, such as the names of the districts, cannot be explained through phonetics, and thus the age old customary spellings were linguistically correct. 

“English is a non-phonetic language,” said Dr Maniruzzaman. “Proper nouns cannot be explained phonetically. Hence, from this point of view, the district names are correct.”

The JU professor added that the government initiative would create mass confusion as people have been using the earlier spellings for a long time.

He also said that, “Chottogram” instead of “Chattogram”, “Borishal” instead of “Barishal”, “Kumilla” instead of “Cumilla”, and “Joshor” instead of “Jashore” would have been the correct spellings in accordance with their Bangla names.

“But ‘Bogura’ is correct,” said Dr M Maniruzzaman.

‘One of the important features of a language is its arbitrariness’

Speaking on this topic, Associate Professor of English at Dhaka University, Dr Ahmed Bashir, says one of the most important features of a language is its sheer arbitrariness; hence spelling and pronunciation do not always necessarily match.

Dr Ahmed told the Dhaka Tribune: “Spelling and pronunciation are matters of convention, especially in the case of names.

“From this linguistic perspective, the new spellings are correct only if people accept them and a convention is formed around them through the years,” said the DU professor. 

Dr Ahmed also pointed out that instead of being an English translation of the Bangla “চট্টগ্রাম”, “Chittagong” was the English name of the district, just like India is the English name of “Bharat”.

“In my opinion, the spellings of the four districts are phonetically correct, but ‘Cumilla’ stands odd,” said the English professor. “If you want to make the ‘u’ vowel sound more prominent, maybe the correct spelling would have been ‘Coomilla’.”

Meanwhile, Lecturer of Bengali Language at the University of Texas, Ahmed Shamim, said: “Traditionally, we use the English letter ‘A’ to indicate the Bangla letters ‘অ’ and ‘আ’. For example: Banani, or Ramna."

“In order to indicate ‘ও’ and ‘উ’ sounds in Bangla words, we use ‘O’ and ‘U’ respectively. For the example: Bhola and Burimari,” said Dr Shamim.

Since the government has decided to write ‘A’ or ‘O’ to indicate the Bangla letter ‘ও’, and ‘A’ to indicate ‘অ’ and ‘আ’ letters, then the correct spellings should have been “Borishal”, “Bogura” and “Cattogram”, according to the lecturer. 

“As ‘চ’ sounds চ+অ and ‘ট’ sounds ট+ও, the spelling of ‘চট্রগ্রাম’ would be ‘Cattogram’,” Shamim explained.

He further added that structurally, as ‘যশোর’ in Bangla is ‘য+অ+শ+ও+র’, the correct spelling in English would have been ‘Jashor’.

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