The case for a re-standardization of Bangla
The latest furor about one of our top academics, who confused affordable gastronomy with education, had a strong subtext. Evidence of his regional accent in his speech made us all quite uncomfortable. We do not expect our civil society representatives to speak that way, even though we had no problem understanding what he was saying.
Our society, like many others in the world, consider our standard language sacrosanct and use it to discriminate against regional accents and dialects, and it is this interaction between our dialects and our standard language that I want to write about.
The stories behind standardization
Linguistically all dialects, including even our RJ variant, is based on an internal grammar that is stored in the brain, with a full-fledged set of rules on how to structure its sounds and sentences. Therefore in the linguistic world, there is no discrimination among dialects. The discrimination comes from social and political reasons.
Dialects differ for a number of reasons. Along with geography it differs by class, race, age, religion and even gender. And with time, every dialect changes. To bring order into this chaos, society opts for a standard dialect.
Standardization is generally done for efficacy and not for purity. Whenever a purist society attempts to impose a particular dialect, the effort backfires. Our Ekushey is one of the prime examples of this. In Tamil Nadu, people gave lives in 1938 when Hindi was made mandatory across the presidency. Later in the early sixties in Barak Valley, Assam, 11 Bengalis died in defence of Bangla. Further away in Spain, Franco’s fascist rule could not put a dent on the Basque language, even though it was banned for over 35 years.
Standard language can come to be in many different ways. In English, the standard (which geographically also has multiple versions) settled down without much of an intervention, but for other languages it is primarily done politically. For example, when Iceland was liberated from the Danes, they deliberately selected a rural dialect that had not been tampered with by the ruling Danes. In Italy, the instant popularity of the work of Dante helped unite all Italians to accept Florentine as their nation’s dialect of choice.
Bangla standardization of prose, according to Rabindranath, was ordered by the Europeans and weaved up by the Sanskrit Pandits. The colonial masters needed to learn the language and for that, they were on the lookout for professionals, but the only grammatician they could find were the Sanskrit Pandits, and they chalked out a grammar that chained Bangla under the frame of Sanskrit.
Language as power
Thus, Bangla prose started its journey with an inclination to discriminate. In the quest of purity, attempts were made to shed off all Farsi words from Bangla. The initiative failed miserably because by then the Farsi words were not Farsi any more - they were Bangla.
We owe our gratitude to Promoth Choudhury, who, out of his love for the language, first proposed to reform our language to match what we write with what we say. Rabindranath admitted that his initial reaction to this cholito bhasha was of resistance, but he later gave the initiative his full support.
In selecting the standard dialect Promoth Choudhury, even though he was from Pabna, opted for the dialect of the “educated class of Nodiya and Shantipur” because of its beauty, clarity and over all understandability by people of all regions of Bengal. Geographically too, Nodiya was roughly at the centre of the province.
Rabindranath supported this dialect and added that the dialect of the educated class of Kolkata be accepted as the norm, because of the language mix the capital had to offer. Poignantly in the same article, he said that had Dhaka been the capital, the rest of Bengal would have had to comply with the lead of Dhaka in setting up the standard.
The reason the standard form can discriminate is that it comes with a lot of power. As prominent Russian linguist Max Weinreich famously said, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. In Bangla, the powerful Bangla Academy is leading the reform movement of the standard. Bangla spelling has experienced reform under their hand. The camp that resists the movement is also quite vocal on the internet.
It is one thing to regulate the written language, but completely another for the speakers to accept the format as their chosen way to speak. Speech follows its natural whims and is a lot more dynamic than the written form.
Can we create a new standard for Bangla?
With almost a hundred years gone by since the article of Promoth Choudhury was printed, the reform question of the standard form is again making a lot of sound. Again we hear of the disparity between the spoken form and the written form. With a new capital and a new country, it is quite inevitable that the standard language will face pressure to change.
But how do we come up with a new standard for Bangla? Bangla Academy created an expert panel to decide on it and they have done the best that they could. But due to the tendency to discriminate, their quest for a standard remained more or less unchanged from the hundred year old version, and the new political reality was completely ignored.
The educated class of Dhaka and for that matter Bangladesh, speaks differently than the educated class of West Bengal. With their national identity in the forefront, Bangla in West Bengal is under a big threat. The educated community in Kolkata speaks a blend of Hindi, English and Bangla. But in Dhaka, our national identity is entwined with Bangla. We talk differently from them because we think, talk and live our life in Bangla. Our regional dialects, our class movements, our aspirations, our traditions - all are at play to formulate our dialect when we speak to each other.
Following the same rule of Promoth Choudhury, we need to study our spoken language to formulate our standard tongue. We need to acknowledge like Rabindranath, that there is no pure form in Bangla. We have to be aware that we cannot discriminate against or favour any particular dialect when the global norm teaches us not to discriminate against race, colour, age, gender or economic position.
I believe we need an audit of all the dialects that are in use in this country and then decide on our standard language. Norway has placed their rural based Nynorsk along with Bokmal as one of the standard of their language, after they studied and published all their rural dialects. We could follow their example and leave our bias for the formal speak of the educated community and embrace what is common in all of us.
When we celebrate this Ekushey, we need to also remember March 7, when every single word was understood by all of us, and ponder how discrimination against that particular dialect can be institutionalized in this land.
The author is a history buff and a project manager by trade