February 21, 2010

On the occasion of Ekushey February (1952 Bangla Language Movement), I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do some research on The Origins of Bangla Language and share it with you. So, I went on a treasure hunt on the internet and visited the usual sites (wikipedia, cornell bangla dept, sadly banglapedia is no longer online) to gather some information. Below is a compilation of what I have found (sources are credited at the end of the feature).
Out of curiosity I also explored Amazon.com to see what Bangla books are available out there for those of us living outside Bangladesh. Below I list a few selection of books which I thought were particularly good or interesting. Those of you with young children, the language books might be of special interest to you. Another website for Bangla books is Boi Mela, which has a wide selection of books. The books are shipped from Bangladesh while the e-books can be downloaded from their website (some are even free!). 
I hope you are taking full advantage of all the Ekushey February cultural events happening in your area. I always love going to these events so that I can get my share of delicious Bangali food (did I mention how much I adore food?).  

Labiba / creativeBangladesh



BANGLA is an Eastern Indo-Aryan language of the Indo-European language family. Its immediate predecessor was Magadhi Apabhransha. From this emerged the three languages – Bangla, Oriya and Assamese.

Bangla exhibits a strong case of diglossia between the formal, written and the vernacular (spoken language) [diglossia is a situation where a community uses two languages or dialects]. The two standard written forms of Bangla, Shadhubhasha and Choltibhasha, stand in sharp contrast with the spoken forms of Bangla, often referred to as Ancholik Bangla (regional bangla). Choltibhasha (literally, ‘the current language’) comprises the standard pronunciation of Bangla and thus serves as the basis for the orthography of most Bangla writing today.

Shadhubhasha (shadhu = ‘chaste’ or ‘sage’; bhasha = ‘language’) was the written language with longer verb inflections and more of a Sanskrit-derived vocabulary. However, use of Shadhubhasha in modern writing is negligible, except when it is used deliberately to achieve some effect.

Choltibhasha or Cholitobhasha (cholito = ‘current’ or ‘running’), known by linguists as Manno Cholit Bangla (Standard Colloquial Bangla), is a written Bangla style exhibiting a preponderance of colloquial idiom and shortened verb forms, and is now the standard for written Bangla. This form came into vogue towards the turn of the 19th century, promoted by the writings of Peary Chand Mitra (Alaler Gharer Dulal, 1857), Pramatha Chowdhury (Sabujpatra, 1914) and in the later writings of Rabindranath Tagore. It is modeled on the dialect spoken in the Shantipur region in Nadia district, West Bengal and districts bordering on the lower reaches of the Hooghly River. This form of Bengali is often referred to as the ‘Nadia standard’ or ‘Shantipuri Bangla’.

[above image: genealogically, Bangla belongs to the group of Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, here marked in yellow.]


Like other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, Bangla arose from the eastern Middle Indic languages of the Indian subcontinent. Magadhi Prakrit and Maithili, the earliest recorded spoken languages in the region and the language of the Buddha, evolved into Ardhamagadhi (‘Half Magadhi’) in the early part of the first millennium CE. Ardhamagadhi, as with all of the Prakrits of North India, began to give way to what are called Apabhramsa languages just before the turn of the first millennium. The local Apabhramsa language of the eastern subcontinent, Purvi Apabhramsa or Apabhramsa Abahatta, eventually evolved into regional dialects, which in turn formed three groups: the Bihari languages, the Oriya languages, and the Bengali-Assamese languages. Some argue that the points of divergence occurred much earlier—going back to even 500 but the language was not static: different varieties coexisted and authors often wrote in multiple dialects. For example, Magadhi Prakrit is believed to have evolved into Apabhramsa Abahatta around the 6th century which competed with Bangla for a period of time.

Usually three periods are identified in the history of Bangla Language:

Old Bangla: (900/1000–1400) –  texts include Charyapada, devotional songs; emergence of pronouns Ami, tumi, etc; verb inflections -ila, -iba, etc. Oriya and Assamese branch out in this period.

Middle Bangla: (1400–1800) – major texts of the period include Chandidas’s ‘Sri Krishna Kirtan’; elision of word-final ô sound; spread of compound verbs; Persian influence. Some scholars further divide this period into early and late middle periods.

New Bangla: (since 1800) – shortening of verbs and pronouns, among other changes (e.g. tahar → tar ‘his/her’; koriyachhilô → korechhilo ‘he/she had done’).

[above image: distribution of native Bangla speakers in South Asia (the darker shade of pink denotes Bangladesh).]


The Bangla writing system is not an alphabetic writing system (e.g. the Latin alphabet), rather an abugida, i.e. its consonant graphemes in general represent a consonant followed by an ‘inherent’ vowel. The script is a variant of the Eastern Nagari script used throughout Bangladesh and eastern India (Assam, West Bengal and the Mithila region of Bihar). The Eastern Nagari script is believed to have evolved from a modified Brahmic script around 1000 CE and is similar to the Devanagari abugida used for Sanskrit and many modern Indic languages (e.g. Hindi, Marathi and Nepali). The Bangla script has particularly close historical relationships with the Assamese script, the Oriya script (although this relationship is not strongly evident in appearance) and Mithilakshar (the native script for Maithili language).

[above image: The extent of Bangla inside Bangladesh.]


Old Bangla: (950 – 1350 AD) – the oldest document of Bangla literature, Caryapada,  was written during this time. It is a collection of 47 songs religious and philosophical in nature.

Middle Bangla: (1350-1800 AD)Chandidas’s ‘Sri Krishna Kirtan’ represents the Bangla language of the early middle period. The Vaishnava influence is visible in the development of the language. Various Vaishnava Padavalis (verses) and the tradition of writing biographies started. During the later middle period Mangal Kavyas that eulogized non-Aryan Gods – Manasa, Chandi and Dharma were written. The Ramayana (by Krittivas Ojha) and the Mahabharata (by Kasiramdas) were translated into Bangla.

Modern Bangla: (1800 AD – ) – this period witnessed the development of Bengali language as we speak it today. It developed through the writings of Bankim Chandra, Sharatchandra, Rabindranath Tagore and others. Michael Madhusudan Dutt introduced blank verse. Jibanananda Das and Sukanta Bhattacharya were influential poets in the post Tagore period. The language developed further through the works of novelists like Tarashankar, Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, Premendra Mitra, Buddhdeb Basu, and many other great writers of Bangladesh and West Bengal.

Sources: Cornell University Bangla Department, Wikipedia.



Language Books:

Teach Yourself Bengali (Book + 2CD’s) (TY: Complete Courses) (Paperback) by William Radice – the author is an established authority in Bangla literature and language. His English translations of Tagore’s works are the best ones (even better than Tagore’s own English translations!).

Exploring Bengali – Kids Learn Bengali by Ruchira Agarwal

Learning the Bengali Alphabet (Paperback) by Bani Paul

Milet Mini Picture Dictionary: English-Bengali (Board book) by Sedat Turhin and Sally Hagin – I found the illustrations on this book really cute. A good gift for friends’ kids!

Learn Bengali Alphabet Activity Workbook (Paperback) by Dinesh Verma

History Books:

History of the Bengali People (Ancient Period) (Hardcover) by Niharranjan Ray

History of the Bengali-Speaking People (Paperback) by Nitish Sengupta – I have a copy of this and it covers a lot of ground! A good reference book. 

Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital (Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning) (Paperback) by Andrew Sartori

Literature Books:

Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology (Paperback) by Rabindranath Tagore

The Dissent of Nazrul Islam: Poetry and History (Oxford India Paperbacks) (Paperback) by Priti Kumar Mitra

Bengal the Beautiful (Paperback) by Jibanananda Das

100 Songs of Hasan Raja (Bengali Literature in English) (Hardcover) by Hasan Raja

Pather Panchali: Song of the Road (A Bengali Novel: UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, Indian Series) (Paperback) by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee

The Complete Adventures of Feluda by Satyajit Ray

The Heart of a Rebel Poet: Letters of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (Hardcover) by Michael Madhusudan Dutt &  edited by Ghulam Murshid

The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folk Tales (International Folk Tales Series) (Paperback) by Sayantani Dasgupta & Shamita Das Dasgupta

Women’s Studies Books:

Sultana’s Dream and Selections from The Secluded Ones (A Feminist Press Sourcebook) (Paperback) by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Women Writing in Bengal: An Anthology of Short Stories (Hardcover) by Saumita Chakravarty




One Response to “”

  1. tangleofwires Says:

    Great post, lots to look into and add to my Bangla reading lists. Thanks for sharing.

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