Monday, October 15, 2012

Language Profile: Bengali

This week we're learning about Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language with over 180 million native speakers. Bengali (also known as Bangla) is the official language of Bangladesh. It's also an official regional language in parts of India. The national anthems of both countries are in Bengali, as well as India's national song. Bengali is native to the area known as Bengal, which oddly enough borders the Bay of Bengal and is home to Bengal tigers.

I'm a mundanely-named cat.

Bengali is written using you guessed it, Bengali script. Bengali script is an abugida (if you don't know what that is, check out last week's post on writing systems), and is written from left to right. Historically, Bengali script was used to write Sanskrit (the historical language of Hinduism), but was eventually modernized and standardized by a guy named Ishwar Chandra during the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The word "Bengali" in Bengali script.

The Bengali language has a significant political history. During the Bengal Renaissance, the Bengal region was transformed by British rule and became an intellectual and cultural center. Eventually, a political group called the Bengali Language Movement formed in hopes of convincing the current government to recognize Bengali as an official language for both governmental and educational use. On February 21st of 1952, student demonstrators supporting the movement were killed by police in Dhaka, causing civil unrest in the region for several years. In 1956, the government finally gave in and Bengali was given official status. In 1971, Bangladesh became an independent nation.

The memory of those terrible events in Dhaka led to the creation of International Mother Language Day by UNESCO in 1999. It is celebrated every February 21st as a tribute to those who were killed pursuing their right to use Bengali, as well as to promote linguistic and cultural diversity worldwide.

The unveiling ceremony of the International Mother Language
Day monument in Sydney, Australia.