Our production manager Sanjoy Roy highlights a common confusion about Bengali usage
The Bengali language is the language of Bengal, right? Well, not wrong – but it’s not as simple as that. In the UK there’s quite a lot of confusion about what Bengali is, so I’ll try to clarify that here.
First, let me illustrate the problem. I live in Whitechapel, in East London, which has one of the highest densities of Bengalis in the country. My father, who was born in Dhaka and grew up in Kolkata, is a native Bengali speaker. But when he comes to visit me in Whitechapel, he can’t understand what the local Bengalis are saying. Yet he has no problem reading the shop signs and street names written in Bengali. What’s going on?
Well, spoken Bengali encompasses a range of dialects, and one of them – the one spoken around Kolkata – came to be considered the standard. Kolkata is the capital of West Bengal, an Indian state. But most Bengalis in the UK are from Bangladesh, not India. The language spoken around its capital, Dhaka, is not much very different from Kolkata Bengali; they’re like different accents of the same language. But the language spoken in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh, where most UK Bengalis are from, is quite different – so different that some regard it as a different language altogether. So that’s why my father can’t understand my local Bengali speakers: they use very different dialects.
But he can understand the writing, and not only because it’s the same script that he uses: it’s the same language. Spoken Bengali has very wide regional variations (neither Sylheti speakers nor Kolkata-Bengali speakers would understand Bengali from Chittagong, for example). But written Bengali is pretty much the same. So Bengalis across India and Bangladesh typically speak their regional dialect, and write in standard Bengali. That means they are literate in the same language, even if they can’t understand each other in everyday conversation.
So if you need a Bengali translation, remember:
- Written Bengali is pretty much standard; spoken Bengali varies much more widely.
- Sylheti dialect may be more appropriate in particular cases, for example to communicate specifically with Sylheti speakers, using speech rather than text.
And in another blogpost, I’ll look at some issues we frequently encounter in Bengali typesetting.
[See you again]