Culture

Bengali: a Brief Guide to the 7th World’s Most Spoken Language

With a rich grammar structure, the Bengali Language is official in Bangladesh, where it was crucial to the country’s movement for independence
Thalita Lima
7 min
Table of Contents

Did you know Bengali is the 7th most spoken language in the world? 

With over 272.8M speakers, according to Ethnologue.com, Bengali is the official and national language of Bangladesh, a country where it is used as a language of instruction in education. It’s also spoken in some regions of India. 

Here you’ll find a brief guide to the main aspects of this language, which deserves inclusion in your agency's translation service portfolio.

Bengali Language Map

Bengal region, in South Asia, is the birthplace of the Bengali Language. Currently, the language distribution is concentrated, embracing India and Bangladesh, as illustrated in the map below.

Geographic distribution of Bengali LanguageMap by Wikipedia.org

Among the 272M speakers, considering those who speak Bengali as a first or second language, 100 million Bengali speakers are in Bangladesh, and about 85 million in India (mainly West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura). 

More than 90% of the people in Bangladesh speak Bangla, alongside a variety of native languages. The term “Bangla” can also refer to a dialect of Bengali.

Also, there are sizable immigrant communities in the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Middle East that speak Bengali as a heritage language.

Bengali Language: History and Varieties

According to the Department of Asian Languages & Literature of the University of Washington, where the course of Bengali is offered, the history of Bangla and its literature is divided into three periods:

  1. the Old Bangla period (1000-1350 A.D.); celebrated by the manuscript of Buddhist songs. 
  2. middle period (1350-1800); with a vast body of literature, devoted to both Hindu and Muslim themes. 
  1. modern Bangla (dates to the 19th century); when the Bengali Renaissance produced many great writers, the best-known figure being Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, the first Nobel laureate from Asia.

Bengali Language was truly important to the Independence of Bangladesh. The Bengali Language Movement, called “bhasha andolon”, contributed to the recognition of Bangla as an official language of the then Dominion of Pakistan. 

The Bhasha Andolon took place during the early 1950s, with significant events around 1952. In consequence, the movement showed seed to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

The Bangladeshi Bhasha Andolan Of 1952Image Source: The Daily Observer, on the shethepeople.tv

There are two varieties of styles in the Bengali Language: the Sadhubhasa (elegant or genteel speech) and the Chaltibhasa (current or colloquial speech).

Chaltibhasa came into literary use from the beginning of the 20th century and by the beginning of the 21st century it had become the dominant variant.

Although distinctions in the use of Bengali are associated with social class, educational level, and religion, the greatest differences are regional. 

These differences mark the tons of the dialects. Bangla is primarily spoken in Bangladesh territory, while Rarhi is dominant in West Bengal (India) and Varendri in north West Bengal and north Bangladesh. See the map below.

Major dialects of BengaliImage by The Business Standard 

Particularities of Bengali Language Grammar

Bengali is a member of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. 

It’s a language with melodious quality and quite complex grammatical structure, using the Bengali script, with 12 vowels and 36 consonants. 

West Bengal, IndiaImage by Gautam Ganguly on unsplash.com

Some curiosities:

  • Bengali nouns do not inflect for gender - feminine or masculine.
  • Nouns do inflect for numbers. Plurals are typically achieved by adding suffixes such as "-রা" (ra) or "-গুলি" (guli). 
  • Pronouns and formality: Bengali pronouns change based on formality, distance, and number. For example, the second-person pronoun has informal (তুই - tui), semi-formal (তুমি - tumi), and formal (আপনি - apni) variations.
  • The typical sentence structure in Bengali is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), which differs from the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) structure commonly found in English.
  • Bengali verbs are highly inflected, changing form to indicate tense, aspect, mood, and person. The language primarily distinguishes among three tenses: present, past, and future; they typically use suffixes to make the distinction. 

Examples:

 আমি পড়ছি (Ami porchi) - "I am reading."

 আমি পড়লাম (Ami porlam) - "I read."

 আমি পড়ব (Ami porbo) - "I will read."

 আমি পড়ছিলাম (Ami porchhilam) - "I was reading."

 আমি পড়েছি (Ami porechi) - "I have read."

  • Instead of prepositions, Bengali uses postpositions, which follow the noun or pronoun they govern. These postpositions indicate relationships such as location, direction, and possession. 


Example: টেবিলের উপর (Tebiler upor) - "On the table."

Curious about the Bengali language sound? Check out this video, The Sound of the Bengali language (UDHR, Numbers, Greetings, Words & Sample Text)

Translating Bengali to English and vice-versa

Translating between Bengali and English deals with the challenges of differences in grammar, syntax, and cultural context. The writing is also a relevant point in this transition, it’s a different system to absorb.

Tips? 

Understanding the Cultural Context is the first basic one, and includes considering the Formality Levels to Localize properly the target. As stated before, Bengali has different levels of formality in pronouns and verb forms, which must be appropriately matched in English. 

Be alert to the sentence structure. Bengali typically follows a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) order, while English follows a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order, so rearranging words to fit the target language’s structure is essential. Other particularities of grammar we highlighted are equally important: tenses and aspects, and postprepositions.

It’s important to consider the Multiple Meanings. Many Bengali words have multiple meanings depending on context. For example, in Bengali, কলা (kola) can mean "banana" or "art" depending on context. Could you imagine the confusion of choosing the inappropriate meaning? 

Last but not least, use AI tools to help your workflow. Good CAT tools can deliver the best results, and improve your efficiency and contextual accuracy.

Understanding these particularities not only provides insight into the language itself but also into the culture and people who speak it. 

Well, this was just an introduction. Safe travels and a fascinating journey with this gender-free language! 

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References:

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bengali-language

https://asian.washington.edu/fields/bengali-bangla

https://www.tbsnews.net/supplement/languages-bangladesh-373636

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Thalita Lima
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