21st Century : Language evolution

Written by: Subhabrataa Biswas and Ananya Banerjee

Bengali, also known by its endonym Bangla, is an Indo-Aryan language with approximately 228 million native speakers and the ranking of fifth most spoken native language and the sixth most spoken language by total number of speakers in the world.

In terms of Philology, Bengali originated from the Indo-European language family. In 1500 BC a branch of Indo-European language family namely the Indo-Aryan Language entered Indian sub-continent. Thereafter, the Indo-Aryan Language had evolved in three stages over the time:

Old Indo-Aryan Language (1500 BC – 600 BC): The main language of this stage is Vedic language, from which Sanskrit originated.

Middle Indo-Aryan Language (600 BC – 900 BC): This period spanned over almost one thousand and five hundred years, in which Sanskrit evolved massively and with the essence of Sanskrit, Prakrit came into existence. According to the geographical areas, five types of Prakrit languages were spoken – Maharashtri Prakrit, Sauraseni Prakrit, Paisachi Prakrit, Magadhi Prakrit and Ardha Magadhi Prakrit. Later, each of these Prakrit varieties evolved to other different languages over time.

New Indo-Aryan Language: At this stage, new Indo-Aryan languages were derived from evolved variants of Prakrit. According to philologists, around 900 BC Bengali, Assamese and Oriya languages originated from the eastern branch of Magadhi Prakrit. History of Bengali language can be traced back to 1300 years and can be conveniently divided into three periods. The formative or Old Bengali period, Middle Bengali period and Modern Bengali period. Caryapada is the oldest collection of verses in Bengali language and its literary pattern was composed by  the Sahajiya Buddhist sect. It seems, in these Caryas we have found the first attempt of literary employment of Bengali speech. These lyrical poems were composed between the 950-1200 century, although the exact date of the manuscript is much debated. Mahamahopadhyay Haraprasad Shastri discovered the manuscript from Nepal’s Royal Library. The usage of many Bengali words in it and the antiquity of Bengali grammar was clearly evidenced in the old manuscript of Caryas. Gradually with the evolution of Srikrishnakirtan (1350-1450 AD) in the early Middle Ages, Chandimangal (sixteenth century) in the Middle Ages and Annadamangal (1750 AD) by Bharat Chandra Raigunakar, the late Middle Ages of Bengali language came to an end and the modern era started.

It is important to note that, till this time prose was not prevalent in literature. Sixteenth century onwards, to suffice the activities of accounting, contracts, legal documents etc., prose was used in limited circumstances. In 1800 AD, establishing Bengali department at Fort William College marked the beginning of the Renaissance period in the history of Bengali literature. Along with the foundation of Serampore College and Fort William College, Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar played vital roles as flag-bearers of prose in Bengali literature. Post 1860 AD, we can consider the period as a dawn of modern Bengali literature. Gradually, Bengali literature became rich in prose-based literature, amongst which story, novel, farce, essay and playwriting increased exponentially. The talents of Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Bankimchandra, Biharilal Chakraborty and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay have contributed much in Bengali literature. After that, Rabindranath Tagore brought Bengali literature to the world literary arena. In 1913, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first asian. His achievement conveyed the entire world that Bengali literature and the writers are well worthy of getting the public recognition from the world. From 1861 to 1941 Bengali literature flourished under Tagore’s literary guidance. That’s why this period is also known as Rabindra Era of Bengali literature. In the evolution of Bengali literature, the contribution of Kazi Nazrul Islam is also undeniable. At the beginning of twentieth century, Bengali fiction gained a solid foothold with the contribution of Buddhadeb Basu, Achintya Kumar Sen and others renowned authors. Bengali novels owed much for its new-found momentum to Manik Bandopadhyay, Jagadish Gupta and Kamal Kumar Majumdar, whose central focus was to cater around various aspects of human existence.

Post Tagore era witnessed Indian independence and partition of Bengal as two key events that brought a radical change in contemporaneous Bengali. The newspapers and mass media played an important role in coeval language evolution. Unison of poignant and easily comprehensible writing styles of newspapers and periodicals, such as Anandabazar Patrika, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Jugantar played a key role in otherwise fairly rigid language structure.

After Mumbai (the then Bombay), Kolkata was the only city to have its own radio station, which was established in August, 1927 when British colonials were still ruling over our country. After independence the usage of mass media became widespread. Doordarshan and Akashvani became an important medium for language evolution.

Although print media was a predominant medium in the early 1990s, economic liberalisation in India made space for rapid growth of electronic media. By mid 2011, almost 15 news channels were broadcasting news in Bengali.

Societal change and education were often the supreme factors that led to language evolving in times past, but there is no doubt about what has had the greatest impact on how we speak in recent years – technology. With the growing technological advancement, the living standard is also changing. Language grows and continuously adapts just like a flowing river, with thousands of turns. Each turn has a different story to tell. The Internet is now one of the most strongest mediums for communication. Social media on the internet is not only limited to entertainment. With roughly half of the world’s population now connected to the internet, we experience massively increased levels of language transmission. Ideas, phrases and words are generated and circulated at a staggering rate. Bengali language is no exception to this tech-impact. Facebook, blogs and a number of social media platforms have become the medium of literary practice in Bengali language.

Towards the end of the last decade, a stream of this impact has been evidenced in written Bengali. Especially when Bengali blogs started to gain popularity, well-liked apps and social media platforms started to become localized in Bengali. Therefore, the change in the structure of language, both spoken and in can be easily noticed.

Not only the literary practice, but great efforts have been put since the last decade to develop language related resources, and to make them available to the common people. Due to the innovation of linguistic technology, experienced to the unskilled, everyone can now gain access to localized or native Bengali resources.The mobile apps, which were primarily available to the urban elite society even ten years ago, are now being operated by the Bengali villagers. Along with the tech-giants like Facebook and Google, smaller businesses are also stepping forward to localize their content in Bengali, so that their endeavour reaches a wider audience. Hopefully, in the next one or two decades, a surge of technology, localization and other linguistic developments will evolve Bengali language way beyond our expectation; every household in Bengal will own a smartphone, which in turn will enable them to pursue and peruse information across the globe in their mother tongue.

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