Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is not the only one to point to the distortion of the Bengali language we see in our times. Most of us do, indeed have done so over these past many years. It is not just that a section of people, the young in particular, have resorted to speaking the language in heavily accented manner, to a point where you are left wondering if that is the way in which we have spoken and written Bengali across the centuries. This accent is something you come up against on television, especially when you have some pretentious celebrities on a show. Take, for instance, the way in which these seemingly westernized Bengalis, even without having been abroad, tend to roll their r's when they pronounce the word 'amar'. And that is not the only example we can cite to explain how such faux westernized elitism is being brought into the Bengali language. Instances are legion.
There are other areas where the script of the Bengalis, at least in our part of the old Bengal, has been taking a bad beating through systematically being turned into a mishmash of a language. And here you simply cannot only pin the blame on our self-obsessed celebrities alone. It is a malady which you spot nearly everywhere, with nearly everyone having developed the notion that a bit of class needs to be injected into the language if it means to amount to anything. And how do you do that? Bring in as many English terms as you can into your use of spoken Bengali. That way, you can be sure that your elitism will impress those who have enough time and patience to listen to you. It is the parvenu in you which does not hesitate to sprinkle Bengali with English. You ignore 'bitorko' and go for 'argument'. You grab at 'good governance' when there is the properly Bengali term 'shushashon'. A couple of years ago, a singer performing on live television was, at breaks between the songs, being greeted by phone-in viewers in excellent, proper Bengali. She responded, to our embarrassment, in English. 'Thank you so much', she crooned. And here she was singing absolutely Bengali songs.
The prime minister, like the rest of us, certainly is aware of how far we have peppered our own language with elements that simply ought not to have been there. Where previously our expression of happiness over a poem or a sight of nature came in the shape of the properly Bengali 'bah', today it comes through an aping of Americanisms. The term 'wow' has come to be ubiquitously irritating. When a foreigner uses the term, it is perfectly understandable. But when a full-blooded Bengali falls for it, for no other reason than to impress us, it gets, to use a blunt expression, on our nerves. Now, of course languages evolve through time. But when a language is subjected to infiltration by other languages, we have reasons to be unhappy, even a trifle alarmed. You surely wonder when your fellow Bengali keeps talking of 'contempt of court' when he can very well use the very Bengali 'adalat obomanona'. To be sure, there are terms and phrases in English that do not have proper versions in Bengali. That is accepted. But what you feel uncomfortable with is when an individual will not speak of a 'tottabodhayok shorkar' but will opt for the very English 'caretaker government'. At home you are content to have a meal of 'bhaat' and 'murgir mangsho'. How is it that the moment you make your way into an expensive restaurant you decide to order 'rice and chicken'?
It is your self-esteem which comes under question when you abandon your own language and go for a borrowing of terms and phrases from a foreign one. That said, the danger which the Bengali language faces comes also from some of the very people who should be keeping it in sophisticated order. Cultured Bengali or 'shuddho Bangla' used to be the standard in our use of language. In our schools and later colleges and universities, it was the norm for people to use 'shuddho Bangla' in their public dealings even as they went back to a use of local or regional dialects in their dealings with their families. Ministers, lawmakers and civil servants did not deviate from this standard. Pronunciation was assiduously maintained and polite use of the language underlined conversation and writing. That era appears to have passed. And today it is rather grating for the ears to have to listen to so many of the people highly placed, all around us, in society, in politics, in administration converse in absolutely atrocious Bengali. There are hordes of people --- and they appear on television --- whose use of the term 'maddhom' mutates, to your shock, to 'maiddhom'. Why must that be the case? Why should 'rajniti' be pronounced as 'razniti'? Why must a Bengali be unable, after all those years of education, to pronounce words correctly?
The malaise has spread in the last few years. Time was when plays and movies in Bengali were models of sophisticated Bengali. That is the reality no more. Where once in a play or on the screen you heard a character use the term 'kheyechhi', today it is very likely that the word 'khaisi' will hit your auditory faculties. Young men and women at universities in the past spoke respectfully to each other, which respect came through an employment of terms of address such as 'apni'. The old respect has now declined to an excess of informality, with today's young giving free rein to words such as 'tui', to say nothing of the colloquialisms they seek to express themselves in.
The beauty of a language shines in the purity we drape it in. Watch all those programmes on Indian and Pakistani television. Rare are the moments when participants grasp at English to express themselves. It is soothing to the ear when good, urbane Hindi or Urdu is being spoken in happy abandon. Could we not do better with Bengali? And not just on television?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer.
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