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What is Bengali?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Bengali is a language spoken throughout eastern India and Bangladesh. It has nearly 200 million native speakers, making it the seventh-most natively spoken language on Earth. Though the term Bengali is still widely used throughout the world, the native word for the language is Bangla, and it is beginning to come into common English usage.

There are two main stylistic systems of writing used in Bengali. The first, Shadhubhasha, is based on an older form of Bengali, and is primarily only used in extremely formal situations or some literary settings. The second, Choltibhasha, is used much more widely, and in fact the word itself means something akin to "current language." The current standardized form of written Bengali comes from the late 18th century, when an Englishman, Sir Charles Wilkins, created the first printing press for the Bengali language. The alphabet is also used for a number of other languages, including some Sino-Tibetian languages such as Manipuri and Garo.

Like Mandarin and many other languages spoken over a wide geographical area, Bengali dialects span a dialect continuum. This means that though speakers of one dialect are likely to be able to understand their neighbors -- and even their neighbors' neighbors -- as the distance grows, it becomes likely that the speakers will be unable to understand anything but a few words of other dialects. There is a somewhat standardized form of Bengali based on a dialect from the region of Calcutta, but the extent to which it is truly universal is limited.

Bengali derives from the ancient Sanskrit language, and much of its vocabulary is drawn directly from Sanskrit. What is usually referred to as Classical Sanskrit was first spoken in India over 2,500 years ago, and its influence on Indian culture and the various languages of India is great. Bengali also draws heavily from Persian, Arabic, and Turkish vocabulary, due to the repeated waves of invasion from the Middle East into India.

Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language, part of the larger Indo-European category. Indo-Aryan languages are spoken throughout the Indian sub-continent, as well as some adjoining areas. Some well-known examples include the ancient language of Sanskrit, Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, and even the Nepali language of Nepal.

Since the 19th century, there has been a great deal of renewed interest by artists in the Bengali language, resulting in many of the great modern works of Indian literature and poetry being written in Bengali. The iconic example of this trend is Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. He is responsible for an unbelievable amount of spectacular poetry, novels, short stories, and assorted other writings. He is also the creator of both the Indian and Bangladeshi national anthems.

The Bengali language has had a somewhat tumultuous recent history, with some incredible movements springing up to protect its status as a national language, or to help promote its widespread use. The most well-known of these events was the 1952 protest in Pakistan, in which a number of protesters were killed. The protest was in response to a decision by the Pakistani government to make Urdu the sole national language, even though the majority of the Pakistani population spoke Bengali.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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