Place names and their spelling in English

by Abu Jar M Akkas | Updated at 11:29pm on April 01, 2018

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BY THE turn of the century, after the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission had been set up, I was assigned to write a report on some internet issues and I needed to speak to the then chair of the commission. I travelled down to the commission office and was asked to wait for a while. While I was waiting, an officer of the commission asked, I heard, one of his seniors about how he would write ‘Shariatpur’, the spelling, in English. The senior gave him a blank look, thought for a while and then said that it was, indeed, a grave problem.
Moments after, he told his junior that the commission had sent a letter to the office concerned in Shariatpur about a year or so before and asked him to dig out the letter to get to know the spelling of the district. There should be no chance of being caught giving a wrong spelling and if the spelling in the previous letter were wrong, the blame would certainly fall on the officer who had sent the letter then.
Much before when we were in school, in 1982, the spelling of Bangladesh’s capital Dacca was changed to Dhaka. The change took time to set in, not officially, but in people’s mind. One reason that was popularly given for the change that time was decolonisation of a sort of the spelling initiated by the British rulers. Yet there are documents in the National Archives showing the British rulers spelling the name as ‘Dhaka’. The spelling ‘Dacca’ was, in all likelihood, a contribution of the Portuguese.
The changed spelling somehow conformed to how it is spelt in Bangla. But the pronunciation in international arena, more in aviation and shipping matters, remained the same as ‘Dacca’ was pronounced. A breathy, or heavily aspirated, retroflex consonant that begins the name has never been, and would never be, agreeable to foreign tongue. There it rests.
The change in spelling has come back again. There has been a report that the National Implementation Committee for Administrative Reorganisation-Reform, or NICAR for short, has got into the process of changing the spelling of five names of Bangladesh’s districts.
It has decided to change the spelling of Chittagong to Chattagram, Comilla to Kumilla, Barisal to Barishal, Jessore to Jashore and Bogra to Bogura. The apparent reason for this is to dispense with some discrepancies that are existent in the spelling of the names.
There are issues to look into about this. Such changes will entail so many corrections in records, public and private, that it might not be entirely possible to effect the changes in a short time. All signs, not just in the districts concerned but elsewhere across Bangladesh would need to be changed. There could also be resistance by the people from the districts. People now holding official documents need to have the names changed. On top of all, the changes would entail the expense of a huge amount of money.
What is striking about the government initiative is that it is changing the spelling of names of only five districts. There are others that need to be changed if the intent of the removal of discrepancies is considered. Clearly, the names of Mymensingh and Sylhet deserve to be changed, which look far away from their Bangla names, to, perhaps, Maimansingha and Silet, or something else that fit in with the criteria now being adhered to in the change of the names of the five districts. If names of smaller places are taken into account, there could be many other names that need to be changed.
Changes in the spelling of the names might also bring in a sudden severance from their historicity. What is now known as Chittagong in English and Chattagram in Bangla have also been known as Satigam, Chatigam and Chatigan, Chittigan, or Chittagoung in olden times and Chattala, in modern times. The Portuguese still call the place Xatigam. Hobson-Jobson quotes from Sir William Jones, ‘The province of Chatigan (vulgarly Chittagong) is a noble field for a naturalist. It is so called, I believe, from the chatag, which is the most beautiful little bird I ever saw.’
The other issue that is also striking is that the constitution of Bangladesh in Article 3 unequivocally says: ‘The state language of the Republic is Bangla.’ Why would the government need to decide the spelling of district names in English? If uniformity is the aim, there should be a transliteration system, which is the process of expressing the spelling of names from one into another script system, to adhere to. Yet if this is aimed at, there should be so many changes, millions or billions of them, if people’s name are considered. Russia has a similar system. People name themselves and spell them in Russian script and the transliteration rules, adopted by the government, decides their spelling in English, or in Roman script so to say.
If a strict normalisation is not in consideration, they are better left as they are or as they have evolved over times. The change of spelling from Dacca to Dhaka has left the name being spelt as ‘Daka’ in Arabic, ‘Dacca’ in French and ‘Dakka’ (in Cyrillic) in Russian in all United Nations documents. When it writes in English, it writes ‘Bangladesh’ but when it writes the name in cartographic documents, it spells the name as ‘Bāṁlādesh’, with a macron over ‘a’ for the long sound, with a dot over ‘m’ for the ‘ansuvar.’
The United Nations employs its own system, with a macron on the long vowels and with the consonants conforming to the scholarly transliteration system, as laid out in Technical reference manual for the standardization of geographical names, published in 2007, agreed on by the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names. The document says that ‘there is no evidence of the use of the system’, approved in 1972 and amended in 1977 based on a report prepared by DN Sharma, ‘either in Bangladesh, in India or in international cartographic products.’
But there is also the Hunterian system of Romanisation, which the UNGEGN mentions, which has so far been traditionally adhered to in spelling names of the Indian sub-continent in English. A Briton named William Wilson Hunter, who joined the Indian Civil Service in 1862 and was posted to Birbhum in the then lower provinces of Bengal, collected local traditions and records that formed the materials for his work, Time Annals of Rural Bengal. He adopted a transliteration scheme for vernacular place names.
The Hunterian system has been the system of Romanisation, transcription or transliteration into Roman characters, in the sub-continent. He dispensed with diacritics, as adopted by the Transliteration Committee in the 10th International Congress of Orientalists in Geneva in 1894, in writing consonants, using letter clusters in some cases, running the risk of being ambiguous in back-transliteration.
The system has continued to be in use, with a mix of what has customarily been in practice, in Bangladesh till today. The Survey of Bangladesh — which had its origin as the Bengal Survey, beginning on January 1, 1767 in the undivided India and changed its name to Survey of Pakistan with a regional office in Dhaka on August 14, 1947 — has also adhered to this Hunterian system.
Unless there is the need for strict normalisation of the place names and if it is better to adhere to what has so far come down as customary, there is no need for the government to change the spellings of Bangla place names in English. There is no harm in changing the names, yet there are some issues better left not being meddled with and in, for historicity and administrative ease.

Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.