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The Roman cloak of Bangla texts

Abu Jar M Akkas | Published: 01:55, Feb 21,2021

 
 

The first page of main text of Bakimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini, printed by Thacker, Spink and Company from Kolkata in 1881.

WHEN we write Bangla texts in Bangla script, we do not usually write how we pronounce the words. We, but for a few who are less attuned to spelling and pronunciation, always evidently adhere to a specific convention of series of graphic forms that we call letters — vowels, vowel marks, consonants, vocalised consonants or conjunct letters and vocalised conjunct letters — making up images, referring to the words that we mean. We write something and we pronounce something else. The older the language, the more the gap between what is written and what is uttered. But a writing system does not make a language. It is predominantly what is pronounced and how it is spoken. A large number of unwritten languages are a case in point.

There is no exact number of languages without scripts, the writing convention based on a script that is. Linguists generally come up with a figure of more than 7,000 as the number of languages in the world today and it is said that close to 4,000 languages have writing systems. This makes a case for the argument that languages do not need writing systems, or scripts, to be languages; and a specific language written in whatever script system hardly affects the language. Bangla, for an example, written in Roman letters, essentially remains Bangla. Or, Bangla written in Perso-Arabic script as was common especially in a certain period in the age of codices, which now mostly occupy spaces in libraries, is Bangla even though the language is written in a script other than its own.

But these days, a significant number of speakers of the Bangla language, largely ritualistically sensitive about their language, often tend to think that language and the writing system are intertwined — the absence of one nullifies the other. The sentiment appears to have largely been born out of efforts of the West Pakistan-based ruling class, soon after the partition of the subcontinent, to force Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan while the majority of people, mostly living in the erstwhile East Bengal days, spoke Bangla. The sentiment also stems from West Pakistan’s efforts to apply the Urdu writing system to Bangla. Both the moves were successfully and rightly frustrated at a cost, which later resulted into the emergence of Bangladesh.

Shorn of the linguistic attunement that a nation, born out of a series of movements beginning with the language movement, should have acquired by now, Bangla speakers in Bangladesh proud of having laid down their lives pushing for the demand for Bangla to be a state language of Pakistan on February 21, 1952 have often raised a furore about Bangla being written in Roman letters, even if for brief communciations. The opposition is almost the same with Bangla speakers in chiefly West Bengal, India, many of whom at times resent not having had a chance for a similar sacrifice for Bangla, who have often created a hullabaloo when Bangla is written in Roman letters.

On one such occasion, in January 2018, Mitra and Ghosh Publishers Limited printed a few books, originally written in Bangla, in Roman letters with an aim to introducing the Bangla literature to people, especially children, living in states other than West Bengal or in other countries, where they speak Bangla but cannot read or write in Bangla script. The books at hand were Abol Tabol by Sukumar Ray, Hasikhushi by Yogindranath Sarkar and two volumes of Sahajpath by Rabindranath Tagore. A few lines from a poem by Sukumar Ray printed in Roman letters looked like the following: ‘‘Kal korechhen ajob rakom Chondeedaser khurro — | Sabai shuney sabash baley parrar chheley burro. | Khurror jakhon alpo bayes – bachhor khanek habe — | Uthlo kendey “gunga” boley bheeshon attorabey.’ There have been efforts to differentiate between two Bangla letters that could correspond to a single Roman letter with an under-bar. A homegrown approach, with the doubling of vowels and consonants but with inadequacies, has been used that does not grate on eyes. The system fails to follow any convention known to all, at least to the people intended or the people in the knowing of the inner working of such a method.

A leading daily newspaper of Kolkata ran a report in which the reporter spoke to Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Joy Goswami and Pabitra Sarkar. While one came up with concern and another with disapproval, the other reserved comments. Ananda Publishers and Dev Sahitya Kutir, among the publishers, outright rejected the move; only Shishu Sahitya Samsad viewed the efforts as something not unusual. A platform called Bangla Bhasha Banchao Committee, meant to save and safeguard the Bangla language as it professed, that time also submitted a memorandum to the chief minister of West Bengal seeking an official intervention. Official intervention has been a good excuse in daily conversation in Bangladesh too. On points of contention of the Bangla language, people are often heard saying: What does the Bangla Academy say? It more often sounds like ‘What will Mrs Grundy say? What will Mrs Grundy think?’ as a farmer’s wife said in Thomas Morton’s 1789 comedy Speed the Plough, likening the academy to the symbol of conventional propriety, which the academy is not.

The Bangla text that Mitra published in Roman letters contained what essentially was Bangla although the text did not keep to the writing convention. The use of Roman letters to write Bangla has also happened earlier for people not knowing Bangla or for some scholarly purposes. In Manoel da Assumpcam’s Bangla grammar published from Lisbon in 1943, Bangla text was written in Roman letters, closely keeping to Portuguese phonics. Nathaniel Brassy Halhead’s Bangla grammar of 1778, the first book printed in moveable Bangla types, also had Bangla text written in Roman letters, keeping to English phonics. The Thacker, Spink and Company published Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini in Roman letters in 1881. The Calcutta Auxiliary Bible Society printed Mark Likhita Susamachar, or Mark’s Gospel, in Roman letters in 1882. The Eastern Publishers also printed Sukumar Sen’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Bengali Language in Roman letters in 1971. This is something that a web site called Rekhta does to disseminate the Urdu literature, publishing the text in Roman letters, along with Hindi and Urdu scripts, so that people who cannot read Hindi and Urdu scripts can enjoy reading the literary pieces.

There are numerous instances of Bangla texts being written in Roman letters, from 1974 down to 2018, keeping to various conventions. Although Bangla texts written in Arabic script in codices now lie in difficult-to-reach sections of libraries, specimens of Bangla text in Urdu, printed in the naskh style of script, are there in Bangala adab ki tareekh (a history of the Bangla literature) that the University of Dhaka published in 1957. Lines from poems span pages in the book, meant to be read in the University of Karachi by Urdu speakers. A reading of the poems by an Urdu speaker, if uninitiated, could make strange sounds at times and affectation, but the text remains Bangla. Although this was meant to be a workaround for Urdu speakers who could not read or write Bangla but were interested in the history of the Bangla literature, this could never be the prime method of writing or printing Bangla.

Santali has so far traditionally been written in Roman, Bangla and Devanagari letters although its mandated script is Ol Chiki or Ol Chemet. Santali remains Santali in any of the scripts. Sanskrit has traditionally been written in Bangla, Odia, Devanagari, Tamil and other Indic scripts. And it started to be written in Roman letters in the early days of the British rule of the Indian subcontinent. Sanskrit was even written in Brahmi in ancient period. The use of Roman letters in writing non-Roman languages is typical of library cataloguing and scholarly research. But as there had been various schemes, Sanskritists at a convention in Geneva in 1894 laid out some rules for all to conform to in writing Sanskrit in Roman letters. This scheme has so far mostly been followed in writing Bangla too, as the alphabet of the Bangla language, derived from a common script that generated most of the writing systems of Indic languages including Sanskrit, is modelled on the Sanskrit alphabet.

But the scheme does not fit in with Bangla writing in all cases as there are some dotted letters, at least three of them, which are non-existent in the Sanskrit alphabet. One such dotted consonant that is used to mean a letter of Bangla of fairly recent origin, viewed on the alphabet evolution timeline, could also mean a vowel as decided in the 1894 Geneva scheme. The lack of a defined distinction in the use of the Sanskrit scheme for Bangla created a few confusions that could only be resolved by users of the language. The International Standards Organisation came up with another scheme for languages that are known as modern Indo-Aryan languages which use alphabets that are somewhat different from that of Sanskrit. The scheme — ISO 15919 ‘Transliteration of Devanagari and related Indic scripts into Latin characters’ — passed in August 2001, can be unambiguously applied to 10 Indic languages.

But both the schemes are for the people who are linguistically attuned and meticulously trained. Ordinary people — people who write for and read newspapers, people who run administration and issue write notes and reports and people who want to simply write names of people and places in Roman letters — came to need a simplified scheme, without any diacritical marks and without any special instructions. William Wilson Hunter, who was the surveyor general of India, in 1875, came up with a scheme. But it was not Hunter’s own and was developed on the scheme of William Jones, who modelled his on the scheme of Charles Wilkins for the Romanisation of Devanagari. Yet it was the Hunterian scheme, modified from time to time, that has become the de facto standard for ordinary use in all the counties that once constituted the British Indian empire. The convention uses the Roman letters as they are used to write English and does not use any diacritical marks. It is used to write names and places and even to express texts of Indic languages for ordinary purposes, at the cost of reversibility and finer points.

In the latest round, writing Bangla in Roman letters became an issue when computer was introduced towards the end of the 1980s to Bangladesh and about the same time to West Bengal. It was possible to write Bangla in word processors, the type of programs that the almost ubiquitous Microsoft Word is, but it was almost impossible to write Bangla in e-mails, or electronic mails, on the World Wide Web, Bulletin Board Systems, Internet Relay Chat or Instant Messaging, which were mainly, to describe in technical terms, a seven-bit affair that could support only the lower portion of ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) with 128 places for characters many of which could not be accessed and could not be used.

The Bangla transliteration table from the ISO 15919 standards.

Such a situation forced people to start writing Bangla in Roman letters. In the absence of any agreed convention, with varying degrees, or the same level, of education of the issue, it became hard to mean two or three letters of Bangla in cases where the Roman writing system has a single letter. As this proposition was a casual issue, efforts were made to write Bangla words the way they are pronounced, not spelt. Some used ‘t’ for both the Bangla letters or sounds and ‘d’ to mean two Bangla letters and sounds, some used ‘t’ and ‘T’ or ‘d’ and ‘D’ to express the distinction. The Roman ‘j’ signifies a letter in Bangla but indicates the pronunciation of another letter, too, which should be signified by the Roman ‘y’. What is phonetically known as aspirated voiceless affricate, the sound of the cluster ‘ch’ with a strong aitch (h), is ‘ch’ in some cases, ‘chh’ in some other and yet ‘s’ in many other where the dialect intervention is strong. This has even appeared as ‘6’ (six) in many cases in West Bengal. Such a mix of numbers and letters was common in Arabic chatting, where ‘3’ (three) could mean ‘ayn’ and 3’ ‘ghayn’, or ‘7’ (seven) could mean the fifth Arabic letter ‘ha’ because of the resemblance of the digit with the upper portion of the letter.

Problems with the Roman vowels to mean Bangla vowel sounds are almost impossible to resolve. In transliteration, which is representing the Bangla spelling in Roman letters, continental values are usually agreed on — ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’ as they are pronounced in Italian, the modern Latin, which can roughly be the English (f)a(ther)-vowel without the length, the e(nd)-vowel, the (b)ee-vowel without the length, the o(pen)-vowel without the diphthong and the (w)ou(ld)-vowel. But two vowel sounds are still left unattended — the (c)a(t)-vowel and the (h)o(rse)-vowel without the length. They make expressing the Bangla sounds in Roman letters keeping to English phonics difficult. Such efforts become almost futile in writing the pronunciation of Bangla words with conjunct letters in Roman letters. Bangla words such as ‘smaraṇa’ (remembrance), ‘saraṇa’ (movement) or ‘śaraṇa’ (supplication), which can be written as ‘smaran’, ‘saran’ and ‘sharan’ in the Hunterian scheme may be any or all of ‘sharon’, ‘shoron’, ‘shauron’ or ‘shawron’. Without the context and working knowledge of the language, it does not signify either the pronunciation or the spelling and never the word.

All this makes writing Bangla words in Roman letters, if it is to signify the pronunciation, difficult, with each creating a new convention, influenced largely by dialects. And it makes difficult for others to understand the text. This is why it is common in text messages or in postings and comments on social media that some people write ‘amr’ to mean ‘my’ and some others ‘amar’; while some write ‘cha’ to mean ‘tea’, some others write ‘sa’; while some write ‘chilo’ or ‘chhilo’ to mean ‘something existed’, some others write ‘6ilo’. Some write ‘e’ to mean the e(nd)-vowel while some others write ‘a’ for reasons presumable. All this makes textese difficult to understand as textese varies depending on the individual and the way the individual thinks language works.

A happening that took place eight to nine years ago spawned off a term in Bangla textese in Roman letters. In making a comment on an online debate, someone wrote — ‘Murad takla jukti dia kata bal, falti pic dicos kan! Lakapar kora kata bal.’ ‘Murad’ is the Bangla word for ‘courage’ that can be mustered up; but it can also be the name of a man with a change in the second vowel; ‘takla’ is ‘having been’, in this case with an elided ‘if’ — ‘if you have the courage’. ‘Jukti’ is ‘logic’, ‘dia’ is ‘with’, with ‘a’ used for ‘e’, and ‘bal’ can be ‘say’, with a change in the sound, it can be an expletive — ‘say logically’. The rest of the sentence is subject to further exposition. But the first two words, ‘Murad’ that can be a name and ‘Takla’, which is the slang word for ‘bald-headed’, caught on, referring to an impersonified entity that writes Bangla texts in Roman letters that are either hard to understand or can mean entirely something different to cause fun. The Murad Taklas can write ‘jowar-bhata’ (high and low tide) as ‘guar bata’ that can literally mean ‘pain in the a**e’, ‘chhotta chhele’ (little boy) as ‘sotto sala’ which can mean the young or true ‘brother-in-law’, which is a mild invective of sort, or ‘chokher pani’ (tears, water of the eye) as ‘cocker pani’, etc.

Linguist Probal Dasgupta, keeping to a convention, wrote Bangla words the way we pronounce them, irrespective of the spelling in Bangla. The process is known as transcription, with ‘O’ for the (h)o(rse)-vowel, ‘S’ for all the three ‘sa’s when they are pronounced with the sh(all)-consonant and ‘s’ for the singe Bangla sa when it is pronounced with the s(o)-consonant, ‘T’, ‘D’ and ‘Y’ for the sound of the dotted Bangla letters and ‘’M for the nasal ‘chandrabindu’ sound, and ‘E’ for the (c)a(t)-vowel: diggOj gOjopotir monomohini aSmani kirup rupoboti, janite paThok mOhaSOYer koutuhOl jonmiyache SOndeho nai. Otoeb taMhar Sadh puraibo. kintu striloker rupobOrnon-biSOYe gronthokargon je poddhoti ObolOmbon koriya thaken, amar SOdriSo Okincon joner tOtpoddhoti-bohirbhuto hOoa oti dhriSTotar biSOY. Otoeb prothome monggolacoron kOra kortobbo. (My gentle reader surely wishes to hear about the beauty of the learned Gajapati’s object of desire, Ashmani. It goes without saying that I propose to satisfy his curiosity.)

It is usual, at least when occasions demand, to write Bangla pronunciation, which is transcription, or spelling, which is transliteration, keeping to specific conventions, however little known and however cumbersome they are. This way, others at least the people who know the conventions, can understand the text and write the same way on their own. This is the standard norm for any language, but this hardly harms the language. It is always better to write Bangla text in Bangla letters. It leaves no space for misunderstanding, unless words are not misspelt and sentences are not ungrammatical. This defines love for Bangla; this defines the speaker of Bangla; and this defines a Bengali. But the Murad Taklas are deprecated. The fewer they are, the better.

 

Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.

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