One can find many parallels in the origins and evolution of Urdu and Bengali. As two prominent members of the Indo-Iranian language group, both exhibit similarities in phonology, morphology and syntax and share a linguistic ancestry rooted in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. As such, it is not surprising to find that both emerged at approximately the same time period (circa 1100 A. D.) in the Indian sub-continent. Yet despite some notable technical and historic similarities, Urdu and Bengali managed to grow as distinct and different branches of the Indo-Iranian family tree. In part a linguistic expression of Mughal expansionism and military power, Urdu has come to be regarded as a language of the upper classes, well-suited to literary and poetic endeavors. Bengali, too, can claim a rich literary tradition but does not share the elite gloss of Urdu, having become a broad lingua franca for millions in India and Pakistan.
Today, Bengali is among the 10 most widely spoken language on Earth and is a symbol of (and focal point for) Bengali nationalism in South Asia. It is spoken by more than 300 million speakers in regions comprising a broad range of cultural backgrounds and is the official language of Bangladesh. Bengali is also widely spoken in the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura and in parts of Pakistan. Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and is spoken in some parts of India as well. Bengali shares some linguistic traits with Pali, but Urdu and Hindi are in many ways virtually indistinguishable. In fact, Urdu and Hindi are considered by many to be essentially the same language. 1 The development of both Bengali and Urdu still reflect geographic and cultural influences that have helped form everything from the syntactical to the written/aesthetic characteristics of each.
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There is a venerable motto that says the victors get to write the histories. They also get to determine what language in which that history is written. In the case of Urdu, the Mughal conquerors of India adopted Urdu, a language influenced by Turkic, Arabic, Pushtu and Persian, as their “ official” language, which had served their highly successful armed forces well in the field. 2 The 16th century Mughal emperor Muhammad Akbar noted that his multi-ethnic troops had standardized key words and phrases into a form of Hindustani so that commands could be mutually intelligible. This military language gradually morphed into what Akbar called Urdu, which means “ army.” 3 Sanskrit words also made their way into Urdu, though to a lesser extent than with Bengali.
Some linguists and philologists have termed Bengali a “ Sanskritic” language, though recent studies indicate that the idea that Sanskrit was the nearly exclusive progenitor of Bengali is misleading. In The History of the Bengali Language,” Bijay Chandra Mazumdar contends that, as with most languages, Bengali traced a developmental arc that carried it through the filter
of many linguistic forms. “ I consider it…safer to call the Bengali speech as an Aryan vernacular to avoid the suggestion that (Sanskrit) was the progenitor of Bengali.” 4 Mazumdar is quick to make the clarification that his use of the term “ Aryan” is not a reference to any specific ethnic group but describes a broad linguistic background originating in the “ big tent” that is the Indo-Iranian family of languages. Most importantly, Mazumdar points out that the development of any language has far more to do with grammar and syntax than with the accumulation, or borrowing, of words. 5 Seen in that light, it seems reasonable to concur with Mazumdar that Bengali’s roots are more entangled with languages such as Arabic and Pali than the direct and untainted Sanskrit-to-Bengali model will admit.
A consideration of the ways in which Urdu and Bengali developed reveals common features in terms of their linguistic ancestries, as well as their morphologies and grammatical characteristics. Despite the existence of such similarities, the perception of these two languages, which are spoken in overlapping regions of India and Pakistan, are quite different; just how different became forcefully apparent during the formative years of Pakistan itself. In 1947, Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed, a professor from Aligarh University in India recommended that Urdu be made the official state language of the new nation. 6 In response, a respected Bengali linguist named Shahidullah insisted that to follow Dr. Ahmed’s advice would be a grievous mistake, perhaps in response to resentment over Urdu’s historic ascendancy in parts of the region. 7
Shahidullah made an inflammatory statement, insisting that if Urdu (or its near cousin Hindi) should be selected over Bengali “ in our law courts and universities, (it) would be tantamount to political slavery.” 8 Proponents of Bengali demanded that their language be given primacy in East Pakistan and insisted that Bengali and Urdu be given equal
status in the halls of government in Karachi. 9 These demands were largely ignored by the incipient Pakistani government, resulting in a language controversy that led to student uprisings, conflict in the Constitutional Assembly and decades of ill will among the country’s ethnic groups. The perception that one language is somehow superior to another has many historical precedents and contemporary examples, but a study of those elements that comprise the incredibly complex system of verbal and written human communication often reveal as many surprising similarities as it does differences. As such, claims of language superiority can be reduced to a consequence of racial mistrust/propaganda/human arrogance, having no substantive or quantifiable basis. Thus, we are confronted with another reference point from which to consider Joel Davis’ claim that “ Everybody uses language, but nobody knows quite how to define it.” 10
Urdu and Bengali both exhibit marked features of many languages in the Indo-Aryan family. One obvious point of morphological comparison is in the way nouns function and how they affect other sentence components. In Bengali, nouns are not endowed with gender and do
not impact adjectives as such. However, Bengali nouns (and pronouns) are inflected according to their case, such as nominative, genitive and objective. 11 The conjoined manner in which Bengali nouns are formed combines a noun stem and its adjectival form. 12
Urdu nouns function quite differently. They are divided into masculine and feminine classes, with cases that also differ from Bengali, falling into direct, oblique and vocative categories. What is more, Urdu nouns decline according to two subtypes, which govern how a noun terminates in the direct case. 13 Urdu has first- and second-person pronouns, though demonstrative pronouns are used to indicate the third person. 14
Bengali verbs fall into either finite or non-finite categories, which determine how the verb is to be inflected. Finite verbs are inflected according to criteria such person, aspect and tense, while non-finite verbs are unconcerned with person or tense. 15 One particularly daunting aspect of Bengali is that some verbs may have hundreds of endings, or inflections that have to be learned. 16 In fact, verb usage is one of the most distinctive features of the Bengali language. In Bengali, verbs do not distinguish between the singular and the plural, a curious idiosyncrasy found in few other languages (Etruscan being one interesting and notable exception). 17
continuous are the operative aspects, which function as participles displaying a specific termination based on gender and number. 19 Aspects combine with tenses to form 12 aspectual tenses, such as present-perfective, past-habitual, and so forth. 20 Habitual forms are used to demonstrate actions that occur repeatedly over time, while perfective is concerned with completed action. The continuous, or progressive, form indicates action that is
as yet incomplete at a given point in time. Literary Urdu, which represents for many the apex and full-flowering of the language, is notable for its use of conjunct verbs, which Shapiro defines as “ a sequence of either a noun or an adjective and a following verb that constitutes a tightly knit conceptual and syntactic unit.” 21
Urdu adjectives may be either declinable or indeclinable, with declinable adjectives modifying nouns in gender, number and case whose endings depend upon the case in which their noun appears. 22 Indeclinable adjectives, as the name implies, have one form only. In Urdu, adjectives function either predicatively or attributively depending on the nature of the sentence in which they appear. 23 In Urdu, an Essential Grammar, Ruth Laila Schmidt points out that Urdu adjectives can be formed from nouns or other adjectives by adding an adjectival suffix “ which may be of Persian origin, or an indigenous Urdu suffix.” 24 As in Urdu, Bengali adjectives can have a modifying effect depending on where in a sentence they appear. Unlike Urdu, Bengali adjectives are uniformly indeclinable, remaining fixed “ for all times and for all situations,” however, if it becomes a noun it is subject to inflection just as with other nouns. 25
Nouns and adjectives are held together in Bengali and Urdu much as they are in other languages, such as English. Bengali and Urdu use postpositions, which function much as prepositions do in English. “ To a great extent the syntactic functions served by nouns in (Hindi-Urdu)…are indicated by a class of words called postpositions.” 26 In Urdu, postpositions come after the nouns to which they are connected, as is the case in Bengali. Postpositions in Bengali govern the case in which objects appear, either possessive or objective, a construct reminiscent of Latin – another Indo-European language – in which some prepositions determine that their nouns will take the accusative case and some the dative.
Urdu and Bengali alike follow a basic subject-object-verb word order model, though the rules governing word order in both languages are flexible to varying degrees and depending on the situation. In Urdu, when both indirect and direct object are present, the indirect object always comes first; attributive adjectives always precede the nouns they modify; and adverbs of time, place or manner can come before or after the subject. 27 In Bengali, modifiers come after the noun, while adjectives, numbers and other elements come before the noun. 28 Bengali and Urdu both utilize the genitive case to indicate possession, another syntactical similarity with Indo-European languages from both east and west.
Urdu features 10 vowels divided up into long or short categories and 28 consonants, with nine that have been added to the original core consonantal group. 29 Bengali has a similar breakdown, with 14 vowels that do not take into account short or long sound groups, and 29 consonants. Bengali is distinguished by its extensive use of diphthongs, which can appear in dozens of vowel combinations. Both languages also feature a number of nasal vowels, and both utilize consonant clusters, which typically take the form of consonant-vowel-consonant. The majority of Hindi-Urdu consonant clusters are limited to combinations of two, though there are
exceptions where three or more consonants may appear together. 30 Phonological similarities between Urdu and Bengali likely reflect commonalities in their formative linguistic influences.
The ways in which Urdu and Bengali are written closely mirror their respective Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit influences. Urdu script flows from right to left in the Arabic tradition, and represents one significant difference between Urdu and its close relative Hindi, whose devanagari script is written from left to right. 31 It is interesting to note that contemporary Hindustani, a dialect that is often associated with India’s extensive Muslim population, can be mutually understood by speakers of Urdu and Hindi (and is often employed by them for conversational purposes). Hindustani may be written in devanagari or in Urdu script, though in Pakistan people writing in Hindustani typically favor the Urdu style of writing. 32
A review of Bengali characters quickly puts one in mind of Sanskrit, the predecessor language to Bengali through the intermediary influence of Magadhi Prakrit. 33 However, Bengali is not an alphabetic system, as the term is understood in the West. Rather, it follows a written form of characters called abugida in which consonantal figures, or graphemes, which include a “ built-in” vowel. As such, Bengali actually has more in common with Hindi in that both employ a devanagari abugida system, a distinguishing feature of which is that written words are read as blocks of characters with each block representing a particular syllable. 34 Devanagari writing also features a liberal use of ligatures to denote consonants, a holdover from Sanskrit which is quite prevalent as Bengali features hundreds of consonant clusters. There is also a close relationship between written characters and their respective sounds. 35
Bengali also retains close ties to its Sanskrit forbear in the area of vocabulary. It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of words in Bengali are, or trace their descent from, Sanskrit. Such a large representation can be ascribed to the more or less direct line that ties Bengali and Sanskrit together through Prakrit, and to the remarkable richness and resilience of the ancient Sanskrit language. “ Sanskrit roots are endowed with a tremendous force of fertility and productiveness so that a single root can create an amazingly large number of verb forms…” 36 It is an extremely prolific and flexible written and spoken means of communication, particularly when compared to other languages. Greek, for instance, can produce about 1, 300 verb forms,
whereas Sanskrit is fully able to generate at least twice as many (Ibid). Though not itself as voluminous, Bengali has, nevertheless, been generously endowed with an extensive vocabulary, which marks it as an impressively expressive language.
In keeping with its aristocratic image and social standing, Urdu embodies a formal system of politeness in its modes of address. This feature is called adab, which may perhaps be a loan word from an Arabic word commonly used in salutations. 37 Within the adab vocabulary, the speaker of Urdu can draw on a multi-layered system of polite address that has evolved within this mannered and courtly language over the centuries. Verbs and “ command” words, such as “ go,” may reflect an intricate level of politeness that is no doubt difficult for an outsider or foreign speaker to comprehend. This may also be achieved by a combination of vocabulary and speech. “ It is also possible to convey politeness through…a level of diction in which one speaks disparagingly of oneself and one’s own, but in glowing terms of…the person addressed.” 38
A study of Urdu and Bengali leads one to conclude that two apparently inherently different dialects, with divergent historical backgrounds, scripts, vocabularies and means of expression, can nevertheless exhibit a remarkable number of similarities in the way words and sentences are formed. Postpositions are integral to the composition of sentences in Urdu and Bengali, and are most likely to follow the subject-object-verb word order. The two also have a similar number of vowels and consonants. Urdu and Bengal may not be mutually intelligible, as
is the case between Urdu and Hindi, but both have evolved along lines that are heavily imbued with Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian influences.
The most significant differences between the two stem from racial and cultural factors. Urdu, the language of Pakistan’s Islamic ascendancy, is spoken by Muslims throughout the Indian subcontinent. Bengali, a dialect heavily influenced by its Sanskritic ancestry, is spoken by more than 300 million people and has come to symbolize a nationalist movement that encompasses Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Both languages are firmly established throughout this often contentious region, creating a highly fluid linguistic scenario that mirrors a wildly diverse and dynamic ethnic mix.
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