In defence of standard Bangla pronunciation | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 18, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 18, 2009

In defence of standard Bangla pronunciation

IMAGINE writing this in English. But bear with me. It is not that I could not have written this in Bangla. I could, and would probably have done at least as good a job as anyone who writes in the vernacular. I could write an article in Bangla. But I would have remained as anonymous as ever to editors and readers of Bangla newspapers, and my labour would have been in vain. Let me therefore stick to The Daily Star and its readership.
Spoken Bangla, properly pronounced, is one of the pleasantest sounds, next to good music, that enters my ears. It is something worth striving for. Many years ago, our Bengali teacher at Dhaka College said: "You know, I am doing sadhana." We asked him what it was. He said: "It is to master correct Bangla pronunciation. You know, I come from Barisal and I have this horrible Barisali accent. But I am determined to speak standard Bangla." That was Professor Hishamuddin Ahmed, and sadhana was the word he used.
This might sound trivial to many, but we shed blood on that unforgettable February 21,1952, when we fought for our language. The slogans we wrote were the ones we also shouted. We shouted Rashtra bhasa Bangla chai with more gusto than we wrote it on posters and badges. And we pronounced it correctly, uniquely, in unison.
There are still arguments about what constitutes standard written Bangla. Writers often deviate from promita, or prescribed Bangla spelling, and argue about it. Still, one can recognise standard written Bangla when one sees it. There is a "standard" written Bangla that is broadly followed, at least in literature.
Why is the standard not followed when it comes to spoken Bangla? Why is it treated with so much disdain? There are two possible responses to such questions. One is to suggest that there is no standard and so none needs to be followed. Some will follow this up with the suggestion that the "standard" I am speaking of is the one our fellow Bengalees in West Bengal use.
Such objections are, of course, nonsense. There is something called standard spoken Bangla, which has nothing to do with its being spoken more often in West Bengal than in Bangladesh. Linguists and phonologists on both sides of the border, without regard to regional phonetic propensities, have painstakingly constructed the standard. The two valuable pronunciation dictionaries I have used are entirely indigenous: Byabaharik Bangla Uchcharan Abhidhan, Anisuzzaman, et al. (ed), Jatiya Shaitya Prakashani, Dhaka, 1988 and, Bangla Uchcharan Abhidhan, by Naren Biswas, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1990.
The other response is to ask, what is wrong with our regional pronunciations? The answer, of course is, there is nothing wrong with them. On the contrary, the diversity of Bangla pronunciation across Bangladesh adds colour to what would otherwise be a monochrome language.
Standard Bangla pronunciation is not "superior" to its regional variants. But it is not merely distinct either; it is crucially different in that it is one the finest fibres that bind us as a nation. Functionally, this is evident in many walks of life. A speaker from a particular region addressing others from outside the region almost always tries to shed part of his regional pronunciation and almost subconsciously goes for a version of "standard" Bangla. The problem is that in most cases he falls far short of the standard.
One sees that failure everyday and everywhere. Some of the worst offended are the lawmakers. When they are speaking in parliament, for example, they are heard by the entire nation and not just by their constituents. Listen to their speeches in the current parliament and you will immediately see what I mean.
One should not expect everyone be to an Ajit Guha or a Munir Choudhury in Bangla elocution. But we can do far better than we are at present. There are some bright spots. Television newscasters and radio newsreaders in general speak excellent Bangla. They should be an example, if not inspiration, for improvement.
But what, in the end, is needed is old-fashioned sadhana.

Mahfuzur Rahman is a former United Nations economist and occasional contributor to The Daily Star.

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