Revelling in the changes | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 21, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 21, 2018

Revelling in the changes

As transformations in language and culture take place, we should, once in a while, take a peek into the past

For centuries now, language has been intrinsic to the changing patterns of culture. Some would even say that it's true the other way around. Even though the way we perceive and use language changes from one generation to the next, the social function of this tool to communicate remains the same—nurturing and promoting feelings of identity, community and of course harmony.

Despite the free-flowing changes in language and culture that seem inevitable, communities do become possessive about the traditional elements and try their best to preserve some of them. After all, language rather has a vital social justification—that is, being used for linguistic communication. It would be very difficult otherwise to imagine a community without a culture, let alone language—a passageway for advancement. Nevertheless, it is quite fascinating to observe the many languages and dialects that have co-existed for centuries in this part of the world, and how simply listening to each language can showcase so much of the local culture and also expose the ages of changes that have been taking place.

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Even within a community, there are segments and sub-segments, where language is concerned, that are eventually formed over time. What is interesting is that despite being part of the same district, villages and towns are identified by the way their inhabitants pronounce a word or construct a particular sentence. Some of these constructions have roots in unique stories and tales belonging to the particular region. Hence, over generations, these sentences then become proverbs, and are used by writers, teachers, and students and even sometimes give way to creating several colloquial adaptations. 

For instance, in a village called Madarsha, in the Hathazari upazila of Chittagong, there is a famous proverb which roughly translates to the following: “If Sanaullah Barrister could do it, so can you.” Sanaullah was one of the most respected individuals in the locality. In fact, he is still considered a local hero in Madarsha, mainly because he was highly educated and a humble human being. He was also one of the very firsts to have travelled to the shores of London and earn a degree in law. He soon became a barrister. Eventually he returned to his village home and not only did he practise law in Chittagong and other places of Bangladesh, but also worked for the betterment of his fellow villagers.

There are many legends and stories revolving around this great hero. According to a very popular story, when Sanaullah Barrister was leaving for London, crowds of his fellow villagers had come to see him off at the village. He was wearing a simple panjabi and a lungi. Years later, after becoming a barrister, he was in similar apparels when he returned to the same shores of his village—a panjabi and a lungi. The crowd was delighted to find their hero untouched by the strands of the West and would often lecture their children on how they should not demand for more when the very hero had achieved under modest circumstances. What is fascinating is that the proverbs related to the barrister are unique to the village of Madarsha and seem very foreign to those belonging to other villages and zillas, despite them being a part of the same division of Chittagong.

Dhaka being the melting pot of all the different dialects and sub-cultures is a perfect platform where the languages mix, giving birth to a whole new language itself. One is judged by the languages/dialects they speak, subconsciously being placed by the listener in a certain position within a social spectrum created by the community.

This would remind one of the Doctor, in the very famous Broadway show later made into a movie, My Fair Lady, who tried to prove to the world that an individual's social status can be raised by changing the linguistic patterns of the way they spoke and pronounced. One would fondly remember the scene from the movie where Audrey Hepburn, playing the role of a mere flower girl on the streets, was made to go through hours of study in order to enunciate “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” the “sophisticated” way.

Despite all the changes in the realm of language and culture, there are some who are trying to go back to the books and explore the beauty of lost words and sentences used in the Bangla language. Very recently, I was asked to be a part of an interesting campaign which involved looking for words that were seldom used or were completely lost from the Bangla dictionary. The campaign involved sleuthing around for the lost words and letting people know about them on social media; a song was recorded with catchy phrases and Bangla words that were once used, ending with street theatre performances. The project—which belongs to an international soft drink company said to spread a lot of happiness and positivity—is ongoing and surprisingly has caught the attention of many—not only in Dhaka but also speakers of the Bangla language in India.

Did you know that there is a beautiful word in Bangla describing the well-educated folk looking for employment? It's “oomebaari”—it does make you visualise a “fine young man” from the black-and-white generations, moving from one office to another, armed with files of papers and documents, looking for the perfect job, doesn't it? I came across yet another word that I hardly ever knew existed—“priongboda” which refers to a lady who can charm anyone with her wise and intelligent words.

One wonders how many of such words exist in the Bangla language which are slowly disappearing or have disappeared because of the constant changes taking place in language and culture for centuries now. As the changes occur, as they should freely, maybe we should also, once in a while, take a peek into the past and revel at the elegant and graceful languages that were spoken and communicated with back then. Can we consciously bring some of them back?


Elita Karim is the editor of Star Youth. Follow her on Twitter: @elitakarim

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