The hidden politics behind writing Bangla in Roman script | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 21, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:37 PM, February 21, 2021

The hidden politics behind writing Bangla in Roman script

In academia, the status of English is often contested in the Bangladeshi context. Is it a second language or a foreign language? There should not be any such question about our first language, our mother tongue in our everyday life. Bangla is our number one language. But we often switch to number two at any given opportunity. Many of the call centres have this linguistic option. There is also this mental switch that makes us travel between option one and two even when there is no button to press. What does it tell us about us as a nation and our attitudes towards our mother tongue? Interestingly, such code-switching or code-mixing has a political history that we often tend to overlook. Revisiting such a history will make us more aware of our commitment to our own language.

Given the rise of many digital interfaces, we often use Roman (Latin) scripts to represent Bangla pronunciation. Many of our Facebook comments are written using English; I too, am guilty of such lapses. I am not very proud of my unfamiliarity with the Bangla keyboard—occasionally I would use Google online input to write Bangla. I probably can do the same with Unicode input with other popular Bangla tools. While researching on the use of Roman scripts to write Bangla, I came across an interesting debate during the pre-independence period that goes on to show how the forces that tried to slight the spirit of Ekushey in 1952 continued to do the same in the succeeding years. Having an alphabet to give shape and voice to the innermost thoughts and desires is a freedom that was earned with the creation of the flag of an independent country in 1971, the seeds of which were sown in 1952.

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On each Ekushey, we tend to focus on the imposition of Urdu as a state language for Pakistan. The relegation of Bangla to a second language would have meant that the Muslim middle class would suffer in professional and competitive sectors. The policymakers were keenly aware that language has some links to consciousness; our subjective experience is linked with phenomenal consciousness. At a cultural level, the use of Urdu was an attempt to "purify" Bangla from its Sanskrit influences. The import of many new Arabic, Persian, Urdu words was deliberately done to make Bangla of the then East Pakistan look, feel, and read differently from that of West Bengal.

Having said that, we need to remember that Persian (Farsi) was the official language in Muslim India before the formal introduction of English in 1837. In 1907, Sanskrit scholar, archivist and historian of Bengali literature, Haraprasad Shastri, discovered in the library of the royal court of Nepal a collection of Bangla poems, popularly known as Charyagiti. These poems date back at least to the 9th century and are credited as the earliest known examples of Bengali literature.

However, Dr Muhammad Shahidullah claimed that the poems go back to the 7th or 8th centuries. The language of the Charyapada is referred to as Alo-Andhari (light and shadow) or sandhya bhasa (twilight language) that includes names of places such as "Babgal Desh", "Panuya Khal" (the Padma river) and "Babgali Bhaili". Bangla as a dynamic language grew with the incorporation of many words of its various invaders and colonisers. The modern Bangla alphabet originated from the ancient Indian Brahmi script, which is found in the stone tablets of Ashoka. There were many experiments to reform Bangla as a language. In West Bengal, the Arabic and Farsi words were avoided, while in East Bengal (Pakistan) there were deliberate attempts to avoid words with Sanskrit roots.

Muhammad Hye in the essay "The Practice of Language in the Literature of East Pakistan" wrote, "Everyday diction and widely used words such as jomijoma, ukil, muhri, ain adalat have been removed to include some unfamiliar and strange Sanskrit words in West Bengal. Similarly, ordinary Bangla words have been replaced with jomhuria, sadar e raisat, jasne azadi, Eid jamima, ashiana, gujarish."

Looking back at the long evolutionary process of the language through which Bangla has distinguished itself from Sanskrit, Hye found these attempts unnecessary. The proposed reforms in the then Pakistan also included the Romanisation of Bangla scripts. Buoyed by the Turkish example, through which Mustapha Kemal Ataturk introduced a Latin-based script in place of the Ottoman Arabic alphabet, Pakistani and pro-Pakistani scholars wanted to write Bangla in Roman scripts. They argued that such Romanised alphabets would represent Bangla pronunciation with a high degree of accuracy. Even scholars such as Kudrat-e-Khuda and Dr Muhammad Enamul Haque saw this as a positive change. Bhashacharya Acharya Suniti Kumar Chatterjee too felt that Romanised scripts would forge greater unity among the people of the Indian subcontinent. One wonders, if that was the case, why the British did not do so for their empire when they had the chance!

Muhammad Hye refuted the suggestion by saying, a common script has neither united Europe nor closed the Brit/US divide. In Bhasha o Shahitya (1969), Hye summarised the arguments that were forwarded by the reform committee, which were: since language and scripts are two separate entities, any change in the script will not harm the language; Roman scripts are scientific, Bangla is not; a single script can be used to learn Urdu, Bangla and English; it will strengthen the bond between the two wings of Pakistan; many countries such as Turkey and Indonesia have adopted Roman scripts (and they would soon become the most widely used scripts in the world); if India insists on all provincial languages to be written in Deb Nagri including that of West Bengal, Bangladesh will be the only country using Bangla alphabets; Bangla is a difficult language, which is contributing to the illiteracy of the nation; foreigners will find it easy to learn Bangla in Romanised scripts; and Romanised Bangla is typing-friendly.

Hye renders a point-by-point rebuttal to expose the fallacy of the arguments, to add: "Given the geographical and linguistic differences, the national solidarity of Pakistan should consider the following issues. People across the borders need to mix freely, win the hearts of the others, restore the balance in distributions of wealth, equal opportunities in jobs, avoid the master/slave mentality, practice cooperation, ensure justice" (free translation).

For Hye, the attempt to Romanise Bangla is an insult to any nation proud of its heritage. He also reminds readers that Mualana Muhammad Akram Kha, who chaired the East Bengal Language Committee in 1949, gave his opinion against such introduction of Roman scripts. Conversely, Golam Mustafa felt that Arabic scripts could be adopted in place of Roman ones. He argued that Urdu, written in Roman scripts, would lose its Islamic character. Since Arabic was the script of other provinces of Pakistan, it would make sense to write Bangla in Arabic for locating Pakistan in an Islamic culture. However, he also realised the huge task of converting already written literatures in Bangla in a new script, and was not very keen on any such shift.

Responding to the Islamicisation of Bangla with the import of 80 percent Arabic-Farsi words, Ajit Guha wrote, "Language does not have a religion. There is no religious language. If Bangla is the mother tongue of Bengali Muslims, then the people can best articulate their Islamic religiosity through this language."

Reading about the discourse that was available in the pre-independence period made me reflect on the mental chains that colonialism entails. Today, there is a new trend of writing Arabic expressions, as suggested by the internet. People all too often correct you on how to write an Arabic word in English. Many of our Bangla words are losing their usage with the advent of the new media lingo. Typing Bangla in English (Latin script) is not an innocent act; it has its own politics. It has its own economy. Pressing one or two has a different implication when we look back to understand the significance of February 21.


Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English (on leave), University of Dhaka and Pro Vice Chancellor, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).

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