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Overview: Bengali is one of the most important languages on the Indian subcontinent, as it is the second most widely spoken language in India (after Hindi or Urdu) and the national language of the country of Bangladesh. Bengali culture is often considered to include the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura in addition to Bangladesh, but this is more of a continuum than a hard-and-fast line. The Bengali language has been critically important in many of the cultural and political movements affecting Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In the mid-1800s, a period known as the Bengal Renaissance began in what was then the northeastern part of British-controlled India. Bengali-speaking writers, philosophers, scientists and religious leaders led a movement towards intellectual enlightenment that was crucial in laying the groundwork for greater Indian independence in the mid-twentieth century. After the British finally withdrew from the subcontinent, their former colony was split up into multiple states, and more struggles were to come.
The separate Muslim nation of Pakistan was established apart from the majority Hindu nation of India, but the region of Bengal was included in the former and termed “East Pakistan.” Linguistics became symbolic of the contention between East and West Pakistan, especially when Urdu was declared the official language of all of Pakistan. This sparked a protest in East Pakistan to insist that Bengali should be included, now known as the Bengali Language Movement. The struggle over this issue and others finally resulted in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, after which Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) was able to become a sovereign nation.
Roots of the language: Bengali evolved under similar circumstances to the Hindi of neighboring India, but it did not see as much influence from Middle Eastern languages. Like many related languages, it descends from the ancient tongue of Sanskrit, although it is also heavily influenced by even older languages like Pali. The countless tribes and cultures of the Indian subcontinent have created a rich soup of dialects, many of which have coalesced over the millennia into modern-day Bengali.
During the colonial period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European languages began to have an influence on the Bengali tongue. The first treatises on Bengali grammar were written by visiting Europeans, but the task was taken over by native Bengali scholars during the Bengal Renaissance of the nineteenth century. Nowadays, as cultures have become more and more globalized, many foreign phrases are also being “borrowed” into the Bengali language.
Language characteristics: There are a relatively large number of diphthongs, or syllables containing two vowel sounds, in spoken Bengali. It is often distinguished from many other languages of the Indian subcontinent in that the length of the vowels do not usually indicate any special meaning in Bengali (although there are exceptions to this). The language is not heavy on consonant clusters, as most words that are not “borrowed” foreign words always have at least one vowel placed between two consonants. On the other hand, the specific dialect of Bengali, and the accent it is spoken with, can greatly affect these generalizations.
Written form: The Bengali alphabet uses a script that is similar to, yet distinct from, the Devanagari script used for written Hindi. Like the latter it is written from left to right, with a line connecting the tops of all the letters, although Bengali is notably more rounded in form. The Bengali alphabet is an example of what can be termed abugida, or a writing system in which the vowels are not represented with the same importance as consonants, and instead attached to the neighboring consonants as secondary marks. In the modern era, Bengali has been frequently translated into Latin script to enable easier use with generic computers and the Internet, but more keyboards with the Bengali alphabet have been available in recent years.