The History of the Bengali Language

April 13th, 2013

Bengali has a long and complex history dating back to the 12th century BCE and has produced some of the most important literary and religious works in the world.

Ancient Origins

Bengali traces itself back to the bubbling soup of languages in the Indo-Aryan family that also eventually produced Sanskrit and ultimately Urdu and Hindi, among many others. This bubbling cloud of languages was very volatile and chaotic until the tenth or eleventh century, when something now recognised as Old Bengali emerged, the first version of a language that was clearly distinct from other languages in the area and related directly to what we know as Bengali today. Old Bengali is recorded in just one source: The Charyapada or Charva songs, which are a collection of 48 prayer songs in the Buddhist tradition and are the only examples of written Old Bengali surviving in the world.

Old Bengali mutated into Middle Bengali by the 15th century, and Middle Bengali remained a distinct language until the early 19th century. Middle Bengali survives in written form again mainly in religious texts, and is notable because it was a representation of the spoken Begali vernacular that lacked a standard vocabulary or grammar.

New Bengali

In the early 19th century the first real efforts to codfiy and standardise the Bengali language were made, and these efforts transformed the language into what is known as New Bengali or Modern Bengali. This, with some small adjustments, is the language that is spoken today by more than 200 million people.

The New Bengali period quickly led to what is known as the Bengali Renassaince, a period of spectacular artistic and literary growth for the Bengali culture. There is little doubt in my mind that there is a clear link between formalising the language and this explosion of artistic production, but there are other aspects; the Bengali Renassaince was also a reaction to centuries of influence by Western cultures who had come to dominate the area.

This also led to a movement in the late 19th and early 20th century to establish Bengali as an official language of the Bengal region, a movement that turned bloody during the 1952 protests prior to Bangladesh’s independence. All of these factors have converged to secure Bengal as one of the most-spoken and most-important languages in the world today.

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