The History of the Bengali Language/Lecture 1

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The History of the Bengali



A. Preliminary

I should state at the outset, that my inquiry regarding the origin and development of the Bengali Language will necessarily lead me to consider and discuss some facts relating to the ancient and modern inhabitants of Bengal; for, in my opinion, a discussion which is merely philological and does not take into account the people or peoples, whose language is the subject-matter of inquiry, is bound to prove abortive. The philologists, for example, may establish, by a comparative grammatical study of the modern vernaculars of Northern India, that the inhabitants of different provinces speak one form or another of some common ancient speech. So far so good. The linguistic taxonomists, again, may classify the modern vernaculars in different groups by looking into their essential structural peculiarities, and may also, with reference to the phonetic peculiarities of each speech, set down some rules to indicate what sound or peculiarity of one speech should be equated with what other sound or peculiarity of another. No one can belittle the usefulness of this work, but we cannot afford to forget that neither Vararuchi nor Grimm nor Verner, nor all of them taken together, can be wholly relied upon to explain all the deviations from the norm. How the ear of a man will be the recipient of a sound, or how he will imitate it in speech, will depend upon his culture; what the "apabhramśa" will be in one stage of culture, will not be so in another. Consequently, the generalised rules of equation applicable to some words of one speech, may not be applicable to other words of that very speech. There are also other good reasons why we cannot acknowledge the all-sufficiency of the rules alluded to, but it will be a digression to adduce them here. What I want to bring out prominently is that, we cannot study the phonetic changes in a speech without taking the speakers of it into account. After observing the differences among the sister dialects, we raise the question, why the parent tongue underwent different sorts of changes in different provinces, we ask why the "apabhramśa" forms in use in Hindi for example, did not become current in Bengali? What were the solvent elements in different provinces that brought about the characteristic changes noticeable in different speeches of common origin? To get to the facts, which induced different sorts of changes and modifications in different provinces, we must direct our attention to provincial racial peculiarities, as well as to the physical conditions of life, which were present in those provinces. This is exactly what is not done by many philologists. And we shall presently see how they create imaginary races to explain away their difficulties without caring to study the actual racial peculiarities existing in different provinces. This is the reason why many scientists look to the philologists and their work with much disfavour. Such an eminent man of science of our time as Karl Pearson spaeks slightingly of the philologists, as they do not generally pursue the scientific method in their inquiry, for they ask us to enter into the "play-room for their individual fancy," and accordingly we cannot always get into the domain of philology any classified fact or system "independent of the individual thinker" (vide "Grammar of Science," p. 10). Grierson's fanciful theory regarding the origin of Indian dialects may be adduced as a fitting example of this sort of philological vagaries. As the theory of this oriental scholar appears in an essay contributed by him to such a work of authority as the "Imperial Gazetteer of India," a brief discussion of it seems called for.[1] To show up obscurantism is to pave the way to the true scientific method of inquiry.

I set forth first of all the propositions which Grierson has asked us to accept on his authority and from which he has drawn all his conclusions. They are:—

(i) Modern Aryan languages were not derived from Sanskrit. "Some pastoral tribes (long before the Vedic days) found their way across the Hindukush" and spread their languages over the whole of Northern India as far as Dibrugarh in the extreme east of Assam, and Canara to the south of Bombay. All the modern vernaculars have their origin in the "patois of these pastoral tribes."

(ii) The latest comers of the Indo-Aryans settled themselves in the so-called Midland by forcing the earlier immigrants "outward in three directions—to the east, to the south and to the west." The latest comers would not necessarily be on good terms with their predecessors, who quite possibly opposed them as intruders, nor did they speak the same language." One particular Indo-Aryan dialect of these late comers may be taken to represent the archaic language of the Rigveda.

(iii) Sanskrit is the polished form of the archaic Vedic tongue. This polish was given to the Vedic tongue by the labours of the grammarians, culminating in the work of Pānini. This Sanskrit was never a vernacular, and even in olden times it was learnt as a second language.

(iv) The other languages (i.e., the languages derived from the patois of the earliest settlers), namely, Mārhātti, Bengali, Oriā, etc., remain unaffected in their essence by the speech of the Midland.

It is very difficult to meet Sir George Grierson, for he has not chosen to cite authorities, nor has he adduced reasons in support of his propositions beyond what he has added at the end of his paper by way of his own signature. Where he has adduced reasons, he has rather stated new propositions in the name of reasons which stand equally in need of support. As to the original cradle-land of the pre-historic Aryans, nothing has yet been settled; and the oldest record of the Aryans, the Vedas, being far from replete with evidence as to their original home and migratory movements, the question relating to the appearance of Aryans in India is still a matter for careful inquiry and research. However, we do not hold Grierson responsible for the unscientific theory about the origin of the Aryans, which seeks to establish ethnic unity among races of men of different countries on the basis of some linguistic agreement. This is not the place for me to show that the facts established by the anthropologists tend to demolish the theory of there being necessarily any genetic affinity between the races of men speaking different Aryan dialects. We shall only notice here that Grierson has put the old theory into shadow by formulating a new theory of considerable proportions by the sheer force of his imagination. He has mapped out the whole imaginary cradle-land of the Aryans and given a graphic description of the migratory movements of some unknown people of an unknown time. May we ask what facts justified Grierson in taking up the vague suggestion of Hoernle as an established fact and to put down with confidence that the patois of some pre-Vedic pastoral tribes had taken root in India before the Vedic dialect prevailed?

The evidence is declared to be linguistic, and, it is said, has been obtained by Grierson while pursuing his linguistic survey. The method of reasoning, the fact set forth in support of the proposition, and the proposition itself, may be briefly stated thus:—The Aryan languages in use in Northern, Eastern and South-Western countries not only differ from the languages of Mid-India, but also differ from one another; the Vedic Aryans must have occupied the Midland; hence it is established, in the opinion of Grierson, beyond any doubt that the languages other than those of the Midland originated from the patois of some pastoral tribes who preceded the Vedic Aryans. The method of reasoning is wholly unscientific. All the dialects are admitted to be Aryan in origin, but as they differ from one another, their origin has been presumed to be different. The very fact that they are so many dialects, shows that they must not be one and the same, and they must have marked points of difference, even though they might have been derived from one and the same language. Dialectic variations always take place because of distance from a centre and because of contact with other tribes or races. Facts have not been adduced to show that the dialects in question were not thus formed, as they are formed normally everywhere. On the other hand with reference to Grierson's remarks in the "Report of the Census of India, 1901" and in his monograph on the "Piśācha Languages," I am constrained to say that the learned author has built a stupendous structure with very weak materials, on the foundation of a fancy of his own. Sir Herbert Risley has very rightly remarked that without at all resorting to the theory of patois-speaking hordes, the changes in the dialects of Central India can easily be explained, with reference to the people speaking them. Need I make a statement of the well-known truth, that it is "grammar" and not "sound" or "vocabulary" which gives a dialect its character? Merely because some tribes of the Punjab frontier use some words of Aryan origin, Grierson concludes that these tribes are remnants in hilly countries of the oldest Aryan people. It is on the evidence of sound and vocabulary he has thought out different origins for some dialects of Northern India. It is such reckless assumptions that have brought philology into disrepute with all anthropologists, though philology as a branch of knowledge has a useful sphere of its own. Merely from similarity of sounds Grierson has inferred that the "Pakthas" of the Rigveda are the modern Pāthāns without caring even to ascertain if those, who are now called Pāthāns, existed in the Vedic days with such a tribal name. I would not have wondered if the Āfridis, who, to serve the convenience of a theory, may be called Āpridis, were similarly put forward as the authors of the Āpri hymns. I cannot bring myself to imagine that Grierson, who is widely known to be a great oriental scholar, has made his authoritative statements regarding our archaic and classical languages without possessing sufficient knowledge of them. But, on the other hand, it appears so strange that one having even a very common acquaintance with the languages of old India could for a moment think that Sanskrit is the polished form of the Vedic language. The grammarians, who have been given the credit of having polished the Vedic language, called this language by the name "Chhāndasa" and described what is now called Sanskrit by the term "Laukika-Bhāṣā" (or current language). Grierson could not but have noticed the matter in Pānini's book, but he has not attempted to explain it. The great oriental scholar must also have noticed in Pānini's Grammar that the Chhāndasa language was an object of reverential study, and nobody could even dare to handle it with a view to reform it. There are stringent rules that under no circumstances the Vedic form should be deviated from; it has been stated that to do so will be to commit sin. I should not discuss the point at any further length, for later on I shall have to deal with the character of the Vedic language in an independent lecture. The reasons why the Classical Sanskrit varied from the Vedic language will be discussed in its proper place. I have only suggested here that the history of a language involves the history of the people speaking it, and as such we cannot trace it by philological research alone.

B. Preparatory.

If we exclude the recently acquired district of Darjeeling from the political map of Bengal, the entire indigenous population of the Presidency of Bengal will be found to be wholly Bengali-speaking. The district of Sylhet to the north of the Chittagong Division and the district of Manbhum to the west of the Burdwan Division, though falling outside the Presidency of Bengal, are but Bengali-speaking tracts and nearly three million souls live in those two districts. By eliminating the exotic elements from the Bengali-speaking areas indicated above, we get a population of not less than fifty million that has Bengali for its mother-tongue. It is quite an interesting history how Bengali was evolved, and how it became the dominating speech of various tribes and races who were once keen in maintaining their tribal integrity by living apart from one another, over the vast area of eighty thousand square miles.

Bengali is called a Sanskritic language by some philological scholars, but what these scholars definitely mean by the term Sanskrit is not always explicitly stated. If we can only tolerate such a loose use of the term as to make it indicate indiscriminately the Chhāndasa speech of the early Vedic days as well as the speech which Pānini described as Laukika, the nomenclature of the philological scholars may be allowed to stand. I consider it, however, safer to call the Bengali speech as an Aryan vernacular to avoid the suggestion that the language in which the poets from Kālidāsa to Jayadeva composed their works was the progenitor of Bengali. It has to be distinctly borne in mind that the word "Aryan," as used by me, has not even remotely any ethnic significance; it will indicate the Vedic speech and those speeches which are allied to, or have affinity with, the Vedic speech.

Let me repeat explicitly what I have suggested above just now: that a language is mainly, if not wholly, determined by its grammar or structure and not by its vocabulary which may always swell by the process of word-borrowing. I should also add here that the accent system is a great factor in a language, and should be considered as an essential element of it; different forms of "apabhramśa" in different dialects of one common original speech are partly due to different accent systems. It will be necessary, therefore, to refer to the accent systems of our neighbouring tribes to solve some points of difficulty. In ignorance of the fact that some non-Aryan speeches exercised some influence upon Bengali, and misled by the description of our language as Sanskritic, many capable scholars have devoted themselves of late to the ingenious but wasteful work of digging out Sanskrit roots and stems for such Bengali words and inflections as are entirely of other origin. This work is conducted on the flimsy basis of feeble sound suggestions. It may interest you to know that this very unscientific method was once resorted to in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, and many scholars attempted to reduce all languages to Hebrew and in some cases to an original Gothic on the strength of some remote or imagined sound similarity.

If our work is not to be barren of good results, we must direct our inquiry to the solution of the following questions, as preparatory to the analysis of our language, with a view to detect and unravel all the influences which were at work in building it up: (1) We have to consider carefully the geographical limits of ancient Vanga or Bengal which has given our language its distinctive name and the character of the tribe or tribes which inhabited the area previous to the settlement of the people who brought in what may be termed a form of Aryan speech. Along with these must also be considered the ancient political or ethnical character of other tracts which, together with the ancient Vanga, constitute now the province of Bengal in which Bengali is the dominant language. (2) As far as it can be traced, we must determine what form of Aryan speech was first brought into or superimposed upon the country roughly defined above. (3) The Aryan or Aryanised and the non-Aryan hordes which made inroads into Bengal, from the earliest known time to the end of the 12th century A.D., i.e., up to the time of the Muhammadan influence in Bengal, and secured settlements in different parts of the country, must also be taken into account to explain some factors which generally appear anomalous in our language.

It is too much to expect that we shall succeed in mapping out definitely how the stream of our language flowed with an unbroken continuity from a well-defined source and received in its bosom many affluents in its successive course of progress. No doubt what is true in all cases is true in respect of the evolution of our language, that nature never allowed any break to occur in her process of upbuilding, but as many earlier forms, while fading away imperceptibly into new and newer forms, were not preserved in literary records, we may only surmise their existence from a very small number of what may be termed "fossil words."

Before entering upon my subject, I set forth and discuss some propositions which are generally accepted as correct and are of such value as no one should lose sight of in such an inquiry. The first proposition, if put in the language of A. H. Keane, will stand as follows:—There is no such phenomenon as linguistic miscegenation. I fear I cannot accept the proposition as universally correct. It will be noticed later on that in our syntactical forms, that is to say, in the very structure of our language, some elements foreign to our language have accommodated themselves. This sort of mixture cannot but be recognised as miscegenation. I admit, however, that the foreign elements which no doubt change the structure are absorbed by the main organism; this assimilation by intussusception takes place according to the active principles inherent in the organism. Consequently the new structure which becomes wholly separate and independent cannot be said to be mixed as a language in the individuated form. No language of this world can coincide with another, for every language has its own separate grammar or structure; but it can be shown that in their growth many languages in India incorporated many foreign elements and had adopted foreign methods of expression. We can only say that no two languages are identical, but as in the case of human races, so in the case of human speeches, absolute purity cannot be thought of. I must no doubt acknowledge that we are at times misled by some instances of mixed vocabularies and wrongly pronounce a language to be mixed on that account. If Mr. Keane has emphasized upon this proposition in stating that there cannot be any miscegenation of languages I am in entire agreement with the views of the distinguished anthropologist. As an example, I may cite the case of the so-called Urdu speech—by endorsing the valuable opinion of Mr. Keane—which is wrongly supposed to be different from Hindi and is asserted by some to be a mixture of Hindi, Persian and Arabic. My suggestion to do away with the name Urdu as an additional name for the standard Hindi language was no doubt accepted by Mr. L. S. S. O'Malley during the census operations of the year 1911, but the sentiment of some people for the ridiculously unscientific term had to be, I fear, respected. The whole structure of the speech is Hindi; the Hindi pronouns are conjugated with verbs in all tenses and moods according to the Hindi rules, yet forgetting the fact that no amount of word-borrowing can change one language into another, Urdu has been set up as a different language. That the words of Persian and Arabic origin are much in use in Hindi and more free use of them is possible, is lost sight of. Words of such foreign origin are prevalent in Bengali and Oriā as well. If we borrow European words more freely and adopt what is called Roman script in our writing, will the Bengali language be entitled to claim another name? The vulgar people confound language not only with vocabulary but also with script. The Nāgri letters which have no better pretensions to antiquity than Bengali letters, are called even by many educated persons "Sanskrit Akṣar," merely because to serve some convenience, many Sanskrit books are published in Bengal in Nāgri character. One word more regarding word-borrowing. It must be noticed that the words borrowed from other languages have all to conform to the genius of the languages into which they are adopted. This is what takes place in the Bengali language and this is what as a matter of course takes place in Hindi even though the speakers, through whose agency the adoption is accomplished, are Muhammadans.[2] That an adherence to an unscientific situation has a mischievous effect on education must be duly appreciated.

(ii) The second proposition I should put forward is, that it is only when a new structure is gradually built with new elements on a fresh basis, a new language is evolved; but that this new language, by merely coming in contact with other languages cannot change its own structure, for such change means nothing but death or extinction of that language. The imperceptible slow change with which a new language is developed is by itself a matter for study. Never can a living people change radically or discontinuously, nor can its natural and organised mode of thinking, which expresses itself in the form or structure of its speech, be radically changed.

(iii) My next proposition is that what is called a patois or a rude or vulgar speech, is never a separate language. Isolation and want of culture bring about deformities, and these deformities characterise a language as a rude dialect. The language of the Māl Pāhāḍis is as much Bengali as the language of the peasants of Northern Yorkshire is English. Such an unscientific term as "Sub-dialect" cannot be tolerated.

I come now to another matter of great interest and significance in this inquiry. The shibboleth test is usually applied to distinguish one race from another, but without duty judging its value. I cannot therefore conclude this lecture without uttering a word of caution in that direction.

That different phonetic systems do exist as racial peculiarities must be fully recognised and appreciated both by the anthropologists and philologists, though we may avoid treading the debatable ground as to whether the phonetic peculiarities imply necessarily in all cases differences in the anatomical structure of the vocal organs. For all practical purposes we can safely leave aside the extreme case of the Papuans illustrated by Miklukho-Maclay, for I shall presently show that the races I have to deal with in this book are not absolutely incapable of imitating those utterances with which we are here concerned. We may spare the vocal organs an inspection when differences may be clearly explained by climatic influences or by the long-standing habit acquired by unconscious imitation of the sounds of some neighbours.

The shibboleth test may be of practical value when two races remain apart from each other. It must, however, be borne in mind that the pronunciation of words in a particular manner does not necessarily indicate peculiarity in the structure of the vocal organs; it may at times be wholly due to the education of the ear. If an infant born in England of pure English parents be nurtured wholly in an Indian home he will not display the peculiarities of English pronunciation, and will never mispronounce Indian names. I can speak from what I have carefully observed myself that the English baby born in India and brought up by Indians utter with perfect ease, when grown up, those words which the English people say it is impossible for them to pronounce. Bengalis who have settled in Orissa, but have not mixed their blood with the Oriās, pronounce Bengali words in Oriā fashion with Oriā pronunciation and Oriā intonation. Not to speak of the higher caste people of Bengal, there is overwhelming evidence that the very people whose environment has changed the pronunciation of even the Brahmans in East Bengal, do change their pronunciation when they settle in the district of Hooghly.

The racial peculiarities in the matter of uttering vocal sounds are no doubt very marked but my personal examination of various Indian tribes in the matter of their capacity to utter certain sounds has strengthened my view that there is no difference between man and man as far as the inhabitants of this country are concerned as to the construction of the organ or organs of speech. I have found the ears of some practically isolated tribes so trained that they fail to catch certain sounds uttered to them and accordingly they imitate them very badly; but when they are for some time with us, they do not betray any organic defect in uttering new sounds. The Muṇḍās and the Orāons are well known for their very settled phonetic peculiarities, but when employed in our houses as domestic servants they learn to speak Bengali very faultlessly, though when speaking their own tongue they do not deviate from their own path in the matter of pronouncing their own words.

The hilly accent of Manbhum, the nasal twang of Bankura and Burdwan, the drawl of Central Bengal, which becomes very much marked in the slow and lazy utterance of words by women, and the rapid wavy swing with which the words are uttered in quick succession in East Bengal may to a great extent be explained by climatic conditions as well as by the social life of ease or difficulty; but the influence of the tribes of different localities among whom the speakers of the Bengali language had to place themselves, must not be either minimised or ignored. It should be remembered that a man of the so-called Aryan descent may lose the power of uttering such sounds as are generated, for example, by "sh" or "bh" because of the dominant environing influence of the people of other races. That the disability is not organic and cannot invariably be considered to be a racial characteristic has been partly demonstrated.

It is desirable, that I should here clearly define what I mean by a racial character of speech.

All phonetic or linguistic peculiarities that mark off one race or stock from another are not necessarily racial characters in the scientific sense of the term. By a primary racial character I mean only such of the linguistic peculiarities, or marks of a people as have an organic or physical basis in the cerebral or vocal mechanism and as are also transmitted from parent to offspring under the operation of the principles of Heredity and Variation. The capacity for speech, for example, is such a primary character for the human race. But I am free to admit that over and above such hereditary organic characters, there are secondary characters of speech, racial peculiarities, which, though not embedded in the physical conformation, are accompanied by what Wundt has called inheritable predisposition and which, therefore, appear in individuals from generation to generation under the normal conditions of existence though, no doubt, in the absence of suitable stimulus or under very marked changes of environment they do not persist but give place to acquired or induced variations. I am inclined to think that the forms and relations of thought which lie at the basis of the syntax of different families of languages, though not the grammatical structures or paradigms themselves, constitute secondary racial characters of the nature of predisposition. There is reason to believe also that accent systems, though originally acquired under persistent climatic, dietic and social conditions, have now come in many cases to be more or less stable, more or less transmittable characters and may have given rise to predispositions of the sort. But besides these primary and secondary characters there is a third sort of racial peculiarities of speech which, no doubt, distinguish one people from another but which are acquired under the influence of the tradition or of the environment, physical and social, and have to be so acquired by the individuals from generation and generation, and which disappear whenever the tradition or environment is changed. This traditional element in a speech constitutes that part of it which is a social tradition and has no ethnic significance in the biological sense of the term. Among these traditional elements of speech, which may be loosely termed tertiary racial characters, I would place the phonetic system (the vowel and consonant system) as well as the grammatical paradigm (including the tense-formatives) of a language or family of languages. But as we have seen, all the racial characters, secondary no less than tertiary, the predispositions no less than the merely traditional elements, are liable to be changed under change of environmental conditions, and replaced by newly acquired or induced characters.

The fact, therefore, stands that different sections of the Bengali people have the capacity of speaking the Bengali speech alike. But I must utter a caveat here lest a wrong anthropological use be made of this philological fact as has been done in so many cases. On the basis of this fact we cannot necessarily postulate a unity or homogeneity of race. We cannot necessarily formulate the theory that either there has been a thorough-going miscegenation of blood among all the sections, or that these sections do not represent different races of bygone days. I purposely strike this note of caution, though I am perfectly aware that there has been considerable miscegenation of blood among many races of India, for I consider it unsafe to draw any conclusion from facts furnished by linguistic investigation alone.

We are not much concerned in this inquiry with those linguistic phenomena which fall legitimately within the province of the physiologists, though it is pretty certain that the time is not distant when to explain even the ordinary phonetic changes in a speech, the help of the physiologists will be requisitioned in preference to that of the linguists as philologists. We shall have to study carefully the settled and abiding peculiarities of some races of men in the matter of their accent systems and syntactical forms to measure the influence of those races in the upbuilding of our language, but as to how a particular race became settled in its habits to a particular mode of thinking or in a particular way of intonating certain sounds, will not concern us in pushing on our research. Practically speaking, accent being a thing of very hard growth, it survives through many changes; as such a comparative study of the accent system of different races may help us in determining the origin of many peculiarities disclosed by the people of different provinces of Bengal.


  1. Remarks I here offer are abridged from what I wrote in 1908 in criticism of Sir George Grierson's views published in the "Imperial Gazetteer," Vol. I. My criticism appeared in "Modern Review," August 1908.
  2. The sort of composition which at times our Sanskrit Pandits and Arabic scholars indulge in by introducing artificially Sanskritic or Arabic forms to make a flourish of pedantry, can hardly be classed under any dialect of the world.