Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: BENGALI
From Dictionary of Languages
180,000,000 SPEAKERS

Bangladesh, India

Bengali, the best known of the Eastern INDO-ARYAN LANGUAGES, is the national language of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and is also spoken by the great majority in the Indian province of West Bengal: for map see ASSAMESE. Differences are beginning to emerge between the colloquial standard Bengali used in the press and media in the two capitals, Calcutta and Dacca.

The country at the mouth of the Ganges was already called Vaṅgāla, ‘Bengal’, in an 11 th-century inscription.

The region was apparently occupied by Indo-Aryan speakers for the first time in the course of the later first millennium AD.

The Middle Bengali period is dated to the 14th to 18th centuries. Hinduism was by now the religion of Bengal – soon to share its predominance with Islam – and literature of the period is religiously inspired. The Brajabuli literary dialect, a mixture of Maithili and Bengali, was used conventionally by Vaishnava poets in a wide area of India, as if it were thought somehow specially appropriate to the Braj homeland of Krishna.

Among the classics of modern Bengali are the historical novels of Bankimchandra Chatterji, which are set in a period of Bengali cultural renaissance in the 15th century, just before the spread of Islam: his first novel was in English (Rajmohan's wife, 1864), but he then turned to Bengali. Modern Bengali has had two literary standards, śadhu bhāṣā, which looked back to 14th- and 15th-century literature and to Sanskrit culture, and colit bhāṣā, based on the modern colloquial of Calcutta. Rabindranath Tagore, the greatest modern Bengali author, preferred colit bhāṣā. A range of spoken and written styles, more and less formal, has developed from it, and śadhu bhāsā is now little used.

Bengali, like the other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, has no grammatical gender. The verb has three separate inflexions in the 2nd and 3rd persons (‘you, he, she’) to indicate the relative status of speaker and subject.

There are marked regional dialects, including some which may be considered separate languages (see map at ASSAMESE).

Sylheti has about 5,000,000 speakers in Sylhet District of Bangladesh, a hundred miles north-east of Dacca. There is a large community, perhaps as many as 100,000, of Sylheti speakers in Britain – they are usually called Bengalis or even Pakistanis. The biggest concentrations are in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Camden in London.

Bishnupriya Manipuri (or Mayang) is historically a form of Bengali once current in Manipur. Its speakers were driven from there in the early 19th century, and it is now spoken in Tripura State, in Cachar District of Assam, and in Sylhet District of Bangladesh. There are thought to be 150,000 speakers. The two dialects – once divided geographically, but no longer – are Mādai gāng and Rājār gāng, ‘Queen's village’ and ‘King's village’.


Around 1000 AD, when Bengali, Oriya and Assamese were not yet distinguishable as separate languages, the remarkable, mystical Buddhist Caryāpada songs were composed. They were discovered in a manuscript at Kathmandu and first published in 1916. They are claimed as the foundation of the literary tradition of all three languages.

Gaṅgā Jaūnā majheṃ re bahai nāī

Between Ganges and Jumna another river flows:

tahim burilā mataṅgī yoiā lille pāra karei.

the outcaste woman easily ferries a sinking scholar across it.

Bāhatu Ḍombi, bāha lo Dombi; bātata bhaila uchārā

Row on, woman, row on, woman! It darkened as we went;

Sadguru pāapasāem jāiba puṇi Jinaurā …

by the grace of the Guru's feet I shall go again to the City of the Jinas …

Kabaḍī na lei boḍī na lei succhaṛe pāra karei;

She takes no cowries, she takes no coppers: she ferries whomever she pleases;

jo rathe caṛilā bāhabā ṇa jāi kuleṃ kula buṛai.

But if one mounts and cannot drive, he is set back on the bank. Caryāpada 14

The Bengali alphabet is one of the local developments of India's early Brahmi. Like the others, it has numerous conjunct characters for doubled and adjacent consonants. When this alphabet is used for Sanskrit texts, the symbol ব serves for both b and v.

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

Related Articles

Full text Article Bengali
The World's Major Languages

1 Historical and Genetic Setting Bengali, together with Assamese and Oriya, belongs to the eastern group within the Magadhan subfamily of...

Full text Article ASSAMESE
Cassell's Peoples, Nations and Cultures

A group of Tibeto- MONGOL , INDO-IRANIAN and BURMESE peoples who inhabit the Indian state of Assam. Their principal language is Assamese, an...

Full text Article ASSAMESE
Dictionary of Languages

12,000,000 SPEAKERS India Assamese is the easternmost of the INDO-ARYAN LANGUAGES of India. It is spoken in the Indian state of...

See more from Credo