With about 250 million speakers around the globe, Bengali or Bangla is placed as the sixth most widely spoken language in the world, preceded by Chinese, English, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish and Arabic. The Indo-European language has its roots in the Bay of Bengal region of the Indian Sub-Continent. It is the official language of Bangladesh, the tiny overpopulated country surrounded largely by India, and also one of the official languages of India itself, used chiefly in the state of West Bengal. Recently, the African state Sierra Leone has declared Bengali as one of their official languages, in honor of a large number of Bangladeshis serving the UN peacekeeping missions there.
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The history of the evolution of Bengali dates back to about 650 AD, and by the end of the first millennium, the ancient form of Bengali was fully developed and exploited in written literature. Bengali, along with Assamese, evolved from the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family through Magadhi Prakrit, a vernacular form of Sanskrit. During the Medieval period, Bengali became more distinct as a standard language, and a number of literary works came into being from 1400 AD till 1800 AD. Since 1800 AD onwards, modern Bengali developed as a polished language, with all its richness for both cultural and literary applications, as well as flexibility for everyday use.
Bengali got influenced by Arabic and Persian since the beginning of the Middle Ages, due large to the missions of Islamic preachers and saints. Later on, when European powers sought to dominate the region, a good number of foreign words, mostly Portuguese, made their way into Bengali. The British colonial rule of Bengal for 190 years since 1957 saw the entrance of a large number of English words and phrases of everyday use into Bengali.
Nobel laureate poet, playwright and writer, Rabindranath Tagore was the greatest exponent of modern Bengali language. The versatile genius not only made successful use of the language in all the popular genres of Bengali literature, but through his works, especially fiction, also reshaped the modern standard form of the language itself. Other contemporary writers as well as followers also contributed greatly to the development of modern Bengali. Among the Indian languages, Bengali is probably the richest in literary treasures of all kinds.
It was only after the end of colonial rule that the identity of Bengali was facing some new challenges. The partition of India in August, 1947, which was solely based on religious affiliations, left two countries on the map of South Asia: India and Pakistan. The whole province of Bengal was split into two halves: the western part became the Indian state of West Bengal, while the eastern part was attached to Pakistan as East Pakistan. The central rulers of Pakistan were trying to impose only Urdu as the state language, but the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), where over 90% people spoke Bengali, took to the street in a bid to establish Bengali as a state language alongside Urdu. The central rulers yielded to this legitimate demand, but only after the Bengali youths shed their blood in a tragic protest in February 21, 1952. Many years later in 1999, in recognition to this unique and great sacrifice for establishing the rights of mother tongue, the UNESCO declared 21st February as the International Mother Language Day.
In East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Bengali was being increasingly used as the sole language for the media, official purposes and general communication. Bangla Academy was established in 1955 in Dhaka, the present-day capital of Bangladesh, to function as a body to promote and set standards for Bengali. A similar body called Pashchimbanga Bangla Akademi was also established in Kolkata (Calcutta), the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, much later in 1986. These two regulatory bodies have been engaged in enriching and promoting standard Bengali in both parts of Bengal.
Since 2008, governments in both Bangladesh and West Bengal are making attempts to persuade the United Nations to adopt Bengali as one of its official languages. Currently, languages having official status in the UN include English, Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. Bengali has a greater number of speakers than French or Russian, and thus it deserves being considered for an official status at the UN.
It is indeed a matter of concern that Hindi being the main official language of India, hindification of Bengali has taken place to some extent in West Bengal, at least in the media and advertising, though not in literature. The recent usages like যোজনা, উদ্ঘাটন, নিবেশ etc. to replace words like পরিকল্পনা (plan), উদ্বোধন (inauguration), বিনিয়োগ (investment) etc. would add up to a long list, and are obvious attempts to resemble their Hindi counterparts: योजना, उदघाटन, निवेश respectively. How far this hindification would go is a question that time alone can answer.