Bengali belongs to the Aryan branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It has been in existence as an independent language for more than ten centuries. It is the speech of the largest number of people in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, being spoken by over 150 million people in west Bengal and India and 110 million people in Bangladesh.

The history of ancient Bengali is based on copper plate inscriptions and stone script findings. The oldest epigraphical record, found at Mahastangar in the Bogra district of Bangladesh is a very short inscription on stone written in Prakrit. Archaeologists believe it to have been written in the third century B.C.; the script shows the Brahmi characters of the time of Asoka. The inscription contains the word 'Pundrabardan which was a renowned Buddhist and Jain center of learning in Bengal.

An early form of Bengali can be found in the grants of the Pala kings. A distinct literary flair appears in these documents, which contain a number of verses ; the kings commissioned court poets and pundits to draft the literary and panegyrical sections. Bengali inscriptions form the fifth century onwards preserved old place names, the study of which can throw more names were Sanskritized, in order to give them some respectability.

From ancient times we find various languages of the following families spoken in Bengali : the Austric (Mon-Khmer and Kol), the Dravidian, the Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Chinese, and lastly the Indo-European (Aryan). If a Negroid people ever existed in Bengal then they may have, in ancient times, spoken a language related to Andamanese. All these tribes had their own languages, or which they were proud.

Speakers of Austric are believed to have entered Bengal through Assam from Northern Indo-China. The Austrics were succeeded by the Dravidian speakers, who appear to have been concentrated in West Bengal. However, we do not have enough information on them to be certain of this. Then came the Tibeto-Chinese or Sino-Tibetan tribes, belonging mainly to the Tibeto-Burman group- the Bodos and others - who overcame the earlier Austric settlers in North and East Bengal. Finally came the Aryans. The Aryanzation of Bengal may be said to have begun during the closing centuries of the first millennium B.C. Non-Aryan dialect did not disappear right away. It is important to note that the languages spoken by all these ethnic groups and tribes contributed to the language that the language that is now Bengali. The Bengali language as such not born before 700 A.D.

Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterji from the time the Aryans entered India up to the time of three periods:

  • The Old Indo-Aryan period, from the time the Aryans entered India up to the time of Buddha (roughly from 1500 B.C. to 600 B.C.), Vedic and Early Sanskrit are representative of this period.
  • The Middle Indo-Aryan period, which appears to have manifested itself in the Aryan language earlier in Eastern India than in North Western India and which continued from the time of Buddha up to 1000 A.D. Pali, Asokan and other inspirational Prakrits, and the later Prakrits and Apabhramsa of literature are representative of the Aryan speech of the period.
  • The new Indo-Aryan period, which began about 1000 A.D., when the modern Indo-Aryan languages or vernaculars emerged out of the Apabhramsas.
  • Bengali is derived from Magadhi Prakrit, which was the official language of the great emperor Asoka. A related dialect was used by Buddha and by Mohavira, the apostle of Jainism. In Bengal in the their of the first millennium B.C. no Aryan language was spoken but the people there had their own language and possessed great artistic skills. During the period of Asoka, the Prakritic or Magadhi form developed into Bengali. About a thousand years ago two kinds of language were apparently in use : the Sauraseni Apabramsa and the native language of Bengal, Proto-Bengali which had become Old Bengali by 1000 A.D.

    As Bengali began to take shape and become the common language, the attitude of the learned class towards popular language was that it was a vulgar language or 'Apabhramsa', which meant 'speech fallen off'. In Bengali Pundits described Sanskrityzed literary Bengali as sadhubhasa and the actual living Bengali as apa-bhasa.

    The Apabhramsa popular dialects were the medium of composition for songs and couplets. Sauraseni was possibly the polite language and was used for literary purposes. It was the language of the court. Vidyapati, the Maithili poet of 1400, wrote in his native Maithili as in Avahatta or Apabharasta. Which is only a late form of Sauraseni Apabhamsa. The modern forms of Magadhi Apabhramsa are Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Magadhi, Maithili and Bhojpuria. This explains the closeness of the different branches of the main stream of which Bengali was an offshoot.

    In old Bengali there is an abundance of Prakrit words, which are called 'tatbhava'. In addition, from its birth, Bengali contained a large number of Sanskrit words, called 'tatsama;, which were profusely used during the classical revival that took place between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bengali has a large number of 'desi' words borrowed directly from the non-Aryan languages, and indirectly through Sanskrit and Magadhi-Prakrit (e.g. kaila, gura, maita, kala, kana, anu, thikm bora and phira). Nasal sound influences, direct and indirect , are seen in its phonetics, grammar and syntax. Nasal sounds were not originally present in the ancient Aryan languages of India; their presence in Sanskrit, Magadhi-Prakrit, and Bengali is due to Dravidian influence. The syntax of Sanskrit and Bengali, as well as all Aryan languages in India, is Dravidian rather than Aryan. The extensive use of onomatopoeic words in Bengali represents a Kol-Dravidian characteristic. Dravidian influence is particularly strong in Bengali place-name and suffixes (e.g. ra, and guri in Magura and Shiliguri). The Bengali people in the east have a rather Mongolian influence which drops nasalization. West Bengal, under Dravidian influence, retains nasalization.

    The Muslim conquest of Bengal in c. A.D. 1200 introduced many Persian, Arabic and Turkish words; the Persian influence was the greatest. Later on the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English who came to India from the sixteenth century onwards also contributed to the Bengali vocabulary.

    The oldest specimens of Bengali prior to the Muslim conquest are:

  • A number of place-names in copper and stone inscriptions and in old books from the third century A.D.
  • A glossary of over 300 words in a Sanskrit commentary on the Amarksa by a Bengali Pundit, written about 1159 A.D. The work, called Tika Sarvasva, was lost in Bengali itself but preserved in Malabar. The vernacular belongs to old Bengali and remains a valuable source for the study of Bengali phonology.
  • The earliest literary compositions in Bengali, however, are the forty-seven songs called Caryapadas or Caryagiti, composed by siddhas of the Shahajia sect, and off-shoot of Tantrika Mahayana Buddhism. These songs were preserved in a palm-leaf manuscript which was discovered by Hara Prashad Sastri in the Royal Nepalese Archive.

    The subject matter of the Caryapada is highly mystic, centering round the esoteric doctrines and yoga of the Shahajias; the Sanskrit commentary does not make now sung and danced to. A number of poems in old Bengali have been translated into Tibetan and have been included in the Bstan-Hgyur (Tan-Jur), the Bengali originals having been lost. The language of the Caryas is Bengali. The metres of the Carya poems are known as matra-vrtta ("A Thousand Year Old Bengali Mystic Poetry" by Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud) .

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