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Number of Speakers: 200 million

Key Dialects: Central (Standard) Bengali, Western Bengali (Kharia Thar, Mal Paharia, Saraki), Southwestern Bengali, Northern Bengali (Koch, Siripuria), Rajbangsi, Bahe, Eastern Bengali, Haijong, Southeastern Bengali (Chakma), Ganda, Vanga, Chittagonian.

Geographical Center: Bangladesh

Bengali is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu). It is an official language of the region of eastern south Asia known as Bengal, which consists of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. After Hindi, Bengali is the second most commonly spoken language in India, where over 70 million people speak the language. Outside Bangladesh and India, Bengali is spoken in Nepal by over 27,000 people and to a lesser degree in Singapore, Malawi, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the USA. Across all countries where it is spoken, an additional 5 million people speak Bengali as a second language.

Bengali belongs to the Bengali-Assamese group of Eastern Zone languages within the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. Closely related languages include Assamese and Oriya.

Literary (standardized) Bengali differs considerably from colloquial Bengali in a number of respects. The grammar of literary Bengali is an archaic grammar of medieval Bengali, which utilizes a heavily Sanskritized vocabulary. Among other differences, the pronunciation of literary Bengali is highly divergent from that of colloquial Bengali. In addition to these differences, further variation among the numerous regional dialects is observed. The bulk of this variation is primarily phonological; however, a number of morphological differences relating to inflectional affixation can be used to differentiate among dialects. Despite this variation, all dialects enjoy a relatively high level of mutual intelligibility.

Bengali is written in its own script, an orthographic offshoot of the Brahmi script that was used in east India during the reign of the Guptas. It is referred to either as Bangla or as Kutila-lipi or ‘crooked script’ and it highly resembles the Devanagari script of Hindi, Sanskrit, and other related Indic languages. Like Devanagari, it is a syllabary that is written from left to right. The Bengali script consists of 12 vowel graphemes and 52 consonant graphemes. Both phonemes and allophones are represented in this script. The Bengali orthography came to take its present form sometime in the 11th century A.D. Other related languages in the region, for instance, Assamese and Meithei, use the Bengali script with minor modifications.

The Bengali phoneme inventory is comprised of 7 vowels and 29 consonants, depending on the analysis. Although word-initial vowels may be nasalized, nasalization is neither obligatory nor contrastive. Vowel length is also non-contrastive in Bengali. Aspiration, on the other hand, is contrastive in the language. In fact, 10 of the 29 consonant phonemes may be aspirated. Bengali makes use of a number of retroflex consonant articulations, as expected given its linguistic affiliation. Native Bengali words do not allow word-initial or post-vocalic consonant clusters, though clusters may occur in borrowed words. Speakers differ with respect to if and how clusters are repaired. Geminates, on the other hand, are widely attested. The syllable structure of the language adhered to by most Bengali speakers is (C)V(C).

The majority of Bengali words are trochaic, that is, the primary stress falls on the initial syllable of a word, with secondary stress falling on all odd-numbered syllables thereafter. The addition of prefixes to a word generally shifts stress to the left. Bengali declarative sentences are characterized by a distinct intonation pattern. With the exception of the last word in a declarative utterance, which is pronounced with a low pitch, virtually every word in the utterance is produced with a rising pitch contour, lending a song-like quality to the sentence.

Bengali is a head-final language whose main word order is SOV. Possessors, numerals, and adjectives precede nouns, while determiners and articles follow the head noun. Wh- question words appear in focus position, that is, in either the initial or second position in the sentence. Postpositions are attested. Negation is encoded by way of an auxiliary suffix on the verb.

Bengali nouns and verbs are highly inflected, unlike adjectives. Nouns inflect for case (nominative, accusative, genitive, locative) and number/measure. Gender is not grammatically encoded in the language. Bengali verbs can be divided into two classes: finite and non-finite. Finite verb forms inflect for person (first, second, third), tense (past, present, future), aspect (simple, progressive, perfect), mood (indicative, conditional, imperative), and honor (intimate, familiar, formal), but do not inflect for number. Non-finite verbs, on the other hand, do not inflect for either person, tense, aspect, honor, or number. Reduplication is a productive morphological process in the language. Both prefixation and suffixation are attested.

Bengali is recognized as an official language in Bangladesh and in the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. As such, it is used in government, mass media, and everyday communication. Bengali has a rich literary tradition and is taught in primary schools throughout the region.

Bengali developed around 900 A.D, most likely from Sanskrit. The earliest attestation of the Bengali language is found in the Caryapada, a collection of short songs composed by the Buddhis-Siddhacaryas, who were practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism. It is generally regarded that the Caryapada was written between 950 A.D. and 1150 A.D. Prior to the 17th century, Bengali lacked a well documented written grammar. The first grammar was written between 1734 and 1742 by Manoel da Assumpcam, a Portuguese missionary. Bengali was granted official status in Bangladesh in 1954.

Anderson, J.D. 1962. A Manual of the Bengali Language. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company.

Bandyopadhyay, Anita. 1998. First Bengali Grammar. A Comparative Analysis. Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Mojumder, Atindra. 1973. Bengali Language Historical Grammar. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay.

Ray, Punya Sloka, Muhammad Abdul Hai, and Lila Ray. 1966. Bengali Language Handbook. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

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