Once a hallmark of heritage, Old Dhaka's distinct dialects are slowly fading away

The Shobbash and Kutti dialects have been part of Old Dhaka's linguistic heritage for centuries. Both are now at risk of extinction

Sabikunnahar Lipibdnews24.com
Published : 21 Feb 2024, 08:22 AM
Updated : 21 Feb 2024, 08:22 AM

'Abbey koy ki?' -- The chances of hearing such Dhakaiya turns of phrases are becoming increasingly rare, even in the labyrinthine alleyways of Old Dhaka.

Although the 'Dhakaiya Kutti' dialect is widely thought of as an Old Dhaka variant of Bangla, it isn't the only one spoken in the area.

Natives of Old Dhaka also speak 'Shobbash' -- a fading yet extant sub-variant of the Dhakaiya dialect derived from the word 'Shukhbash'.

People fluent in 'Shobbash' are called the 'Shobbashi.'

Historically, the Mughal era in Bengal saw an influx of people from various Indian provinces in Dhaka, bringing an array of languages like Urdu, Persian, Hindi, and English to the region, which greatly influenced the Shobbash dialect, according to linguists.

Meanwhile, Dhakaiya Kutti traces its origins back to the period of British East India Company's rule over Bengal following the famines that swept through the region after the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

During that period, people from regions like Cumilla, Mymensingh, Faridpur, and Barishal migrated to Dhaka, with the newcomers often working as rice huskers -- a job not traditionally held by Dhaka's original inhabitants.

These rice huskers would spend their days separating rice grains from the husks -- a process known as 'Kutta', which gave this community its name, "kuttis".

The Shobbash and the Kutti, two distinct sub-dialects of Dhakaiya, have been part of Old Dhaka's linguistic heritage for centuries. Yet, both are now facing the threat of extinction.

Over the years, the attrition of these dialects has been hastened by migration, the natural evolution of language and compulsory schooling in standardised Bangla.

Photojournalist Pavel Ahmed, raised in Old Dhaka, says he no longer uses his Shobbashi dialect.

"Maybe 20 years from now, no one will be able to speak the Dhakaiya dialects," said Shayla Parveen, a researcher.

Echoing Parveen's sentiment, Old Dhaka-based researcher Hashem Sufi flagged a significant challenge: the absence of a written script for the Dhakaiya dialect, contributing to its gradual disappearance.

WHY ARE DHAKAIYA DIALECTS DISAPPEARING?

Despite its rich cultural heft, Dhakaiya dialects have long been in danger of vanishing from Old Dhaka.

Urbanisation, migration, marriages across different communities, and the prevalence of standardised Bangla in educational and professional settings have all contributed to the erosion of Dhakaiya dialects.

Nurul Haque, a 72-year-old resident of Sutrapur, only uses the Shobbash dialect when communicating with locals familiar with it.

"Shobbash is only spoken by the older generation here. My children have adopted the local dialect of Jhalakathi because of my wife's background. Shobbash will inevitably fade away."

Md Shahidullah from Rokanpur points to a shift in the cultural and linguistic landscape of Old Dhaka.

"The Dhakaiya dialect is unknown to the untrained ears of my grandchildren. My children ask me not to use my dialect because they believe I should use the standard Bangla accent while conversing with people," he said.

Shahidullah has been married to his Shobbash wife for 35 years.

"I used to speak in the Shobbash dialect with my in-laws. But the use of the Dhakaiya dialect has diminished since."

Despite the alarming decline of the Dhakaiya Kutti dialect, a group of Old Dhaka natives is determined to keep the tradition alive. They gather in the Green Garden area of Kaltabazar every day and immerse themselves in their native dialect after a day's work.

"Children speak in standardised Bangla in school. But we want to pass the culture of Old Dhaka on to our children," Businessman Zahir Uddin told bdnews24.com.

According to Md Giyasuddin, a resident of Bongshal, the Dhakaiya dialect's colourful expressions are often met with ridicule.

"If you live in a civilised society, you are expected to talk a certain way. Otherwise, you will be laughed at. This is the reason why our children do not use the Dhakaiya dialect despite being our descendants," said Giyasuddin.

Prof Feroza Yasmin, from Dhaka University's linguistics department, said, "Those fluent in Shobbash and Kutti rarely get to use these dialects outside their homes."

She believes that when minority communities tend to co-exist with communities speaking in standard Bangla, they are automatically influenced by the majority.

THE FADING ECHOES OF DHAKAIYA LANGUAGE

The Dhakaiya language, once vibrant in the streets of Dhaka, is gradually fading, with its current speakers often viewed as the last guardians of this unique dialect.

In Koshaituli, Shobbashi Akil Ahmed shared his personal story. "After marrying someone from outside the city, we've defaulted to standard Bangla to ensure we connect with everyone. Unfortunately, my children have no grasp of Dhakaiya."

Despite not making a concerted effort to teach his children the dialect, Ahmed highlighted their lack of interest. "They began their education in a madrasa before moving to a conventional school. Schooling is much more common now than in the past, and it has had an impact on our traditions."

Khanja Shahed Rahman, a member of the Nawab family, also believes that the new generation must master standard Bangla to blend into broader society. "Though we still speak Dhakaiya at home, I communicate in Bangla with the younger generation."

Firoz Ahmed Shahin from Kalta Bazar noted the waning enthusiasm for Dhakaiya Kutti among the youth. He highlighted, however, the necessity of adopting standard Bangla to keep up with the times.

"The new generation leans towards standard Bangla, and we encourage respectful communication. It appears that we may be the last bastions of Dhaka's linguistic heritage."

Akil Ahmed lamented the erosion of their linguistic tradition.

On Begum Bazar's K Azam Lane, a conversation unfolded among a group of young people playing carrom. Md Russel, a businessman in the group, talked about their shift to using Bangla in daily interactions.

"In professional settings, [standard] Bangla is the norm, and using Dhakaiya could cause confusion. We switch to the language that ensures we're understood clearly," he explained.

INABILITY TO SPEAK DHAKAIYA

Md Shahriar, a ninth grader at St Gregory School, was roaming an alleyway in Dholaikhal. Despite his family's generations-long residency in the area, he is uncertain whether he belongs to the Kutti or Shobbashi community.

"Both my parents are from Old Dhaka, but I mainly speak standard Bangla both in and at home. So I haven't had the opportunity to learn the local dialect.

“I never had a senior family member to teach me the dialect," he explained.

Similarly, Pavel Ahmed from Narinda observes the fading of the Shobbash dialect within his family. The linguistic tradition has not been carried forward to his generation.

He attributed this loss to his mother residing outside Dhaka and his father's involvement in politics.

"I only remember a handful of phrases from my mother's dialect. Whenever relatives who speak Shobbash come over, I find myself lost, unable to join the conversation," Pavel recounted, expressing his struggle to connect with a significant part of his heritage.

IMPACT OF MIGRATION ON DHAKAIYA PEOPLE

For the past two decades, Old Dhaka has been an exodus of residents from both Dhakaiya dialect communities, leading to concerns over a language crisis.

Many left as a result of property divisions.

Over time, as buildings were subdivided, space became scarce, prompting people to relocate to other parts of Dhaka. Some have chosen to settle in areas like Keraniganj and Narayanganj.

Kutti businessman Zahir Uddin said, "More people from Barishal and Bikrampur are coming here, so their language is becoming more common."

Shobbashi Akil Ahmed added, "The division of properties has forced many to sell their homes and move to places like Keraniganj, accelerating the decline of our dialect."

Trader Md Elias, from Dholaikhal, was spotted in Raisaheb Bazar. He plans to move to Uttara within the next six months.

"I also have a residence there," he said. "It offers a touch of modernity so that's why I will be leaving this crowded place."

However, he no longer converses in Dhakaiya Kutti. His children are unfamiliar with the dialect.

"My siblings are studying at Dhaka University, and their children reside in America. They no longer use this dialect. Those with education grow up in a different environment. Very few people still speak this dialect."

TRANSITIONING FROM URDU TO BANGLA

Some residents of Abul Hasnat Road reminisce about the time during the Pakistan era when their ancestors were compelled to learn and use Urdu in their everyday lives. This change was a significant shift in their linguistic practices.

However, the tide turned following Bangladesh's triumph in the 1971 Liberation War, with the subsequent generations reverting to Bangla as their primary mode of communication.

Many attribute the resurgence of Bangla, particularly among the younger generation, to the patriotic fervour inspired by Abdul Ghaffar Chowdhury's iconic song "Amar Bhai Er Rokte Rangano Ekushe February."

"Our forefathers spoke Urdu, but that practice has faded away. Bangla is our mother tongue. The Ekushey February song stirs strong emotions so I prefer speaking in Bangla."

While many in the area are still conversant in Urdu, Bangla has become the predominant language of communication.

Nadeem, who is employed in the private sector, said, "We understand Urdu but choose not to use it. Our pride in being Bangladeshis and identifying as Bengalis outweighs everything else. Everyone in this neighbourhood now proudly speaks Bangla as we embrace our national identity."

REGIONAL LANGUAGE PRESERVATION EFFORTS

Researcher Shayla believes that people's language reflects their ethnographic identity, making it crucial to preserve regional languages.

She advocates for a balanced approach to language education and preservation.

"Each region should establish language councils or committees to raise awareness. While the new generation needs to learn English, they should also be fluent in Bangla. Additionally, families should practice speaking their regional dialect at home with their children."

[Writing in English by Ruhshabah Tabassum Huda and Arshi Fatiha Quazi]