Should the state dictate how to speak and use Bangla?

Published : 28 Feb 2012, 11:19 AM
Updated : 28 Feb 2012, 11:19 AM

Some folks with love for Bangla and power in hand are passing busy days in Bangladesh. The honourable prime minister has just confirmed that it will be mandatory for all "basic cellular phones" to have Bangla keyboards. And a few days ago the high court pronounced a ruling against "distorted" Bangla language in local radio and television channels. Let's discuss why these directives are noble and honest in their intent, but unfortunately, are un-realistic and counter-productive.

Let's start with the idea of controlling "language pollution" in FM radio channels and TV programs. It is undoubted that several of these outlets are broadcasting a strange version of Bangla language which is almost foreign to our culture. Like many others, I also want this strange "RJ Bangla", as it is known these days, to just go away.

Ruling on "language pollution"

The latest ruling on "language pollution" resulted after a sub-editorial titled "Language Pollution is as destructive as River Pollution" was published in the vernacular Bangla daily the Prothom Alo.

In the ruling, honourable justice A H M Shamsuddin Chowdhury and justice Jahangir Hossain urged all to protect the purity and sanctity of the Bangla language. I truly think the honourable judges had the genuine intention of protecting Bangla language. However, I fear that the eventual outcome of their ruling, in my layman's view, will be as follows:

1.) government agencies will be monitoring the language of only those channels or hosts  who are critical to the incumbent government,

2.) in the worst case scenario, a few such channels or hosts may get their licenses / jobs terminated,

3.) to facilitate the above points,  few retired-but-truly-eminent individuals will enter a smoke-filled room in Bangla Academy, only to produce a semi-useful guideline on "how to speak perfect Bangla".

To illustrate the utility of such official guidelines, let's talk about our Censor Certificate Board for Dhaliwoody cinemas which has an extended guideline of to-show's and not-to-show's. Reportedly, their not-to-show list includes, among many other interesting things, footage of women's unclothed upper legs and belly-buttons. Despite such strict guidelines, my memory is vivid with images of these body parts of my favorite actresses Shabnoor and Poppy, albeit with transparent nets covering them. Such is the lameness of official guidelines.

Who owns the Bangla language?

It is interesting that in the court ruling, the honourable judges went on saying that the language of Bangla is the language of Bangabondhu, Rabindranath, Shahidullah, Lalon, and various other distinguished Bangalis. Unfortunately, I am not sure how many Bangalis were mentioned in that long list who are still alive and talking. Did anyone talk to these folks, particularly the younger ones?

Needless to say, a language is survived by the young and living, not the old and deceased. Take it or leave it, that is the way it has been for ages. This is why Daily Ittefaq had to start writing news in "Cholito Bangla Bhasha" in my life time, abandoning their historic ties to the "Shadhu Bangla Bhasha". This is why Rabindranath still remains relevant for his easily understood Bangla writings, whereas Kaykobaad or Bankim Chandra is barely read — let's just be honest. This is also why Bangladesh's land ministry contemplates creating land documents in "Cholito Bangla Bhasha" moving away from "Shadhu". All these points prove that like all other languages, Bangla is indeed like a river, which evolves and moves away from its past trying to stay relevant in the lives of its current users. Therefore, governments and courts are better off staying far from this delicate struggle of controlling a language's direction.

Difficulties in controlling "language pollution"

Defining what could be considered destruction, distortion or pollution of a language is tricky. Did "Cholito Bangla Bhasha" destroy "Shadhu Bangla Bhasha"? Did we distort or destroy Bangla language when we systematically removed many Arabic and Persian words used by the educated Muslims of Bengal as found in Kazi Nazrul or Forrukh Ahmed's writing? Does inclusion of English words, many of which have less-convenient Bangla translations, destroy Bangla language? I simply do not know the answer for any of these. All I know governments and courts are not the places where I would look for answers on these.

However, given that our nation state is already inclined to interfere in its citizen's linguistic and cultural lives, what I propose is that the government create financial incentives for our radio/TV channels so that they create attractive entertainment for our youth using proper Bangla. For example, kids of today are watching peculiar Japanese cartoons dubbed in Hindi. Some of these kids neither know proper Bangla nor Hindi; let alone English. Let's stop this nonsense first, before we regulate Bangla usage of the folks who are honestly struggling to produce entertainment in our mother tongue.

By the way, does anyone know what the plans are for regulating strange Bangla usage in Indian channels like Tara Bangla or Zee Bangla? Who got the job for checking the pronunciation of the ministers, MPs, secretaries, or judges? And lastly, who are we kidding again?

Bangla Keyboards on Basic Mobile Phones

Let's now talk about the idea of banning import of "basic cell phones" without Bangla keyboards. Although not hard to implement technically, this idea is still lame at its core. The peculiarity of this idea is in the term "basic". With this term, the government has created a "loophole" for the rich and the powerful smart-phone users, so that their 50,000 taka iPhones or Android phones are out of reach of this ban. The middle-class and the poor are once again asked to carry the burden of the government's love for Bangla, since they are the ones buying basic phones.

Using a 12-14 digit basic number pad for typing 60+ letter Bangla words, with all our joint letters, is a difficult task. Despite all the difficulties, our folks are still expressing their thoughts in Bangla; they are just using English alphabets to do so.

Bangla is yet to have universally recognised fonts that work across software and operating systems. If the government is sincere with its intent, I recommend they allocate money and resources towards the following:

1.) simplifying Bangla spelling and syntax by using Bangla Academy's expertise,

2.) creating truly global and platform-neutral Bangla fonts and typing solutions, and

3.) popularising Bangla SMS using only Bangla alphabets (no English alphabets allowed!). I am not sure about the utility of the item (3), but still leaving it here since this is exactly what the government is trying to achieve.

My fear is that unnecessary regulatory burdens and government interventions will only encourage the new generation to limit their usage of the Bangla language. The new generation may end up completely hooked up with languages like Hindi and English, which I fear is already the case. Misguided regulations and government interventions will only make things worse.

Shafquat Rabbee is a freelance contributor.