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Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 

Did you know? The Quran was first translated into Bengali by a Hindu man – Girish Chandra Sen.

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Being a Bengali is a linguistic identity, not a religious one.
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(This piece was first published on 8 August 2017 and is being republished in light of recent calls for ‘One Nation, One Language’.)

Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 
Trends would show that Arabic was mostly chosen by Muslim students, while Sanskrit was preferred by both Muslims and Hindus.
Trends would show that Arabic was mostly chosen by Muslim students, while Sanskrit was preferred by both Muslims and Hindus.
(Photo: iStock)
Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 
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Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 
Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 

My school in my village was affiliated to the Education Board of West Bengal. There, the students of Classes 7 and 8 would have to additionally learn either of two languages – Arabic or Sanskrit. We’d have to learn the alphabet, basic grammar, and translation – something that saw most of us scoring quite highly.

In fact, even an “average student” would manage at least a 60 out of 100 in the additional language. Trends would show that Arabic was mostly chosen by the Muslim students, while Sanskrit was preferred by both Muslims and Hindus.

In all of the years that my school has been in existence, no Hindu student has ever studied Arabic. Why is that? Conversely, I have seen so many Muslim students study Sanskrit – often going on to pursue a PhD in the language, sometimes teaching it too!

If India were a land of conservatives, it would not have been possible for a Muslim to teach Sanskrit and read namaaz at a mosque.

The Quran was first translated into Bengali by a Hindu man – Girish Chandra Sen. If he were alive today, I would’ve asked him why he chose the Quran over so many other texts, and why he chose Arabic over so many other languages?

Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 

Syed Mujtaba Ali was a Bangladeshi author that I have read quite extensively. I often have to hear, just like Mr Ali, that I “look like a Bengali, not a Muslim”.

When I was younger, I used to take private tuition classes from a man I called Prantik sir, who had passed the higher secondary in his time, without any tuitions!

He had told our batch of students an important thing, “A Bengali can be a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain or Buddhist. Being a Bengali is a linguistic identity, not a religious one.”

I don’t know whether today’s ultra-sensitive, digital-loving folks who love to write on Facebook walls are aware of this distinction?

Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 

I have this deep desire to decode for the reader the linguistic origins of words like Ma, Baba, Abbu, Ammi. I don’t know them myself – but someday, I hope to find a linguist who can explain them for me.

I have always called my mother ‘Ma’, my father ‘Bapi’. I have never heard of anyone in the Hindu-dominated country laugh at me for not saying ‘Abba’ instead! I say “haan” (for yes) instead of “ji” (which is predominant in Urdu-dominant Bangladesh).

If you listen to Bengali language programmes on BBC’s radio channel, or those of China Radio International, Voice of America, or Deutsche Wells, you will hear “pani” (for water) instead of “jal”. This is because they largely employ Bengalis from Bangladesh rather than India.

Bangladesh’s Bengali is strongly influenced by Urdu and Arabic, and that in turn has been brought about by political and religious factors.

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The grandchildren of a renowned linguist in West Bengal call their grandmother (mother’s mother) ‘Dadi’ (instead of ‘Dida’ as is usual in West Bengal). Who am I or any of my forefathers or descendants to decide what names people choose to call their near and dear ones?

In Bangladesh, people often combine Arabic and Bengali words to come up with names for their children. I have noticed Bengalis in West Bengal often use an Urdu-influenced name for their child’s ‘bhalo naam’ (the name she uses in the outside world) and a Bengali-influenced name for the ‘daak naam’ (the name she is called by her family).

Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 

I am accustomed to greeting someone with a “Good morning” or a “Good evening” over a “Salaam” or a “Namaste”. I find nothing unusual in it. If someone’s particularly sensitive, they will discover political or religious undertones in anything anyone says!

Javed Ali’s lyrics have beautiful Urdu cadences. Aamir Khan’s pronunciation of the Sanskrit phrase ‘Satyameva Jayate’ has us mesmerised. I was first told the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – even those of Durga Pujo, Mahalaya and Mahishasur – by my grandparents. Neither of them is highly educated – my grandmother, in fact, cannot read or write. Yet she knew every surah, every verse, every prayer when offering namaaz. She’d never read the Quran, nor worn a burqa in her life. Her sarees and blouses – worn the Bengali way – were Islamic enough for her.

We had two Bengali teachers in school – a Phatik Purkayastha and an Abed Ali; we never had any problems deciphering either of their Bengali lessons.

Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 

India is a nation of pluralism. Every religion too talks of pluralism and harmony.  Our Bengali language has quite the same dilemma as the English language spoken in two different ways in the UK and the US. One language – two editions.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. They needn’t be absolutely structured. Like Noam Chomsky said: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”.

Footnote: I had help with the linguistic origins of words like ‘paani’, ‘jal’, ‘ammi’, ‘maa’, etc, from Mr Pabitra Sarkar, a well-known scholar who was kind enough to respond when I emailed him. ‘Jal’ is a Sanskirt word; the word ‘Pani’ has originated from ‘Paniyo’ – a Sanskrit word. ‘Abba’ has, in all probability, originated from Persian, although in Persian, the word ‘Baba’ means ‘Grandfather’. The word ‘Ma’ has been derived from the Sanskrit ‘Matri’ or ‘Mata’. ‘Ammi’ and ‘Abbu’ have been prevalent in both Hindi and Urdu usages. The Bengali usage has probably come from them.

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(This article was sent to The Quint by SK Badiruddin for BOL – Love your Bhasha campaign. He’s an aspiring multimedia journalist. He has studied MA in Mass Communication from the University of Burdwan.)

Abbu or Baba, Ammi or Maa – We All Speak the Same Bangla Bol 

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