Bangladesh, a country of 147,570 square miles, carries the name ‘Bangla’ (Bengali) in its name as a reminder of the prominent language and culture of the population. Having said that, we must acknowledge the presence of numerous other ethnic groups with their distinctive culture and languages. These groups of people outside the mainstream Bengali population are sometimes identified as ‘small tribes’, ‘indigenous groups’ or ‘ethnic minorities’. In this essay, they will not be mentioned as that but as ‘ethnic groups’ and this essay focuses on the languages (and their existential crisis, etc.) of these groups. Generally gradual decreasing of the number of speakers of a language is identified as the reason for the extinction of a language, but the actual reasons for a language being extinct are innate in the socio-economic and political narrative of a society. According to the ‘Pidgin-Creol’ process, interaction of the speakers of different languages, their geographical location and for cultural, social and political reasons, two languages can merge to form a new language, or one of those two groups can adopt the other language for practical conveniences. Despite that, at the point of geographical overlapping of the speakers of different languages, there is a different scenario of mixing of the two languages. This essay will discuss the theoretical analysis of extinction of languages, the bases of declaring a language ‘endangered’ or ‘extinct’ and identifying the languages that are in risk of going extinct in the future. Linguists worldwide fear that 90 percent of the languages existing today in the world will go extinct in this century. Therefore, this discussion is as important as (if not more) a discussion on endangered life forms as more often than not, extinction of a language is accompanied by the extinction of a culture.
Theoretical construct of the discussion: Dead Language versus Extinct Language
Before we dive into the discussion, we need to set some definitions and ground rules. Identifying and establishing the definitions of ‘language death’ and ‘language extinction’ is crucial to observe the theoretical perspective of endangered languages. In plain English, a language is termed endangered when the number of the speakers of the language is gradually decreasing. That is, the number of users of that particular language has decreased to the point that in the near future no one will be left to practice that language. In the field of linguistics, while discussing endangered languages ‘dead language’ and ‘extinct language’ are often considered synonymous. Normally when the verbal use of a language ceases, that language is considered to be dead. The gradual decreasing of the number of users of a language is credited for the cease of verbal uses of the language. However, the common notion of the definition of a language being dead when the ‘last speaker of a certain language is dead’ is not acceptable in the field of linguistics. The reason behind this is, the parameters for a language to be declared ‘endangered’ are: a) the number of users of the language; b) how rich the language is in terms of vocabulary and linguistic strength and c) written script of the language.
The first and most important parameter of endangerment of a language is the number of users of the language. In plain words, more people use a language, the less are the chances of the language going extinct. At this juncture, it needs to be mentioned that according to the number of users of a language, languages worldwide are divided into two categories, minor language, and major language. At times, due to natural calamities, war and genocide (like Pakistan attempted in Bangladesh in 1971), ethnic
cleansing (like Myanmar is being accused of now in the Arakan province over the Rohyinga population right now), etc. can lead to the demise of the minor language or it may merge with the local major language. An important observation on this scenario is, over generations, the users of the minor language of a particular geographical area diminish in numbers and the major language of the area takes over, that is, the child speaking the minor language adopts the major language and over time the minor language ceases being used. Having said all that, we have to acknowledge the fact that diminishing number of users of a language is not the only reason for language extinction. There is precedence of a group of endangered language speakers collectively take the decision of adopting a major language for practical, socio-economic and political reasons. Linguists call this phenomenon a ‘language shift’. For example, 1965, after Singapore got their independence, they decided to abandon their native Malayeese language and adopted English as Lingua-Franca. Over time, English is now Singapore’s first language. On the other hand, the small ethnic groups of Chinese origin of Singapore went through another language shift and adopted Chinese Mandarin. In a case like this if the endangered language (here, Malayeese) is not being used anywhere else and does not have an articulated written script, will cease to exist.
The second parameter is if a particular language has a rich vocabulary and productive strength of creating and coining new words and sentences as per requirement or if written text from any other language can be effectively translated into that language.
Thirdly, an articulated written script of a language gives a language the ability to withstand extinction. A minor language can be pushed aside by all the accepted reasons for the extinction of a language like merging with a major language or a language shift and can cease to be used verbally if the language has a strongly written script, it never really dies away. The script acts as a witness and the existence of the language is historically accepted. Sanskrit can be an example of this fact. Currently there is no verbal use of the language in the societies of the Indus valley, but having its own very distinct written script, even after two thousand years of its earliest recorded specimen, it still is regarded as a language and the Indian government has taken steps to revitalize the language by introducing Sanskrit learning programs.
Evolution is as true as daylight for any language. It can be tricky as evolution is necessary for a language to survive and too much of it can lead to its extinction. Through evolution, a language can even shift from one language to another. For instance, the Chakma language, the language spoken by the ethnic group Chakma, is original of the Tibetan-Burmese branch of the Chinese-Tibetan language family came in contact with Bangla, a member of the Indo-Aryan language family (from the geographical perspective, here Bangla is the major language and Chakma is the minor). Chakma language has now evolved into a form consistent with the Indo-Aryan family language structure. Thus, languages evolve over time and if not curated meticulously, they run the risk of going extinct.
Languages that are no longer used verbally but still have a written form and documented proofs of existence are often called dead language. On the other hand, languages that are not used anymore and have no written script in existence are often called extinct languages. Now, the extinction of a language does not happen overnight, it takes a long period of times and once it does, it is somewhat impossible to
recover the language. Therefore, we need to identify and focus on the languages that are currently in danger of extinction and take necessary steps to preserve them.
Languages of Bangladesh
Bengali (Bangla) is the first language of the majority of the population of Bangladesh. It is also declared to be the official state language in the constitution of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh and due to academic education children are brought up with a working knowledge of English as a part of the curriculum. So despite being not officially acknowledged, English is unofficially regarded as the second language of Bangladesh. Aside from the majority of Bengalis, there are about forty ethnic groups with distinct cultures. Languages being an integral part of a culture, these forty ethnic groups have their own languages. Some of them have their own distinctive languages while the others have languages that are derived from or related to other languages. From this perspective, there are about twenty-six languages used by these ethnic groups in Bangladesh. Besides the Bengalis and these ethnic groups, there are Bihari people in Bangladesh who use Urdu as their first language. Therefore, despite being one of the smaller countries, Bangladesh certainly has a very diverse linguistic scene.
A few hundred years ago when official paperwork like visa etc. was not needed to go from country to country, people could move freely around the world for various reasons. This led to languages being exposed to each other and many of the languages evolved greatly through this process. For example, we can take the case of the Santal/Saotaland Hajong language. In respect to its source, it belongs to the Austro-Asiatic language family but through exposure to the Indo-Aryan language family of the eastern region of the Indian subcontinent and evolution, a lot of Indo-Aryan words have migrated to Santal/Saotal and Hajong. So Santal/Saotal and Hajongare now identified as members of the Indo-European language family and on the other hand, they still can be identified as members of the Austro-Asiatic language family as per their language structure. In Bangladesh, we find languages from four language families, namely, Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European family, Austro-Asiatic, Dravidian, and Tibetan-Burmese branch of the Chinese-Tibetan family. The languages that are identified to be spoken in Bangladesh as per their families are: Indo-European: Bangla, Bihari/Urdu, Monipuri/Bishnupria, Ohomia (Asamese), Chakma/Sakma/Takam, Hajong, Sadori, Bangla Sign Language, Rajwar, Gujrati/Hindi, Rohinga; Austro-Asiatic: Khasi, Lingam, Pnar, War-Jaintiya, Santalkol/ Hor/ Ho, Yahali, Munda; Dravidian: Kurukh, SauriaPaharia/ Paharia/ Malto; Chinese-Tibetan: Pangkhoua/Pankhu/Pangkho, Mijo/Hulanggo lei/Lusai/Lushai, Maiteyee/Miteyee/ Maitheyee, Mru/Maru/Murung/Mrung, Khumi, Oom, Khiyang/Hiyo/ A-Sho, Usoi/Ushoi, Kokborok, Tripura/Tipra, Megam/Migam/Negam, Riyang/Reyang/Kaubru, Mandi.
Challenges of Classification of the Languages of Bangladesh
This essay used three sources for information and reference, Linguistic Survey of India (1906)by Sir George Abraham Grierson, an essay titled ‘Bangladesher Bivinno Nri-Goshthir Bhasha (Languages of different ethnic groups of Bangladesh)’ by Saurav Sikdar from the compilation Promito Bangla Bhashar Byakoron (Grammar of Standard Bengali)’ (2011) by Bangla Academy, Bangladesher Adibasi Bhasha O Sanskriti (Language and Culture of Ethnic Groups of Bangladesh) (2011) by Saurav Sikdar, and
Ethnologue (2013). All data and reference used in this essay are supported by at least one of these sources. But, sometimes they contradict each other. One such instance would be the case of Panjabi, Gujarati or Hindi. Ethnologue (2013) does not acknowledge them as languages practiced in Bangladesh while Sikdar (2011) does. Now they can be disregarded as they are immigrant languages. Another challenge would be the timeline of these studies and researchers. Grierson’s study of languages from 1906 are not coherent with Sikdar (2011) as they are from over one hundred years apart and the geographical borders changed a few times in that span of time. Apart from that, they disagree on some sub-languages too. Such as, Sikdar (2011) identified Marmaand Rakhainto be sub-languages of each other, which is supported by Marma myths, but Ethnologue(2013) regards them as different individual languages. Also, Sikdar (2011) identified Mahalias a Dravidian language whereas Grierson (1906) and Pati (2002) insist upon Mahali being of the Austro-Asiatic family’s Mundari branch. So a concrete study of this issue based on library research of the reference books only is not completely dependable. Since Grierson’s (1906) work, there had not been any complete study of the languages of the Indian subcontinent and in the 112 years since then, the geographical borders changed a few times, massive shifts in socio-political scenes have been seen, mass migration took place within the subcontinent, in short, all the phenomenon responsible for the extinction of a language took place. So few of the languages (Mahali, Malto, Rajwar, etc.) mentioned in Grierson (1906) are declared extinct by Sikdar (2011). It is now critically important that an all-inclusive and combined language survey of Bangladesh is conducted.
Extinct Languages of Bangladesh
The language that has gone extinct is near impossible to identify now as no one speaks it anymore and there is no written script available to attest to its once existence and talking about it will make it sound fictional. Languages that are confirmed to be extinct are Rajwar, Mahali, Maltoand Ayhaliand, some other languages are considered as critically endangered and deserve imminent attention for their survival. Some of them are Khasi, Mijo, Sak, Riyang, etc. What can be done about it? There are a lot of things that can be done to undo this. First and foremost, we need to conduct an all-inclusive language survey of Bangladesh and identify all forms of language that are still available in some form. Then we need to classify them as per the 10 stages coined by Ethnologue or to give it a more global perspective, the sex-standardized levels prescribed by UNESCO. UNESCO’s 6 levels of the existential status of languages are: Vulnerable, Definitely Endangered, Severely Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct and Revitalized.
Once we have the classification of the existing languages, we can start working on a case by case basis. We will need to find written scripts for the language that is available only in a verbal form. If we cannot find any such script, we will need to construct one for the language so it can withstand the test of time and be recognized as a language in the history of the world. This is not a one-man job. It will require a combined effort of academicians, government, local agencies, and Bangla Academy.
In today’s age of internet and globalization, we have to be vigilant about the existence of the languages that are not used globally or on the internet. Or else, by the end of this century, we may indeed lose 90 percent of the languages spoken today. We are the only nation that shed blood for the right to the mother tongue. So it is our duty to make sure that everyone has their mother tongue alive and do not have to speak a language that is not theirs.
Translated by Syfullah Faruque.