First impressions of Bengali / Bangla

Monday, September 20, 2010

I've been paying a bit more attention to Bengali for a few weeks now and have spent the past week going through some of the lessons here, so have gone through it enough in order to be able to write my first impressions on the language. As I wrote before, one of the reasons I became interested in it in the first place is because it's Indo-European but lacks grammatical gender (like Persian and Armenian), is spoken by a large number of people, is derived from Sanskrit, and is relatively close to Korea and Japan where I've lived the longest in Asia. I also like the way it sounds compared to languages like Hindi and Punjabi.


So, first impressions.

Bengali does feel a lot like Persian. You would never mistake it for Persian either in speech or writing, but it does have the same casual kind of feel that a fairly regular grammar and lack of grammatical gender gives you. Bengali does have cases, but they are more like postpositions most of the time.

A Persian speaker will notice a lot of similar vocabulary though, not just in shared loanwords but in core Indo-European vocabulary. Four examples out of a lot more I've noticed:

  • বেশি [beshi] is Persian بیش [bish], and means more.
  • করা [karaa] is Persian کردن [kardan], and is the verb to do. More importantly than the pronunciation though is the fact that Bengali also uses the verb often in the same way, by sticking it after a noun to turn it into a verb. Japanese and Korean speakers will recognize the same thing here in the verbs する [suru] and 하다 [hada]. The big advantage to languages that do this is that you can take just about any noun and turn it into a verb, and conjugation always remains the same.
  • কে [ke] is who, and you can see this everywhere: Persian ki, French qui, etc.
  • গরম [garam] is warm, and that one is obvious right away to a Persian speaker.
One thing I intend to check later on when more proficient is whether the vocabulary used at Paarsimaan.com is a lot more similar to Bengali, as that site aims for as linguistically pure (IOW no loanwords) Persian as possible. Their glossary is here.

Verbs: verbs are best explained through Wikipedia's page on Bengali grammar, but what is most important to a student is that they are extremely regular. Regularity is one of the most important factors in what makes a language difficult or not, much more than overall complexity. Turkish for example comes across as very complex in the beginning, but with but a single irregular verb once you've mastered how to conjugate a verb you're now done. Bengali uses some vowel harmony when conjugating verbs, as well as different conjugations for respect or familiarity, which will be foreign to some but easy to master if you know Japanese, Korean or another language that makes that distinction.

Vocabulary overall: Wikipedia has a nice image for this.


The light brown part of the pie graph shows native vocabulary with Sanskrit cognates, the darker brown is reborrowings from Sanskrit, and the rest represents loanwords. Apparently Bengali has fewer loanwords from Arabic than even Hindi. Even I with next to no knowledge of Sanskrit have recognized a few words there like dharma (ধর্ম) for religion, and the fact that the word for language is bhaasaa (ভাষা) is a nice touch, considering that I already knew it thanks to Sambahsa.

Typing in Bengali: I don't know anything about the keyboard yet as I've been cheating by using Google's transliteration engine, and there are a few others out there too for typing without having to set anything up.


Resources: better than I expected. Certainly far more than for a language like Armenian, and you can listen to Bengali on both BBC and Deutsche Welle whenever you want. Librivox doesn't have anything though, and what I'm not having much luck finding is any content containing a script along with a recorded voice. I've been busy with those lessons though so I haven't been looking all that hard yet. One small sample can be seen here.

Script: mostly phonetic but not entirely. Easier to read properly than Persian in the beginning, but certainly not as easy as something like Tajik, Estonian, Spanish, etc. I'm still getting used to how to write consonant clusters contained within a single character (svaasthya, health is a good example - স্বাস্থ্য) but for the most part they are just single letters scrunched together so it isn't too bad, and I tend to learn alphabet as I pick up vocabulary anyway, instead of spending the first while in sheer boredom doing nothing but alphabet, alphabet, and more alphabet.

So overall the first impression so far has been very good, better than expected actually, and I haven't found any huge unpleasant surprises.


One final note: after writing a post on the page that contains two frequency lists, a dictionary and all the lessons (the best page I've encountered online to learn Bengali so far) I noticed that the lessons are actually geared towards a Jehova's Witness who (I assume) will be going throughout Bangladesh or West Bengal to talk to people about religion, which makes for some pretty interesting example sentences. Your standard textbook will have sentences like "What? Can't you give me a discount for the hotel room?" whereas this one has sentences like "And you, does YOUR faith stand up to scrutiny?" or "What do you think happens after you die?" I actually prefer content like that whether I agree with a person's views or not (two examples: I like to read discussions on religion on diskusjon.no and I'm also currently reading through the Qur'an in a number of languages at al-quran.info as you can select a number of languages to see side by side), and it reminds me of a post I recently read here at Ikindalikelanguages.com, which addresses something I've always thought - when learning a language it is often helpful to read or listen to discussions on issues that people are passionate about, even better if you are too. That feeling of "yes, that's exactly right!" or "Argh, this guy is such an idiot (and is wrong on the internet!) is a great motivator. Content that promotes the urge to read (and sometimes respond) is always helpful.

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