2 years ago

Rohingya refugees losing originality of their dialect

Rohingyas are seen onboard a ship as they are moving to Bhasan Char island in Chattogram, Bangladesh, in December last year -Reuters file photo
Rohingyas are seen onboard a ship as they are moving to Bhasan Char island in Chattogram, Bangladesh, in December last year -Reuters file photo

Published :

Updated :

The Rohingya crisis has been one of the burning issues of the recent world. Their way of life has been extensively studied over the past three years and numerous literatures on many aspects of their life and culture are now available online.

Yet, the language they use remains a challenging and stimulating issue to be studied and understood. Often, people say that Rohingya people share a big part of their culture and language with Chittagong region. In the camps, Chittagonian dialect is mostly used by aid workers and understood by Rohingya people. Apparently, identical linguistic features between Rohingya and Chittagonian dialect are so intertwined that it is often difficult to determine whether Rohingya language is a Chittagonian variety or a distinct language.

Languages in the world and across the people are very diverse. Language has always been one of the basic faculties of human studies, and thus many fundamental concepts to study languages have been developed; language, variety and dialect are some basic concepts of linguistics. These concepts can be better used to understand the status and relation between Rohingya and Chittagonain dialect.

Linguistically speaking, language is defined as a system of communication that has both standardized written and spoken form; whereas a dialect is a particular form of language which is only used as spoken language by particular people that may sound peculiar to others and it necessarily does not have codified rules and literature of its own. Simply, variety refers to some specific variation of a dialect or language.

In our globalised society, language shift is a dominant phenomenon. So is now true for Rohingya dialect. After being displaced from Myanmar and settled in the camps in Cox's Bazar for more than three years, Rohingya people, being in touch with many outsiders and development projects, as a situational demand, are now increasingly losing their distinctive linguistic heritage and adopting Chittagonian, Bangla and sometimes English equivalents of their dialects. At times, it is also noticed that many Rohingya caregivers, by their own efforts, get their children learn Bangla though it is not allowed to teach Bangla in the schools and learning centres of the camps.

With this phenomenon in place, it is clear that their dialect is slowly going through a shift and losing its originality. The way low varieties [that which are used in informal spaces] of a dialect or language nowadays get influenced by the high variety [that which are used in formal spaces] of that language. Rohingya dialect now seems to be getting influenced by Chittagonian dialect in particular and Bangla at large. The registered refugees who came in Bangladesh some 30 years ago can now freely speak Chittagonian and Bangla as well.

Ahmed Mia, a proud Rohingya youth, believes that Rohingya language has many similarities with Chittagonain but Rohingya is a separate language. "Language of Rohingya people is getting changed after coming to Bangladesh and now it seems to be almost the same but historically our language was much different from Chittagonain or Bangla," he argued.

The idea that Rohingya dialect can probably be a Chittagonian variety has a good logical sense; Rohingya people often become pretty anonymous and can easily hide their ethnic identity when they travel in the Chittagong region. It's clearly because two most important aspects of racial identity are language and complexion; there is hardly any apparent ethnic difference in complexion between Rohingya and Chittagonain people. Along with that, Rohingya people mostly understand Chittagonian dialect though they cannot often speak with the same Chittagonian accent.

With the modifications that happened over the past three years in their dialect, it seems to be quite easy for them to acquire Chittagonian dialect. On top of that, linguistically speaking, the basic patterns and formations of sentences that Rohingya people use are quite similar to those of Chittagonian. Similarly, it should also be noted that many utterances and vocabularies of Rohingya people sound very unusual to Chittagonain people but it is not so hard for them to understand what they mean by the utterances as many of them are used in other ways in Chittagong.

According to an assessment by Translators without Borders (TWB), an international NGO working for language support in the humanitarian crisis, some 70 per cent similarity is found between Rohingya and Chittagonain dialect, though people in Cox's Bazar region believe to have over 90 per cent similarities.

Being a native Chittagonian and having worked with Rohingya people, what this scribe has seen over the years is that over 80 per cent of both languages is similar. Yet there are many differences like accent and use of many terms by Rohingya people are remarkably different from that of Chittagonian people.

Due to the undeveloped, unprivileged and persecuted history of Rohingya people for decades in Myanmar, their language remained unaffected by the modern linguistic and cultural influences that actually cause language shift in the long run. Consequently, sometimes it had been pretty problematic for aid workers to understand some of their dialects even after being a native Chittagonian. Having worked for Rohingya language, Irene Scott, Programme Director for Translators without Borders (TWB) said in 2018 that "this crisis is one of the most linguistically challenging that I've ever worked in". 

Whether Chittagonian dialect is a variety of Bangla or a distinct language is itself a question, because many language researchers have argued that Chittagonian dialect - despite having no writing symbols, official status, and rich literature - has many distinctive aspects to be a distinct language and Bangla is often said to be "mutually unintelligible" with Chittagonian dialect.

In the past 30 years, Chittagonian dialect, like other regional dialects in Bangladesh, has also changed a lot; now it is not the way it was 30 years ago. And perhaps, the changes over the years have made it much different than the Rohingya dialect.

Azizul Hoque, an expert of linguistics from Chittagong who has worked on Chittagonian dialect, says that modern cultural imperialism and expansion of modern education have largely impacted every language; it is clearly noticeable that Chittagonian dialect suffered a shift over the past 30 years. "We, the educated people no longer use many words and accents used by our forefathers; there is some moderation which is actually so normal to happen," he added.

According to Wikipedia, Rohingya, Sylheti, Chakma, Assamese are the sister languages of Chittagonian dialect and it broadly belongs to the Bengali-Assamese language family, a sub branch of Eastern group of Indo-Aryan languages.

However, it is also obvious that both Rohingya and Chittagonian dialects have a good influence of Arabic, Urdu and Farsi (Persian). On the other hand, Rohingya seems to have borrowed many Burmese words while Chittagonian dialect has incorporated many words from standard Bangla. Wikipedia holds the view that Rohingya and Chittagonian dialects are "very much mutually intelligible". The level of intelligibility between two dialects suggests that there is much similarity between them.

Having said the above, it is notable that socio-culturally Rohingya and Chittagonian people have a lot in common. Rohingya dialect has a writing system developed in the name of Rohingya Joban - though not widely used by and known to all - while Chittagonian dialect has no such writing symbols of its own. After all, Rohingya dialect has a lot to reasonably consider it as a variety of Chittagonian dialect; nevertheless it has much to be a distinct language as well.


Parvez Uddin Chowdhury is a protection worker.

[email protected]

Share this news