When asked, our typical citizen identifies his/her language as Bangla, which, in phonetic English, becomes "Bengali". With English as the official language in over 80 countries (from tiny Singapore to superpower-sized United States), the rest of the world practically knows us as Bengalis?a term difficult to translate or transliterate into Bangla. We alone belong to that group, since West Bengal is subsumed under India's Hindi endonym.
If cohabitation is a global drive, in an age infamously dubbed by "clashes of civilisation", may be, we should step up to the plate and play a cohabitation theme or two for Bangla. We are, after all, ideally placed to do so. Were it not for the time-honoured spillovers of our Language Movement, UNESCO would not have adopted International Mother Language Day on November 17, 1999 to be commemorated on February 21, the very day bloodied by defending our own mother tongue.
"How can we ever forget February 21", runs two hallowed lines of our linguistic anthem honouring the 1952 incident. Rafiquddin Ahmed, Abdul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, and Abdus Salam and Shafiur Rahman fell on that day to prevent an "Urdu and only Urdu" mandate made in West Pakistan to obliterate our own endonym. It played a pivotal role in our 1971 liberation war, and remained a living, breathing part of our existence until October 08, 2014, when "Bhasha" Matin, the leader of the 1952 movement, breathed his last.
That Bengali/Bangla did not breathe its last because of these five forerunners, among many others, can also be traced to some giant literary contributors, of whom Rabindranath Tagore internationalised it with his 1913 Nobel Prize (the Bard of Bengal also authored two national anthems, for India and Bangladesh, in that order, and arguably a third one for Sri Lanka). As the only country in the Bengali/Bangla endonym, we know the language is worth more than the 160 million people within our own borders. West Bengal natives would automatically tune in owing to its multiple credentials to literary leadership (epitomised by Shantiniketan, as well as several poets and authors). That is a friendly contest we need, but together, we barely cross 200 million in strength.
It is perhaps not by chance that the leading endonyms also speak for a large part of the world's markets. Beyond 200 million, we have, in rank order (based on "native" speakers), Mandarin (850 million at most), English (430 million), Spanish (410 million), and Hindi (400 million and Urdu, to which it is conjoined, adds another 100 million to this number). Of note are Portuguese (200 million), Persian (200 million), Russian (160 million), German (85 million), French (80 million), Tamil (80 million), and Italian (70 million). Measured by native speakers worldwide, Bengali/Bangla is the seventh largest, and demands commensurate protection against the erosive effects of modernisation, particularly through the Internet, whose dominant global language is English, as well as in commerce.
If we hop, skip, and jump to the business market, we notice how (a) though many of these endonyms dominate, not all have a place at all in the higher echelons; (b) the ease with which even smaller endonyms have barged in; and (c) the business market is not just more than business but also more than endonym size.
An Alexika study shows that English accounts for slightly more than one-third of the gross world product (GWP)?synchronising proportionally with its global endonym population, followed by Japanese (8.1 per cent), Chinese (7.4 per cent), German (7.2 per cent), Spanish (6.8 per cent), French (6.5 per cent), Italian (4.1 per cent), Russian (3.7 per cent), Portuguese (3.1 per cent), and Arabic (3.1 per cent). We do not see Hindi/Urdu, and since, of the next five places, four belong to tiny endonyms (Dutch, Korean, Turkish, and Polish), each accounting for 1.0 per cent, we should be more than inspired to put Bengali/Bangla on that list.
How do we do so? Succinctly, by doing what we have shown how to do well: cohabiting, in this case, with English. Not only is it the language of our past colonial rulers, but it is a robust second-language for us as well, evident in how we love alliterating phrases/terms/names more than formally translating them, in our educational, legal, bureaucratic infrastructures, in the Internet revolution imposing English into so many receptive minds, and in our personal agenda, for example, our favourite book, sports team, tourist destination, music, movies, advertisements, and so forth.
One other area is in business itself. An overwhelming proportion of our export income and a large chunk of our remittances originate from the input of low-wage, Bangla-speaking citizens. Many of them learn or need English, and astutely cultivated, can become vehicles of Bengali/Bangla dissemination abroad through, for example, business ventures (like restaurants) of their own. Restaurants aside, since Bangladesh Bank has permitted non-resident Bangladeshis NRBs) to open up to three banks to mobilise remittances, all three were gobbled up by our Dubai and London expatriates: NRB Bank Limited (Dubai), NRB Commercial (Dubai), and NRB Global Bank (London).
This is fitting for an economy the World Bank values at 209 billion USD (nominal), the 44th largest in the world. Mohammed Fahad Ifaz, a World Bank IFC consultant, projected this economy capable of supporting 324 billion USD in start-ups, making it the 44th largest start-up country in gross domestic product - GDP (based on purchasing power parity - PPP), given infrastructure of sorts: organisational, financial, people-to-people, and in terms of impact.
Meshing such Bangladesh-based infrastructure with top-quality English may become as critical to our future as February 21, 1952 was to our identity.
If our independence shone a light on our Language Day martyrs, as we truly believe it did, then our RMG (ready-made-garment workers), remittance suppliers, tourists, NRB bankers, in fact, just about everyone interacting with foreign citizens will let the light shine on International Mother Language Day. We would really like one day to say to the world: endonymously yours?and endearingly so!
Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is Professor, International Relations, formerly Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.
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