I am sharing some notes from a seminar I delivered in 2001 on ‘Is Sylheti a language?’ as a contribution to the debate generated by the MyLondon article, ‘The East London man ‘who’s been threatened with death’ for trying to revive a language’, (20/1/2022) (The East London man ‘who’s been threatened with death’ for trying to revive a language – MyLondon .
Is Sylheti a language? An analytical and political consideration
Dr Muhammad Ahmedullah, 4 February 2001, Brick Lane Circle seminar
Most Bangladeshis in the UK originate from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh. They mostly speak the local Sylhet regional language, in addition to English, of course, and have a strong sense of Sylheti identity. Sometimes the strong Sylheti identity is experienced as a sub-element of Bengali or Bangladeshi identity and sometimes some Sylheti people feel it is something different. Some Sylheti people feel Sylheti is a language in its own right while others treat Sylheti local language as a dialect of Bengali and not a language in its own right. Over the years, in Britain, issues of Sylheti language and identity and Bangla language and identity have focused many people’s minds, in various ways, often causing some discomfort. However, in recent times, it appears that the Bangladeshi community in the UK is evolving in a way that these issues are gradually becoming less emotional.
My paper, at a Brick Lane Circle seminar, called ‘Is Sylheti a language? An analytical and political consideration’ was in response to an article written by Syed Badrul Ahsan in Dhaka Courier on 8/12/2000, where he alleged that certain conspiracies were being hatched in London to undermine Bangla by promoting the idea that Sylheti was a language. But before I took the final decision to present a paper on the subject, I had to consider whether this issue was serious enough in London to warrant a seminar discussion. In my mind, in the light of certain recent developments in the world regarding identity and language issues, there was no doubt that issues to do with language, language nationalism, standardisation of language and local dialects, particularly concerning Bangladesh, should be explored and better understood.
I thought that a greater understanding of the complex dynamics of language issues in people’s lives was needed if we want to shape future language developments to facilitate better communication, improve harmony and promote the richness of human experiences, cultures and history. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in a situation where certain events overtake our ability to control and shape our future, which may result in consequences that none of us want. Recent developments in the Balkans should awaken us to the need to understand the variety of ways that language affects our lives so that its potential negative consequences can be addressed in time by harnessing the positive possibilities.
I was puzzled at the panicky response of Syed Badrul Ahsan as I could not see any negative developments in London that could be described as sinister or conspiratorial. I also could not understand the real logic behind his concerns and suggestions as to how to stop, according to him, certain conspiracies that were being hatched in London to promote the idea that Sylheti was a separate language from Bangla. His view was that the language of Bangladesh was Bangla and that Sylheti was a local dialect, and therefore, he suggested that intellectuals and the Bangladesh government should confront the conspiracy being hatched in London by nipping its bud.
Before I proceed to discuss the subject, I would like to share another experience. In the early 1990s the Centre for Bangladesh Studies, (I think it was part of Queen Mary College), organised the launch of a publication called ‘Routes of Identity’ at the Jagonari Centre. The main purpose of the event was to celebrate success within the UK Bangladeshi community and encourage the development of their confidence so that they realise that they are not destined to remain at the bottom and can succeed in this country. The second purpose was to explore how the concept of identity was developing among the new generations. There were some school children at the launch, which was also very well attended by a variety of local stakeholders.
One of the school pupils, perhaps he was thirteen or fourteen, got up during the question and answer session and said that in Bangladesh there were three types of people – ‘Bangalis’, ‘Noakhalis’ and ‘Sylhetis’ and that he was a Sylheti. As a Sylheti, he did not want to learn Bangali at school, because his mother tongue was Sylheti. He wanted Sylheti to be taught in schools. Anne Sofer, the Director of Education in London Borough of Tower Hamlets at the time, was asked to respond. She said that she did not know how this could be done as Sylheti was not a written language, but that she would explore this possibility with her officers and members of the community.
An Analytical consideration
I shall undertake this consideration through an exploration of definitions of what constitutes a language and what constitutes a dialect and apply them consistently. As this is an analytical consideration it is not necessary to undertake any historical or empirical research to find the answer. As human beings, we can decide by developing definitions and applying them consistently. Second, I will undertake a theoretical analysis of the role of language in human life and how the development of language occurs. This will help throw some light on the dynamic possibilities of languages and dialects.
John Locke’s Theory of Language
Language is the making use of verbal and written symbols called words to represent and communicate ideas. Words are combined within a particular grammatical structure to connect a set of ideas to express thoughts, give instructions, etc. This means that the sound that we utter or the written symbols that we apply to represent ideas are arbitrary. Easily a different symbol than the current one could be used to represent a particular idea. However, to appreciate this theory better, it is necessary to understand how ideas are generated and created. Our ideas are generated by our minds by combining different ideas received from our five senses of the external world. Once we have ideas in our minds, we can combine them in any way we like and continue this until forever to generate new ideas, which may be either imaginary or real. This means that as our ideas are based on our particular experiences, the meanings of our symbols within a particular language are also unique and culture-specific. Further, although the symbols are arbitrary, because they have become over time intimately linked to particular culture-specific ideas, they become inseparable to the ideas and act as carriers of the collective experiences of a particular people from one generation to another. This also means that as linguistic symbols represent ideas derived from the experiences of a group of people over time, the meanings are not interchangeable between different languages. From this, we get the idea that a piece of writing in one language cannot be fully translated into another language.
Karl Popper’s Theory of Language
The development of human thought is intimately linked to the development of human language. Human language consists of the following elements: self-expression, signalling, descriptive, and argumentative. Human beings share the first two elements with animals, but the last two are uniquely human. Descriptive elements enable human beings to describe their experiences or a conjectured explanation of a natural phenomenon, for example. When the description is formulated linguistically, it is there for others to look at and see whether they agree with it – in other words, interact with it critically – and if not then argue against it or put alternative versions. The criticisms and disagreements are formulated linguistically, and the process of descriptions, arguments, and counter-descriptions continues as long as human beings are alive. Through this process human thoughts get refined, their understanding of the world improves, their application of knowledge to build civilization gets better, and human language develops to provide expressions to new ideas, knowledge, and experiences. In turn, linguistically formulated expressions of the creativity of human thought allow others to interact with them, develop their thoughts further, and formulate them linguistically. Attempts made to formulate one’s ideas in a written language itself helps improve human thought as the process helps clarify one’s thought, and also that an individual who formulates his or her thought can then interact with it.
Written languages allow greater scope for the creative process than non-written languages, which means that in comparison to a non-written language, those who practice a written language have a vastly greater chance of developing their imaginative capacities and thought processes. Language development occurs through the development of human thought and imagination. New words are coined and new expressions are constructed to express new ideas and thoughts. This means that for people to be effective in competing in today’s world, they will have to engage in activities in written languages. If their language is not written, either they will have to produce a written version or use another written language. Sylhetis, for example, currently use three different written languages to live their life – standard Arabic, standard Bengali and standard English. They do not practice any form of written Sylheti. This means that although non-written languages are also languages they are limited in their scope as compared to written languages. Even if non-written languages are often described as dialects, nevertheless, they are still languages. Maybe they can be described as dialect languages, rather than assert that non-written languages are not languages.
A Political Consideration
This consists of exploring the implications of deciding whether a local dialect is a language. Political decisions are really about how things should be to shape the present to achieve a certain end in the future, short-term and long-term. In other words, it is about influencing the real to achieve an ideal. An ideal is usually shaped by a perception of the real, in terms of either changing the real because it is not desired or building on the real because it needs further development.
In terms of whether one concludes that Sylheti is a language the answer often depends on an analysis of the consequences of the decision. Some factors in the consideration are:
- As languages often play an important role in dividing people and providing fuel to separatism and nationalism, accepting Sylheti to be a language would set this on a collision course with the idea that Bengali is a homogenous language of all the Bengali speaking people, which includes Sylhetis.
- If Sylheti becomes recognised as a language it may cause a problem for communication between the people of Bangladesh living in different regions of the country, because the focus on learning standardised Bangla may decline within the Sylheti community.
- As other reasons are usually behind language controversies, such as economic exploitation or political and cultural domination, addressing the underlying issues would deal with potential conflicts arising out of the recognition and development of Sylheti as a language.
- It is essential to recognise Sylheti as a language on its own even if it destroys the idea of Bengali homogeneity because this is the truth and preserving and developing local languages are as important as protecting the biodiversity of rainforests.
- Local language should be protected and developed to ensure the continuation of cultural experiences and preserving the heritage of different communities – otherwise with an increase in the use of the standard language the role and scope for local and regional languages will progressively diminish and they may even become extinct in the future. This will be a great cultural loss of humanity.
The positives and negatives of recognising that a local/regional variation in tongue is a language.
- Gain status and potentially, in the near future, may become near equal to the standard language
- Recognition of the right to feel different as a community based on a language
- Right to cultivate and develop one’s own local language
- No reason to feel inferior when speaking in one’s mother tongue
- Can take priority over other languages
- Destroys the homogeneous claim of the standardised language, within the Bangladeshi context
- May support nationalistic tendencies, divisions and separatism
- The potential future political problem as a nation-state
The positives and negatives of not recognising that a local/regional variation in tongue is a language
- The homogenous sense of the Bengali language remains intact
- No separatism based on separate language, culture and ethnicity can develop with justification
- Cannot justify its development as a separate language
- May make one feel inferior and shameful to speak in one’s mother tongue
- Mother tongue and local experiences are not valued
- Pressure to give up the dialect for the sake of unity, progress and development.
- Does not have the right to develop
- Linguistic snobbery remains acceptable
- May be allowed to decline and die for the sake of the wider nation-building
The above discussion shows that when deciding whether Sylheti or indeed any local/regional mother tongue was a language, usually, people in power try to consider the wider political and ideological implications. However, when seeking the truth then one must strictly and objectively follow the course to arrive at the right conclusions, without political or any other consideration. As such the right conclusion is that dialects cannot be compared with and categorised as something completely different from human languages.
Standardised written languages and non-standardised unwritten languages are also languages. The main difference between them is that while one is written and is formal rule-bound the other is non-written and without any strict formal rules. As such the standardised written versions of languages are usually more developed, dynamic and expressive due to the greater levels of input made into the language by creative minds and interactions with the language by a greater diversity of people through poetry/story writing/reading, science literature, political writings, cookbooks, etc. Localised regional unwritten languages are, in contrast, comparatively less expressive and have limited creative outputs of people who can engage with them and help their creative developments.
If one wants to call Sylheti a dialect of Bangla then one should also understand that dialects are also languages, which human beings use to communicate with each other and involve the complexity of their shared life, within a given geographical region. Dialects are not non-languages; they are languages and can be described as dialect language.