Last Sunday, a Polyglots member from Bangladesh, Tawsif, introduced me to his language and its beautiful script, Bangla (and please don’t call it ‘Bengali’, he bid us!), scribbling down for me in my notebook some basic Bangla words, a small sampling of its ornate, curvilinear vowel and consonant signs, along with some notes on the history and contemporary culture of Bangladesh and Pakistan, the exact list of the countries comprising the Indian subcontinent, and even brief mention of Hindi and Urdu, of Sanskrit and Pali!
Bangla is a descendant of Sanskrit, spoken in Bangladesh and in many parts of India. According to Wikipedia, its abugida script is “the 6th most widely used writing system in the world.”
I personally find this system complex and difficult to learn, yet elegant, visually appealing, and structurally similar to the Myanmar abugida I tried to learn earlier this year.
At first glance, the two scripts do not resemble each other at all. Nor do the two spoken languages share a common history.
Yet the similarities between the two writing systems didn’t surprise me too much. I had previously learned that they are both ultimately derived from the Brahmi script, the ancient abugida that gave rise to innumerable writing systems used today and yesteryear all throughout Asia, including the many scripts of India, the now obscure Kulitan script of the northern Philippines, and even the former Tibetan and Mongolian scripts often said to have informed and inspired the Hangul alphabet of modern Korea!
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Once Tawsif began to teach me some basic words and phrases, however, I could intuitively tell that, very much unlike the Myanmar language, which is of the Sino-Tibetan family, the Bangla language is indeed Indo-European, sharing some commonalities with even the Romance languages that we’ve all been learning about since high school.
Here are the basic words and phrases he taught me that day, romanized:
For me, the most obvious tells of kinship are that the word for ‘you’, “tumi’, starts with a [t]/[d] sound, and that the word for ‘no’ and ‘not’ starts with a [n] sound,“na”—pretty much like all the European languages that I’ve dabbled in so far:
tu, no/non/não : Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese
du, nein/nicht : German
thou, no/not : English
ты, нет/не [tyi, nyet, ne] : Russian
ti, ne : Croatian
This all makes me very curious to learn how the names of the Bangla numbers might or might not parallel those in these other languages!! I’ve always been fascinated—delighted!—by the patterns I found emerging from the names of numbers all across the disparate languages of the vast Indo-European family, from the Romance, Germanic, Hellenic, even Slavic branches.
Would I find these same uncannily familiar patterns in this most distant and unfamiliar language?
Might the Bangla word for ‘one’ start with a vowel or glide sound, like ‘uno’, ‘ena (ένα)’ or ‘jedna’? Do the Bangla ‘two’ and ‘three’ also start with [t]/[d]/[ts] sounds, like ‘due’, ‘dva/два’, ‘zwei’, and like ‘trois’, ‘tri/три’, ‘drei’, those same tongue-to-teeth sounds we’ve seen from the 2nd person singular pronouns, “tumi”, “tu”, and “du”? If we’re lucky, the word “ten” should also start with those denti-alveolar consonants, as in ‘dieci’, ‘desyat (десять)’, ‘deka (δέκα)’ or ‘zehn’!
I intend to investigate soon!
Until then, I wanted to share with you my delight at these modest finds. They are precursory, possibly trivial, perhaps revelatory only to myself. But I relished getting to know the unfamiliar and far-flung Bangla of Bangladesh, and to gain a sense of kinship and connection to it is an extra, unanticipated treat. How exciting it is to ponder at the little secrets and riddles that richly speckle our cultures, our languages, hinting at the astonishing and immense interconnection of our shared human histories.
What about you? What unexpected resemblances between languages have you encountered? What patterns have you discovered in your language studies?
Dhonnobad Tawsif, for such an illuminating lesson!