Writing Sylheti in the Bengali script

When I saw the zeal in people’s hearts,
I made the effort to help them.
If I wrote out all the letters systematically,
with God’s help they could learn in one day.
I included the Bengali alphabet,
for the sake of those who know Bengali.
They can teach themselves using the Bengali letters,
though having a teacher would be helpful.
— Abdul Lotif. 1930. 'Pohela Kitab o Doikhura Rag', p14.

Abdul Lotif, author of the Siloṭi Nagri puthi 'Pohela Kitab o Doikhura Rag' ('A [Sylheti Nagri] Primer and Songs by Doikhura', a transcription and translation of which you can view here), wrote these words over 80 years ago. While Lotif is here referring to using the Bengali script in order to learn Siloṭi Nagri (for those who already know Bengali), it nevertheless illustrates two important points. Firstly, that Sylheti can be written in the Bengali script, and, second, that the the choice of Bengali characters used to represent Sylheti will be best achieved if that choice is made in reference to Siloṭi Nagri.

STAR is currently developing a transcription system for spoken Sylheti that is based on this second principle. The question here, however, is 'Why?' If Siloṭi Nagri best matches the phonology of spoken Sylheti, why write Sylheti in the Bengali script at all?

Why write Sylheti in the Bengali script?

There are at least two good reasons for writing Sylheti in the Bengali script. The first is pragmatic. Sylhetis educated in Bangladesh (and some of those educated in the UK) can already read and write Bengali. It is the national script, used to write the national language. For Sylheti authors wanting to write in Sylheti, their potential readership is immeasurably higher if they write in the Bengali script rather than writing in Siloṭi Nagri - potentially reaching a non-Sylheti readership as well.

But these things are rarely just pragmatic. For Bangladeshis, the Bengali script is much more than just another writing system. Indeed, language and script were key factors in the 1971 Liberation War that saw Bangladesh separate from Pakistan and become an independent nation. Ethnic and linguistic discrimination from the West had seen the rise of Bengali national sentiment in the East, and, in 1948, when Urdu was declared by General Jinnah to be the federal language of both West and East Pakistan (East Bengal, under the British Raj), the formation of the Bengali Language Movement was born. Ethnic Bengalis demanded that their language be given equal status alongside Urdu and English while they also protested the removal of the Bengali script from currency and stamps.

The situation came to a head in 1952, on February 21st, when police opened fire on protesting students and civilians, causing a number of deaths. February 21st has since come to be known in Bangladesh as 'Language Martyr's Day', and, in 1999, UNESCO declared this same date to be 'International Mother Tongue Day', chosen in honour of those students and civilians who were killed fighting for the right to protect Bengali as a national language. Bengali, then - both as a language and a script - is integral to Bangladeshi identity.

Now, while one could argue the same for Sylheti - indeed, that 'International Mother Tongue Day' should equally celebrate Sylheti as the mother-tongue of over 10 million Bangladeshis, a regional language with its own unique script - that does not minimise the importance of Bengali to the national consciousness. Therefore, a Sylheti speaker may choose to write Sylheti using the Bengali script, not just because of the pragmatic reason of having a larger potential readership, but also because Bengali is profoundly meaningful to them.

How to write Sylheti in the Bengali script

Due to STAR's aim of promoting Siloṭi Nagri literacy - so that as many people as possible can enjoy Sylheti folk literature in its original form - our alphabet books and primer have focused primarily on representing Sylheti in the Siloṭi Nagri script. However, the individual words in the alphabet books and the example sentences in the primer also show how Sylheti can be written in both Bengali and Roman scripts as well.

In addition to these publications, STAR is currently developing a transcription system that covers all three scripts which we hope to make available soon.

Watch this space!