So, I’ve been here before. I try to learn a South-Asian language and really struggle with a few key aspects, and then summarily give up. This happened to me on a couple of occasions when trying to learn Hindi, but finally one day the mental block began to dissipate; the issues that were stopping me from moving forward – difficulty distinguishing between retroflex consonants and their dental equivalents for example, or remembering what sometimes feels like thousands of conjunct consonants- just ceased to bother me, and as a result I learnt Hindi rapidly.
I have no clue why this didn’t happen the first time I tried to learn Bengali. The writing system is similar, the phonological system is actually simpler than that of Hindi-Urdu, and the conjunct characters form in a similar manner. Whatever the issue was, it went to shit.
But not this time honey, oh no. Daddy is absolutely burning through his Bengali textbooks and all of a sudden is not just reciting dialogues between a fruit-seller and fruit-buyer, oh no, he is reading literature written in shadhu bhasha, the prestige register of formal written Bengali.
Imma give you a rundown of what’s going on in Bengali so you can get a taste of how it works, and maybe also get a taste of how it is now tied in first place with Russian as my favourite language.
Today, the writing system- Bengali uses a script that is derived from Sanskrit and divides the alphabet into groups of consonants based on phonological principles.
For example, there is a group of labial consonants. In this category we have a nasal (m ম), an unvoiced stop (p প), an unvoiced aspirated stop (ph ফ), a voiced stop (b ব) and a voiced aspirated stop (bh ভ). Each set of consonants has one of each! It’s a very cool system and a testament to just how into phonics the ancient Vedic grammarians were.
Sadly, not many language texts teach learners to acquire the alphabet this way, which I do think would pay dividends. It’s a bit tricky and involves learning a bit about phonetics theory, but I do think that I have a much easier time learning South-Asian languages because I have been through this little process.
One other feature of Bengali that it shares with neighbouring Indo-Iranian languages to the West is that the alphabet is an abugida. That means that each letter has an inherent vowel sound attached to it. In Hindi for example, the letter क is not simply k, but rather ka; in Gujarati જ is not just j, but ja.
Bengali bucks this trend though, and instead of a, the inherent vowel is a soft o. Now this may sound like a small difference, but for someone who is coming to Bengali having learned Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati and Nepali- Indo-Iranian languages which all have an inherent a in their consonants- it took me a very long time to internalise that inherent o.
Bengali actually has a few other peculiarities that I took my time in overcoming. For example, Sanskrit distinguishes between three sibilant fricatives: स (dental), श (palatal) and ष (retroflex). In Bengali these three consonants still exist as স, শ and ষ, BUT they are all pronounced the same, palatally, like श in Hindi, and sh in sherbet. This of course in reality makes things much easier, but it was still an annoying habit that I had to purge from myself.
One other problem of nature, which serves as a great jumping off point to start discussing conjunct characters, is the fact that one of the most common conjuncts in Sanskrit, ksh क्ष, which has become ক্ষ in Bengali, is pronounced simply as k. Another pretty common consonant cluster is ক্ষ্ম which should in theory be pronounced kshm, like Lakshmi, but in Bengali the sh is absorbed by the k which becomes geminated and the m disappears altogether. This, along with the fact that Bengali’s inherent vowel is o rather a, means that the Hindu deity called Lakshmi in Sanskrit, is called Lokki in Bengali (লক্ষ্মী).
Now the conjunct characters- the aforementioned system whereby each consonant also has an inherent vowel attached to it means that, by and large, on occasions when two consonants appear together with no vowel separating them, a special reduced form of the letter needs to be drawn, fusing it with the second consonant. Conjuncts can contain up to five consonants in Sanskrit, but most common have just two in Bengali, with a minority of triples and quadruples existing, particularly in tatsama (words integrated into Bengali from Classical Sanskrit).
Doubled consonants are common in many languages, and they appear in Bengali too. Let’s take a look at how different shapes on consonant meld together to form geminates (doubles):
First we see the letter d দ, which when followed immediately by another দ with no vowel in between tags the second দ right onto the end, becoming দ্দ! I am not a fan of the letter দ as I feel it lacks the cursive elegance of other Bengali letters, but I can’t deny my fondness of the double দ্দ.
The letter ম (mo) has a miniature form which attaches to the second consonant in a conjunct. This is not just the case with double m (ম্ম), but when ম m precedes other letters, like in ম্প (mp), ম্ব (mb), ম্ল (ml) or ম্ভ (mbh).
Some letter, among them l ল and n ন, attach two slightly miniaturised versions of the letter to the same stem in order to indicate gemination: ল্ল, ন্ন. Other letters which do this are k ক, g গ, and p প, which become ক্ক, গ্গ and প্প.
Lastly we see two more unusual and unpredictable conjuncts. When the letter t ত is doubled, they both attach to one another and one of them flips to form the conjunct ত্ত. Equally unpredictable is what happens when the retroflex ṭ ট is doubled, and all that appears to change is a small tail is added to the single letter ট্ট.
Now let’s look at the other conjuncts, which don’t involve doubling.
The letter b ব has a rather cute mini-form that can be stuck onto the side of the second letter in the conjunct like an adorable little barnacle: ব্জ (bj), ব্দ (bd), ব্ধ (bdh).
The letter r র, as it is one of the most common letters to appear in a conjunct in all Indo-Iranian languages, has a special curtailed form. When it is the first letter, it appears as a diagonal dash over the top of the second letter, as we see when r র precedes sh ষ it is reduced to a dash: র্ষ.
That letter sh ষ also takes on a rather different form, almost mutating back to the Sanskrit letter ष from which it originates when it forms conjuncts: ষ্ট (shṭ), ষ্ঠ (shṭh), ষ্ফ (shph), ষ্ক (shk).
The letter y য় is also relatively common to see in a reduced form, which is a wavy line falling from the top bar to the bottom, and its inclusion in a conjunct often has an impact on the subsequent vowel. Its form is always the same when the second element in a conjunct: ত্য (ty), চ্য (cy),প্য (py).
I included the conjunct ঞ্ছ just to show that sometimes the conjunct form does not necessarily follow any logic, but simply consists of mushing together the two or more letters to form a recognisable glyph.
Lastly this list includes some triple conjunct just to show how complex they can end up. There are relatively few of these, and they are not common, so learning them is not a huge ball-ache. Note the small wiggle attached to the bottom of a letter when r র is the second letter in the conjunct, like in ন্দ্র (ndr).