Bengali is a language spoken by some 260 million people in Bangladesh and Northern India. It’s an Indo-European language, meaning that it’s (remotely) related to English, but it’s closer to other Indo-Aryan languages spoken in the region, such as Hindi, and even more so to languages such as Assamese.
But how old is the Bengali language? The first language referred to as “Bengali” developed from Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakit some 1000 to 1500 years ago, but the period of the Sultanate of Bengal changed it significantly. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Bengali had developed further into a formal, written language and a spoken, colloquial language which is quite different.
But let’s dig a little deeper and have a look at the different periods that led to the Bengali language we know today.
The Break From Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakit
So how old is Bengali?
To say for sure, we need to decide when the language spoken in Begal could actually be defined as “Bengali”. The development of the language was, after all, gradual, and the Bengali language spoken today has been changing constantly for thousands of years.
3000 years ago, Sanskrit was the main language spoken in Bengal by the Hindus, whereas Buddhists spoke a related language called Magadhi Prakit.
Gradually, Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakit evolved in the region, and 2000 years later, around the year 1000, the two languages had formed the Eastern branch of the Indo-Aryan languages of which Bengali was part. Some people argue, that Bengali, along with other languages of the Eastern branch actually formed 500 years prior, but many of the medieval sources that could testify this are gone today.
This means that the first manifestation of the Bengali language came into being between the years 500 and 1000, making it between 1000 and 1500 years old.
It is, however, unlikely that a modern-day Bengali speaker would understand the Bengali language spoken over 1000 years ago. This is mainly due to the fact that Bengali underwent a lot of changes in the following centuries.
Arabic And Persian Influences On Bengali
In the period from the 1400s to the 1800s, the Bengali language adopted a lot of Persian, Arabic, and even Turkic loan words. This was partly due to Bengali being made a language of the court of the Bengali Sultanate, which was the Muslim rulers in the region at the time.
The fact that Bengali was the chosen “local” language of the occupiers also meant that the Bengali language became more and more widespread all throughout the region of Bengal from the 15th century and onward.
The period of the Sultanate of Bengal also saw a great movement in the development of Bengali literature and a great many literary works were produced in this time period.
Modern Bengali And Diglossia
During the last two centuries, Bengali has continued evolving, but due to conservative linguistic movements and perhaps, in part, because of the rich, literary tradition, written Bengali has stayed relatively unchanged in this period.
This has meant that Modern Bengali has two somewhat different variants – a spoken, vernacular form called Chôlitôbhasha, (চলিতভাষা ) and a written form, closer to the classic texts, called Sadhubhasha (সাধুভাষা).
Because of the relatively static and unchanged “classical” form of Bengali, one could argue that the written language of today has remained unchanged for about 200 years.
Compared to other languages, this wouldn’t be the right way of correctly dating the Bengali language, however.
Conclusion: How Old Is The Bengali Language?
The language spoken in the region of Bengal is generally referred to as a form of Bengali from the 5th to the 11th centuries. Before this period, linguists consider the spoken languages in the region forms of Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakit.
This means that the first form of Bengali is between 1000-1500 years old.
Here’s another article you might be interested in: How Old Is The Hindi Language