Persian in Bengali.

Sarah Anjum Bari wrote for the Daily Star back in 2019 about a subject that interests me on a number of levels:

Think of some of the words we use most often in our daily lives in Bengali. The word for ‘pen’—kolom; the word for ‘sky’—asmaan; ‘river’—doria; ‘land’—jomeen. Think of the standardised farewell greeting of Khoda Hafez even among some non-Muslims in social situations, and the knowledge of most Muslim Bengalis of the Arabic script, even if they do not understand the language. Derived from Persian and Arabic origins, these words, expressions, and practices, among countless others, have become so deeply ingrained in Bengali that we seldom spare thought to their foreign lineage. But a glimpse into the history of these linguistic concoctions reveals just how porous and pulsating language can be, and how rich Bengali as become over the centuries as a result of travelling cultures.

As Suniti Kumar Chatterjee explains in The Origin and Development of the Bengali Language(1926), Bengali predates the age of the province of Bengal in pre-partition India, originally a part of the Eastern Indo-Iranian or Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. Having previously settled in Eastern Iran, Aryan speakers supposedly came to India around 1500 BC, when the first Vedic hymns are said to have been produced. Among the oldest references to Bengali include the ancient Brahmi script found in Ashokan rock edicts, the Bengali commercial and industrial works from the Kusana period mentioned in the Greek Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (1st century AD), Bengali place names found in inscriptions of old books from the first half of the 5th century AD, and a glossary of 300 words in a ‘scattered’ Sanskrit commentary on the Amara-kosa by Bengali Pandit Vandhya Ghatiya Sarvananda from around 1159 AD.

The Persian influence on Bengali dates back to the 13th century Turkish invasion of India. The year 1206 saw the migration of many Persian and Central Asian poets to India, resulting in the assimilation of Persian literary trends into the Indian cultural landscape. While the influence on the Delhi headquarters was particularly evident from the development of Urdu—a mixture of Hindi and Persian languages—its impact on Bengal stemmed from a number of sources over several centuries.

Firstly, the Muslim kings of the 15th and 16th centuries are said to have been “active patrons of Bengali literature”, according to Chatterjee, while the practices of the Sultan’s court are also said to have pushed Bengali chiefs into mastering Persian as part of their job. Secondly, the Iranians flocking into India, many of them Shia Muslims, settled in the (present-day Bangladeshi) cities of Murshidabad, Dhaka, and Hugli among others, and took up positions as Ulamas, teachers, and poets in Bengal, much like the Arab sea-traders who had entered through the ports of Chittagong earlier in the 8th century. The result was a growing popularity and eventual mythologisation of Persian tales among Bengali people—such as that of Laili and Majnu, Yusuf and Julekha, or the works of Ferdousi, Jami, and Nizami—and an absorption of Persian words into the Bengali language. Some 10,000 Bengali words came to be influenced by Persian, and around 5,000 were borrowed directly from Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Persian remained the official state language of Bengal for 600 years, until the British changed it to English around 1836.

This entry and eviction of Persian has been flagged for decades as milestone events in the development of the Bengali language. But it is the nature of the Persian impact, and not the fact of the impact itself, that contains a more intriguing message—a reminder of how language, human thought, and history operate. Afia Dil, in her article “Impact of Arabic Language on Bengali Language and Culture” (2012), singles out the Manasavijaya written by the poet Biprardas Piplai as “evidence of the influence of the language of the Muslim rulers” on Bengali. […] Dilalso mentions how 20 nouns out of the 40 words selected from this poem have Perso-Arabic origins, as well as other instances of ‘Dobhasi’ (duo-lingual) literature, including a Brahman poet’s work Chandimangalin 1589 (20 out 68 words Perso-Arabic), and Hindu poet DvijaGiridhar’s Satyapirerpachali from the 17th century (24 out of 39 selected words Perso-Arabic), among others. While the earlier example of Manasavijaya reflected the socio-cultural coexistence of Muslim practices among Bengali Hindus, these other duo-lingual works highlight how this coexistence trickled into the Bengali language, tying up Persian and Arabic words into the very fabric of Bengali, colouring its expressions, its phrases and sections of words in a gradual yet intricate pattern. When the British and Hindus sought to replace it with English 600 years later, the publication of the ‘Musulmani’ books proved just how deeply Persian and Arabic had infiltrated the Bengali language. […]

In his Introduction to The Origin and Development of the Bengali Language, Chatterjee recalls how, “A young generation of Musalman poets and prosateurs [were] […] transforming the stilted literary Bengali into a natural language […] and keeping true to its native spirit as a Sanskritic language”. Meanwhile, he adds, some Urdu-speaking Maulavis were also establishing a form of “Musalmani Bengali” that used Persianised language and retained the Bengali metre to tell adapted versions of Persian romances and other Muslim stories. The publications, of which 24,600 copies were printed for sale, included stories about the Prophet Muhammad’s life and family, biographies of other historical religious figures like Moses and Kaliph Omar, famous love stories, and other Islamic tracts and teachings, according to Abhijeet Ray in James Long’er Bangla Boier Shaatti Catalogue. A typical ‘Musalmani’ Bengali book (a five-page folio) was likely to have 31.74 percent of the words from Perso-Arabic descent, compared to 40 percent Persian words in an Urdu ghazal, according to Chatterjee. Most interestingly, unlike the regular Bengali books that open from right to left, many of these ‘Musulmani’ books still had a cover opening from right to left, but the text inside ran from the back page onwards. The pages, therefore, were numbered accordingly, meant to be turned from left to right the way the Qu’ranis read.

These stubborn remnants of Persian influence in the face of the British decree highlight the independent working mechanism of languages, which in turn influences the content of books published in a space. Regardless of the official ban on Persian as a state language, its influence on Bengali seems to have exerted much stronger control in the 18th-19th centuries, evolving from the periodic appearance of Muslim practices in Bengali works in the 15th century, to entire publications devoted to Muslim stories and teachings printed in the 19th century; from Muslim words and expressions nestled amidst Bengali vocabulary earlier, to an entire directional shift in the Bengali script later.

It pushes one to appreciate the dual dimensions of a book, particularly the ‘Musalmani’ books. On the one hand, these publications were a product, i.e. a direct result of the enduring influence of the Persian language on Bengali. They serve, therefore, as relics from which we can gather clues about the sociolinguistic forces that caused them. At the same time, they were tools through which Bengali Muslims under the British rule maintained a distinct identity through their published literature. Given that published books point towards a demand, a market for that literature, the popularity of these ‘Musulmani’ books in the 18th-19th centuries reveals how both writers and readers maintained a distinct Bengali Muslim identity during this time. Considered collectively, these messages contained in the Bengali ‘Musulmani’ books push us to think more critically about the books found from a certain space. We are reminded that nuances exist even within a single language, and that they contain a multiplicity of histories even within individual words and phrases.

I’ve been intrigued by Bengali ever since I studied it briefly a quarter of a century ago, I’ve been interested in the Persianate world since reading Marshall Hodgson (see this post, as well as Persianate India), and I always love cultural mashups. The more strands of history, culture, and language, the better! Hat tip to Slavomír Čéplö (bulbul)’s Facebook post.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve exploited this myself when interacting with Bengalis in Swansea*, knowing, alas, no Bengali at all; my Persian greetings seem to have been much appreciated.

    * A Swansea person with an Arabic name speaks Bengali until proven otherwise. It’s a pretty good heuristic for anybody who doesn’t actually work at the University or isn’t a medical doctor, anyhow.

  2. CuConnacht says

    Speaking of cultural mashups, kolom = pen will be from Arabic qalam, which is from Greek kalamos = reed, which also made its way into Latin and thence to English in the form calamari (because of the squid’s quill and its ink), calumet, and shawm.

  3. David Marjanović says

    …and cognate with German Halm, the singulative of “straw” or “grass” (stem, not blade).

  4. John Emerson says

    I think that Persian is definitely the most neglected of the great classical cultures. The battle of Marathon casts a long shadow. Persian was high on my list of languages to learn back when I had such a list.

  5. Yes, and it’s an easy language to learn (in its basics, obviously, not in the subtleties of polite discourse), and it’s got a great poetic heritage.

  6. Gavin Wraith says

    At school I had a friend whose deceased father had worked for an oil company in Persia, who gave me his books on Persian. I was fascinated to read about the use of pronominal clitics (asb-am = my horse, etc). As we studied Greek and Latin pretty heavily at school this was a window into the origin of how verb endings must have evolved. I acquired a copy of William Jones’s A Grammar of the Persian Language, published in 1775. In the introduction by way of recommendation it said that by learning Persian you may discourse with the Princes and Potentates of the East.

  7. Bengali must be the least widely studied language for its size by quite a margin. Last I checked it was in the top ten world languages by population, but when was the last time a book translated from Bengali attained international prominence – Tagore?

    A Swansea person with an Arabic name speaks Bengali until proven otherwise.

    Bengali, or Sylheti? (ducks)

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Sylheti (though, of course, people tell you that they speak Bengali.)

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Bengali seems to be the most prevalent South Asian language in the NYC area, and the only one that the New York State tax authorities have a webpage in Same is true for the city Elections Board, although the city public schools also have Punjabi and Urdu covered.

    I guess universities outside of South Asia either a) feel no need to offer instruction in a South Asian language (other than maybe Sanskrit for antiquarian purposes) because come on those people all speak English anyway or at least the ones we might want to talk to do; b) feel the need, but figure Hindi and/or Urdu is sufficient; and/or c) feel the need and think that in the interests of diversity Tamil should be the next one on the curriculum after Hindi and/or Urdu.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    I am struck by the phrase (in a quotation within the block quote) “Musalman poets and prosateurs,” because “prosateur” strikes me as a gratuitously obscure word for the context, and given the size of my own working vocabulary that takes some doing. Not only is it a rather undigested French loanword, wiktionary defines it specifically as meaning, in English, a writer of French prose rather than prose in any language, and one can find scholarly writing in English that seems consistent with that limitation. OTOH, there’s a poem by Robert Lowell in which he refers to Ford Maddox Ford (maybe sarcastically? I can’t tell …) as “the great Prosateur.”

    Maybe this is an instance of that phenomenon where a lexeme that is extremely weird-or-marginal in most varieties of English has for some contingent historical reason become more mainstream in Indian English?

  11. The OED (entry from June 2007) has a series of cites clearly establishing it as an English word; on the other hand, the first one (in brackets) will resonate with you:

    A prose writer; a stylist in prose, a specialist in prose style.

    [1728 E. Chambers Cycl. Pref. p. xxvi One of the most learned Men and greatest Critics of the last Age, M. Menage, incurr’d an infinite deal of Censure, for only endeavouring to introduce the single word Prosateur: and could not succeed in it, notwithstanding that a Word of that import was confessedly wanting in the French.]
    1796 I. D’Israeli Miscellanies 406 A litterateur is a man of letters, and a prosateur a writer of prose.
    1877 Galaxy Feb. 191/1 Balzac was the hardest and deepest of prosateurs; the earth-scented facts of life, which the poet puts under his feet, he had put above his head.
    1880 E. W. Gosse in Academy 4 Sept. 164 Shelley ceased to come before the world as a prosateur just as he began to do so seriously as a poet.
    1920 M. Cowley Let. 9 June in Sel. Corr. K. Burke & M. Cowley (1988) 73 We should have one or two poets, one or two prosateurs, a sculptor, a painter.
    1997 J. Davidson Courtesans & Fishcakes (1998) i. 30 Mighty Plato, a prince among prosateurs and the greatest authority for the strict Atticists.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I assume the 1796 and 1877 entries (like the 1728 one) are, by putting the word in italics, marking it as an undomesticated foreign word? Those seem like odd bits of evidence for the OED to use. I’m not saying the word is non-existent in English, but I’m saying it’s an extremely rare word to choose (at least outside of India?) when speaking or writing English even in the precise context where one wants to say “a writer of prose, as specifically contrasted with a poet.”

    The French female equivalent “prosatrice” seems to have found even less favor in English, but perhaps we should keep it in reserve for any occasions on which we may feel the need for an elegant alternative to “authoress” or “lady novelist” etc etc.

  13. the standardised farewell greeting of Khoda Hafez

    Since at least the early 2000s, as far as I can gather, Persian Khoda has been being replaced by Arabic Allah in this expression, not only in Urdu but also in Bengali, as a result of creeping Salafi and Deobandi influence. (One quote I stumbled upon in Quora in a discussion regretting this change: “Millions of Takas were spent by the towns, cities and villages to change their road signs at the entrances from Khuda Hafiz to Allah Hafiz.”) Here is an old article from 2003 written by Mahfuzur Rahman for the same Daily Star when this trend was getting underway. This seems like a topic that could have been discussed before on LH, but I could only find it touched on once, a few years ago.

  14. Those seem like odd bits of evidence for the OED to use.

    Odd? They’re vital. As you say, the progression from italics to roman shows the domestication of the word. And yes, it’s an odd word to use, but I’m glad to be reminded of it, since it’s more succinct than “writer of prose.” I may start trying to bring it back into use (outside of India).

  15. Hm. What about “prosifier”?


    A writer or maker of prose; a person who or thing which renders something dull or unpoetic.

    1788 A. Seward Lett. (1811) II. 12 The that’s, the which’s, the who’s, and the whom’s, are prosefiers,..injurious to the melody of verse.

    1970 New Literary Hist. 1 383 Another thirteenth-century prosifier of the Charlemagne material offers a more specific indictment of rhyme.
    1999 Washington Post (Nexis) 31 Jan. It was all about being someone like Greene, cutting a figure: a prosifier before breakfast, a flaneur in the afternoon, a clever dinner guest at night.
    2000 L. Venuti Transl. Stud. Reader 41 Burton speaks..of the ‘dry and business-like tone’ of the Arab prosifiers, in contrast to the rhetorical luxuriance of the Persians.

    … Which brings us back to Persian, huh, how about that.

    Wikitionary has Italian proseggiatore, (plural proseggiatori, feminine proseggiatrice)

  16. I don’t actually know Persian, but it occurred to me, looking up “Khoda”, that I heard somewhere the Persian term “Khodadad”, as a nickname/name meaning something like “gift from/of God”.

    EDIT: Behindthename Khodadad confirms my memory of the meaning, and my reconstructed transliteration.

    EDIT 2: There’s a comment on the behindthename entry:

    The pronunciation is XODA-dAd, where “x” stands for the unvoiced glottal sound, rendered in German or Scottish Gaelic with a “ch”.

    The Khoda part, meaning lord, is early Middle Persian khwad-tai, a reconstruct of Greek “auto-krator” meaning “self-doer”, hence “master, lord”.

  17. glottal sound”? In German, at least, the sound is velar or uvular (and the spelling ch can also stand for the palatal allophone).

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Very guttural languages the pair of them the Gaelic and the German.

    Hatters may appreciate my fellow-countryman Sirajul Islam talking (very briefly, alas) about Sylheti vs Bengali (in Welsh, naturally):

  19. Look, different people have different skills.

    Not everyone knows how to tell a phone.

  20. Roberto Batisti says


    I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered that. It’s clearly built after verseggiatore ‘writer of verse’ (often implying mere technical ability, as opposed to a true Poet — quite like Eng. versifier, if I’m not mistaken); but the usual word for prose-writer is prosatore.

Speak Your Mind