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SOUTH ASIAN LANGUAGE REVIEW

VOL. XV. No. 1. January 2005.

Language in Urban Society:


Kolkata and Bengali
Aditi Ghosh
University of Kolkata

Abstract. In this age of urbanisation, life in metropolis


demonstrates great converging tendencies. Every city is
home to several intersecting communities where linguistic
and cultural boundaries are increasingly eroded. In the
context of India, where multilingualism is a way of life in
big cities, the situation is even more interesting. At times,
the foreign communities outnumber the native in such
cities. What status do the native languages occupy in such
cases? Do they still remain the dominant language Languages of preferred use for everyday communication?
Or, do they lose that position to the most dominant nonnative language? In an attempt to find answer to these
questions, this paper studies the scenario in Kolkata, one of
the major metropolises in South Asia. It surveys a section
of the residents whose native languages are different from
Bengali and tries to measure their language usage and
language attitude towards the three major languages
Bengali, Hindi and English.

1.

Introduction

In todays age of rapid urbanisation, each metropolis attracts


numerous linguistic communities and in few places is the contact
more varied than in India which is home to a vast number of
languages. Fallout of such linguistic melange can be manifold and
of immense importance. Studies of diaglossia, patterns of code
switching, code mixing and linguistic allegiance may point towards
the present status and future scenario of one or more languages is
such setting. Martinet in the preface to Languages in Contact by
Weinreich (1963) writes The coexistence of two, at times
conflicting sets of linguistic habits, the one a prestigious language,

52 Language in Urban Society: Kolkata and Bengali

the other a despised patois, may have important repercussion of the


linguistic history of that part of the world
There are cases of linguistic and cultural assimilation, where one
language or culture is influenced by the more dominant ones.
Crystal (2005:56) opines that such dominance can result in three
broad stages of development. First, there is immense pressure on
people to speak the dominant language. This pressure can be of two
types: the top-down pressure in form of recommendations or
government incentives etc or the bottom-up pressure in form of
fashionable trends or peer group pressure. In the second stage there
is a period of bilingualism, people becoming increasingly efficient
in the new language. This is followed by the third stage where the
younger generation becomes more and more proficient in the new
language and starts identifying with. And this is often accompanied
by a feeling of shame about the use of old language both by young
and adults. Outside home children stop talking to each other in the
old language and within a generation sometimes within a decade
a healthy bilingualism within a family can slip into a self
conscious semilingualism which places language one step
closer to extinction (Crystal 2005:57).
Keeping these various consequences of multilingualism in mind,
it would be interesting to study the linguistic dynamics of the thee
major languages spoken in Kolkata: Bengali, English and Hindi.
According to some recent surveys the population of Native Bengali
speakers residing in Kolkata is less about 45%. Other metropolis in
the country where the native language is not Hindi would probably
show similar results. Under such circumstances, it would be
interesting to see which language is the language of prestige, which
is the language of preferred use and which language is language of
need. To arrive at answers to these questions, I have conducted a
questionnaire survey among a cross section of residents of Kolkata
whose mother tongue is not Bengali.

2.

Aim and Methodology of the Survey

This survey targets the majority non-native Bengali speaker, who


are residing permanently in the city (i.e., for at least 10 years).
Their use of the language, confidence or fluency in using them,

Aditi Ghosh

53

their opinion and attitudes may reveal a thing or two about the
status of Bengali as a language in its homeland.
100 copies of a language questionnaire were distributed to
informants with a request to complete and return them. In case of
informants who are not very conversant with English, the surveyor
interviewed them. Altogether 74 of them responded.

2.1 The Questionnaire


The aim was to create a simple, concise and easy to complete
questionnaire that consists mainly of questions with multiple-choice
answers and the informant would have to do little more than tick
the appropriate option. It is designed to gather information about
their background, fluency and ability to read or write, use of
Bengali in various contact situations, involvement in cultural
programmes in Bengali, confidence in using the language, and their
opinion and attitudes towards use of Bengali in Kolkata.
The first section of the questionnaire concerns the background of
the informant; mother tongue, length of stay in Kolkata, occupation,
age, sex and highest qualification. The answer to the questions
could be ranged in subsets depending on these variables.
The next section concerns about the Bengali proficiency in their
family. The proficiency is ranged in five degrees from fluent to
none. The questionnaire also tries to find out the use of Bengali in
contact situations: at home school/ college/ workplace and other
situations. These again are divided in different domains to find out
the cases of code switching.
The third question is directed to find out how confident they are
in using Bengali in different situations.
The three consequent sets of questions gather information about
their reading and writing ability and involvement in Bengali
cultural programmes.
The last section consists of 20 questions directed to find out the
language attitude and opinion of this community:
their opinion
about the utility of Bengali in Kolkata, followed by four questions
to find out their language preferences and inclination. Fifth question
tries to find out whether there is any cultural motivation in favour
of the language. Four more questions follow up to find out the
usefulness of Bengali in comparison with two other important

54 Language in Urban Society: Kolkata and Bengali

languages in Kolkata: Hindi and English. Six questions are


designed to find out the extent of use of Bengali language in contact
with Bengali Native speakers. The last question is about the attitude
towards multilingualism.

2.2 Detail of the informants


Among the 74 informants 56% are Hindi speakers. However, it
must be mentioned that some speakers of these languages insisted
that theirs is a separate language from Hindi. A 80year old lady
insisted that the language she speaks is Marwari and that she is
unable to understand of speak Hindi. Others belonging to the same
linguistic group mentioned Hindi as their mother tongue. Other
linguistic groups are Gujarati, Punjabi, Oriya, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu,
Malayalam, Nepali and one respondent each from Chinese and
English (Gujarathi 4%, Punjabi 8%, Oriya 10%, Urdu 3%, Chinese
1%, English 1%, Nepali 3%, Tamil 1%, Telugu 8%, Malayalam
5%). Occupation, age-group, sex and the educational qualification
of the sample are as follows:
Table 1 Details of the Sample
OCCUPATION

AGE
SEX

EDUCATION

Student
Housewife
Employed
Business/selfemployed
< 20
20-40
>40
Male
Female
Under-graduate
Graduate
Post-graduate and
above

32%
13%
45%
10%
23%
41%
36%
53%
47%
53%
19%
28%

Aditi Ghosh

55

3.

Over all Results

This section presents statistics on 7 of the questions posed to the


informants.
1.

Which member(s) of your family are able to speak Bengali?

Mother
Father
Spouse
Sibling
Son
Daughter
Grand parent
Grand child
2.

Fluent
17%
39%
50%
31%
40%
34%
10%
11%

Quite well
22%
26%
15%
18%
17%
24%
19%
11%

Some
6%
8%
15%
14%
11%
15%
0%
0%

A little
20%
8%
10%
21%
6%
3%
29%
22%

None
35%
19%
10%
16%
26%
24%
42%
56%

How often do you speak Bengali in the following situations?

a) At Home with:
All the time
Mother
1%
Father
2%
Sibling
4%
Servants
51%
Other
8%

Often
6%
5%
5%
13%
30%

Sometimes
17%
18%
18%
20%
31%

b) At school/ college/ workplace, with:


All the time
Often
Teachers (B)
16%
26%
Teachers (O)
0%
10%
Colleagues (B)
24%
54%

Never
76%
75%
73%
16%
31%

Sometimes
10%
17%
15%

Never
48%
73%
7%

Colleagues (O)
Classmates (B)

6%
37%

8%
19%

25%
25%

61%
19%

Classmates (O)
Boss/authority (B)
Boss/ Authority (O)
Client (B)
Client (O)

0%
51%
15%
35%
0%

0%
18%
19%
40%
24%

38%
13%
12%
5%
18%

62%
18%
54%
20%
58%

56 Language in Urban Society: Kolkata and Bengali

C) In other situations:
With acquaintances
With Bengali friends
With non-Bengali
friends
With a taxi driver etc.

All the
time
12%
51%
5%

Often

Sometimes

Never

19%
14%
9%

44%
23%
25%

25%
12%
61%

26%

22%

34%

18%

In a local shop
Shopping complex

38%
21%

22%
17%

35%
35%

5%
27%

Restaurant
Bank
Local hospital
Party/ Gathering

16%
25%
37%
14%

15%
25%
21%
19%

27%
25%
28%
36%

42%
25%
14%
31%

(B = People with Bengali as mother tongue; (O)= non-Bengali speakers)

3.

How confident are you in using Bengali in the following


situations?
Very
Fairly
Not very
Not at all
With parents
33%
16%
9%
42%
With siblings
34%
14%
20%
32%
With servants
28%
13%
7%
52%
With friends
43%
30%
15%
12%
In shops
45%
36%
12%
7%
In banks
40%
39%
6%
15%
In restaurant
44%
31%
10%
15%
In workplace
48%
27%
12%
13%
Place of study
43%
19%
14%
24%
In party/ gatherings
45%
28%
8%
19%
With a taxi-driver etc.
51%
31%
9%
9%
4.

Do you watch/enjoy the followings?


Always Often
Bengali films
15%
13%
Bengali theatre
5%
9%
Other cultural events in
7%
21%
Bengali
Bengali songs
14%
16%
Bengal TV programmes
7%
13%

Sometimes
44%
28%
45%
46%
42%

Never
28%
58%
27%
24%
38%

Aditi Ghosh

5.

Do you read the following in Bengali?

Letters from friends


Novels/stories/
fiction
Non-fiction
Magazines
Newspapers
Other
6.

57

Always
3%
3%

Often
9%
6%

Sometimes
14%
20%

Never
74%
71%

3%
4%
7%
3%

2%
4%
7%
2%

8%
16%
22%
28%

87%
76%
64%
67%

Do you write or complete the following in Bengali?


Always

Letters to family
Letters to friends
Other documents
7.

3%
4%
1%

Often
3%
4%
7%

Someti
mes
4%
6%
15%

Never
90%
86%
77%

Do you agree with the following statements?

Being able to speak Bengali


is an advantage in Kolkata
I like speaking Bengali
I prefer using my mother
tongue whenever possible
I prefer using English
whenever possible
I prefer using Hindi
whenever possible
Bengali provides a wide
range of aesthetic
experience in literature/
culture
Bengali is less useful than
English in Kolkata
One can do without Bengali
in Kolkata, if he/she has a
good knowledge of Hindi

Strongly
agree

Mostly
agree

60%

24%

Neither
agree /
disagree
10%

31%
51%

45%
27%

20%
20%

4%
2%

39%

26%

15%

20%

41%

39%

18%

2%

40%

33%

23%

4%

4%

23%

34%

39%

27%

29%

19%

25%

Disagree
6%

58 Language in Urban Society: Kolkata and Bengali

Bengali is absolutely
unavoidable in Kolkata
I would feel embarrassed if I
could not speak Bengali in
Kolkata
With Bengali native
speakers, I mostly converse
in Bengali
With Bengali native
speakers, I mostly converse
in Hindi.
With Bengali native
speakers, I mostly converse
in English.
Bengali native speakers
mostly converse in Bengali
with me.
Bengali native speakers
mostly converse in Hindi
with me.
Bengali native speakers
mostly converse in English
with me.
Speaking in more than one
language is great

20%

19%

22%

39%

29%

18%

19%

34%

49%

18%

19%

14%

12%

13%

30%

45%

8%

12%

26%

54%

39%

24%

27%

10%

7%

19%

34%

40%

4%

24%

34%

38%

84%

11%

5%

0%

4.

Trends

Among parents fathers (65% fluent+ Quite well) in general are


much more fluent than mothers (55% a little + none).
As expected at home domain Bengali is practically not used
except for conversation with servants (63% all the time + often).
In school/ work place Bengali is less utilized in conversation
with Bengali Teachers (58% sometimes+ never). While in
workplace it is utilized by 78% (all the time+ often) with Bengali
Colleagues.
In other circumstances use of Bengali is almost uniformly
distributed, except for while speaking with Friends. Most of them
(51% all the time) use it while speaking with Bengali Friends and
not (61% never) while speaking with friends having other mother
tongues.

Aditi Ghosh

59

A very high percentage does not use it in Restaurants 69%


(sometimes +never).
Most of them are confident in using Bengali. (this may
demonstrate the mastery of language, but confidence without
adequate knowledge may reflect the lack of prestige attached to the
language. It may be noted that highest case noticed in case of
conversation with servants)
Not many enjoy Bengali cultural event. Though Bengali films
(15% always) and Bengali songs (14% always) score slightly
higher
Most of them cannot read or write Bengali very well.
Most (60% strongly agree) agree that being able to speak
Bengali is an advantage in Kolkata.
They prefer to speak in their mother tongue (51% strongly agree)
or Hindi (41%) in comparison to Bengali (24% strongly agree).
Most agree that Bengali provide a wide range of cultural and
aesthetic experience (40% strongly agree, and 33% dont want have
any view on the subject.
39% strongly disagree that Bengali is unavoidable in Kolkata,
27% strongly feel that having a good knowledge of Hindi would
mean that they can do without Bengali in Kolkata.
34% will not feel embarrassed if they did not know Bengali in
Kolkata.
Most confirm that conversations with Bengali native speakers
are conducted in Bengali (49% strongly agree that they converse in
Bengali, 39% strongly agree that Bengali native speakers speak in
Bengali with them).
A very strong percentage 84% considers that the ability to speak
in more than one language is great which reflect a general
appreciation towards multilingualism.

5.

Limitations

Since the size of the sample is not big enough, relationship


between various subsets were not sought, though it could reveal a
lot more about the use and attitude of the informants in context of
age or occupation. More than 50% of the sample consists of Hindi
speakers, which is perhaps proportionate with the linguistic
distribution of Kolkata of this group. But data from some other

60 Language in Urban Society: Kolkata and Bengali

linguistic group is inadequate for proper representation (Only one


respondent from Tamil).
Representation of business community is very low which is
disadvantageous to a proper representation of the strong presence of
this community in Kolkata. The representation of housewives is
also rather insufficient but it is difficult to access them and in many
cases I have encountered a reluctance/refusal to participate in the
survey.
The questionnaire does not have a criterion through which socioeconomic position or status of the informant could be determined.
In case of opinion related questions, it can be assumed that at least
some speakers were being polite instead of honest in case of
questions like do you like speaking Bengali? etc. Those who do
not really have a positive appreciation towards Bengali language
are not too eager to participate in the survey either. This may lead
to improper result in the survey.

6.

Conclusion

The three dominant languages in Kolkata apparently are in a state


of equilibrium as spoken languages, as they seem to be used equally
in different domains. However, Bengali is not required for reading
of writing purpose at all and cultural or literary motivation towards
Bengali is not very strong either. Bengali is not used very
extensively in restaurants or in conversations with teachers in
schools and this may be a pointer to the lack of prestige attached to
the language. But it is used to a considerable extent in conversation
with friends and colleagues, therefore it still is a major language
used for communication purpose. The answers to the attitude and
opinion related questions demonstrate that though Bengali is still
useful in Kolkata, it is easily avoidable and a good knowledge of
either Hindi or English can make Bengali redundant.

References
Weinriech, U. 1963. Languages in Contact. The Hague: Mouton & Co.
Crystal, D. 2005, The Language Revolution, UK &USA, Polity.