Rabindranath the Linguist

Rabindranath Tagore is known chiefly as the greatest writer in Bengali language, but few bother to know that he was also a great linguist and a great patron of native languages. He advocated their cultivation by his countrymen more and more. He was of the opinion that Hindi, spoken by the largest number of Indians, should be our national language. He made fun of those who imitated the English in dresses, manners and in the use of foreign languages. Indians during the British rule took special pride in their ability to write and speak English. [This they still do perhaps more than before, even after sixty years of independence, and look down upon their countrymen who do not know English.] According to Tagore it was a slavish mentality. He was however not at all parochial – he welcomed the absorption and assimilation by his countrymen of what was good in other cultures, but never at the cost of their own culture. In his view Indians should feel proud of their own culture and enrich it by assimilating good things from exotic cultures. In fact that has been the great characteristic of Indian culture – except during the medieval period, it has never been insular. Tagore called India a place of pilgrimage for the humanity at large where through the ages different races have met and commingled in a single body. To quote from his famous poem Bharat-tirtha
He mor chitta punyatirthe jagore dhire
Ei bharater mahamanaber sagartire.
Keho nahi jane kar aobhane kato manusher dhara
Durbar srote elo kotha hote samudre holo hara
Hethay arya hetha anarya hethay dravir chin
Shak hundal pathan mogal ek dehe holo lin
Paschim aji khuliachhe dwar
Setha hote sabe ane upahar
Dibe ar nibe milabe milibe jabena phire
Ei bharater mahamanaber sagartire.

[My heart, awake in this holy land of India; it is a place of pilgrimage for nations to mingle in a confluence of humanity. Nobody knows who urged them yet they came from different lands and merged in a single body – the Aryans, the non-Aryans, the Dravidians, the Chinese, the Scythians, the Huns, the Pathans and the Mughals – all of them like so many separate streams flowing irresistibly to lose at the end of their journeys their individual identities in one vast sea. Now the West has opened up its gates, all are collecting its prized gifts and the same irreversible process of mutual exchange and assimilation is taking place once again in that holy confluence of humanity.]
Here is an essay by Rabindranath in my translation in which he reviewed a book of Bengali grammar written by an Englishman who was himself a great linguist and a lover of Bengali language. Here he views this Englishman and admires his achievements in a truly catholic spirit and at the same time criticizes his own countrymen for their ignorance and neglect of their own native tongue. Is this essay still relevant?
The Bengali Grammar of Mr. Beames 
In English there is a proverb – ‘To err is human’, specially so is the commission of errors by the Bengalis in their use of the English language. The other part of the proverb is – ‘to forgive is divine’. But when a Bengali uses English incorrectly no Englishman treats him in a divine manner.
We commit mistakes in our English because the English which we learn in schools is bookish. Those among us who have lived in England for a long time have grasped the spirit of that language well. They may commit grammatical mistakes like native Englishmen, but to commit idiomatic mistakes for them is rare. But those who learn English here at home may be able to save the grammar but they cannot avoid murdering the language. The Englishmen feel greatly amused by this.
For this we also feel very much tempted to take revenge by making fun of those Englishmen who commit mistakes in their use of the native language even though they have resided in this country for a long time, got enough opportunities and have taken pains to learn it well.
We do not have to seek far to find out good examples. Samples of babu-English are generally collected from the petitions of poor illiterate people. But they cannot be compared with the erstwhile Bengal civilian John Beames. Mr. Beames has learnt the Bengali language with care; he spent his youth and middle age in Bengal; for many years he had to record depositions of Bengali witnesses, heard pleadings of Bengali mukhteers and is said to have cultivated Bengali literature too.
Not only that, he has also written a grammar of the Bengali language. It is indeed very audacious of him to have written a grammar of a foreign language; it cannot be compared with the petitions written by people who are impelled by hunger. So when we come across mistakes in almost every page of that grammar that appear very improper to a Bengali it becomes very difficult to resist the temptation to have some fun at the cost of Mr. Beames. But at the same time when we see that so far no Bengali has made any attempt to write a proper grammar of the Bengali language we have to resist such temptation. When we consider the fact that in writing such a grammar we write a grammar of the Sanskrit language and a Bengali looks blank when asked to tell the rules of Bengali grammar we feel ashamed of ourselves and admiration for this Englishman.
It must be admitted that the writing of this grammar by a foreigner, though full of mistakes, needed a lot of hard work and industry. He undertook this work driven solely by a passion for knowledge. None of our countrymen felt impelled to do this not only for his love of knowledge but also for his love for his country. Yet to a native this job is easier than to a foreigner.
We can also learn a lot about our language if we discuss and analyse the mistakes committed by Mr. Beames. Many riddles in our language escape our notice because of our overmuch familiarity with it. Through the mediation of this foreigner our curiosity about those riddles is roused and our acquaintance with our own language is renewed and becomes closer.
[A long and detailed discussion of the book follows. It will be of interest to the linguists and not to the common readers. Moreover the translation of the concluding part is beyond my powers.]
Translation of the introductory part of the essay Bimser bangla byakaran by Rabindranath Tagore, first published in 1305 BS (1900-1901). John Beames (1837-1902), a Bengal civilian, belonged to the last batch of the Haileyburians who were followed by the ‘competition-wallahs’, was a great linguist, knew Persian, Sanskrit, Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Greek, Latin, German, French and Italian languages, won medals and prizes in many of them, in 1891 wrote Grammar for the Bengali Language which remained a textbook for ICS probationers till 1922, the present essay being its review. His magnum opus was Outlines of Indian Philology published in 1867. For his original contribution to philology the Late Suniti Kumar Chatterji hailed Beames as ‘the founder of a science, a pioneer who had laid down the great principles of comparative linguistics of the Aryan languages’. The need for the establishment of an Academy for the cultivation of Bengali language and literature was first suggested by this English civilian in a pamphlet as early as in 1872. In a letter written in perfect Bengali, to the editor of Bangadarshan – who was none other than Bankimchandra Chatterji himself – Beames repeated this suggestion and in course of time the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad was set up. The Bengali race should remain ever grateful to him for this. Under the leftist rule of more than thirty years that institution has consistently been neglected. Now it has become a hot bed of politics and is run mostly by rogues and rascals who owe allegiance to the CPI (M).

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More By  :  Kumud Biswas

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Comments on this Blog

Comment Dear Mr. Ashby,
This morning I thought I should provide with some samples. Please bear with me at least once. Shall be grateful to know your reactions.

20-Dec-2010 19:45 PM

I have transferred the comment below.  I appear to be a champion of the English langauage, when all I do is merely point to its status as a universal language of communication.   As to the comparisons drawn between us, all I can say is that you have trusted to your instinct about my lack of appreciation of the Bengali language and the writings of Tagore.  Unfortunately, though I did study Hindi in school, and can read and write it, and am bewildered when I hear people say it is conversationally like Urdu! - I did not study Bengali, which has a completely different script and dictionary of words.  

My priest uncle, Fr. George Coutinho S.J. (1900 - 86) won the Tagore Gold medal for essay writing in - it is inscribed on the medal which today I have in my possession - 1918.  Being brought up in Roman Catholic Westernised setting, although in India, it was not part of the school curriculum to study Tagore.  In my early adulthood, now in England, I read English poetry and novels, and literary criticism, and RC theology and philosophy,  besides spending a great deal of my time honing my own literary skills.  Tagore was a luminary if only by his presence and reputation, and I did read, as I came across them, many of his short stories and poems, his association with the poet WB Yeats, for example, including a life of Tagore, but in English, of course.  Great musician and writer that he was is in plain evidence. 

There is a saying in English,  comparisons are odious, I would add, without grounds if one is not fully cognizant of the other's knowledge.  Suffice it to say, I would not write a single poem, if I were not aware that it was relevant to knowledge today, and this requires I know quite a great deal.  For one thing, I am a lot older that you are, something I presume from your writing style and expression, and perhaps have the edge on maturity of outlook.

Mr. Ashby, This is in continuation of your comments on my blog 'Rabindranath the Linguist'. The noblest and the greatest ideal of globalization should be the meeting of all the people of the world together as friends and brothers, irrespective of their races, religion, nationality and languages they speak. They should develop a mutual respect for each others' culture. No chauvinism, either political or cultural, should have a place here. One who considers all cultures other than his own inferior is a stumbling block on the way to the achievement of that noble ideal. Mr. Beames is an example of that kind of scholars who are pioneers of cultural assimilation. English is not my mother tongue - have you noticed the kind of English I write and its difference from the kind of English you write? And English is your mother tongue. I fell in love with your mother tongue early in life and I did not waste my time as some native Englishmen waste their time learning their own mother tongue. And my mother tongue Bengali is so sweet you never noticed though you were born in Calcutta. You have never bothered to read the great literature created in that language by great writers like Tagore and others. You are a deeply religious person I guess from your postings in boloji. Have you read Gitanjali in the original Bengali? I doubt if your readings in English literature is as extensive as mine. I am sorry I had to be so blunt.

19-Dec-2010 16:41 PM

Comment Dear Dipankar, I am sorry to know that you have removed all your postings from boloji. I shall miss you very much. I came across you elsewhere and immediately  formed a liking for you, you write so sweetly. Please reconsider your decision. As I told you earlier - I don't care if anybody reads my posts or not I write for my own pleasure. Can't you also do that? Presently I am so busy - getting ready to go to my daughter, a veritable tyrant and then I have to finish the proof of my book and write an introduction of that book before I leave for Cairo. I don't find enough time to comment on your posts though I read each of your posts. Recently I was also bitten by a cat and the medication is going on - this morning I had my second injection.

The power to communicate is one of the greatest gifts of God. To master that power is however not given to all - you have to work hard for that mastery.

18-Dec-2010 03:40 AM

Comment Dear Kumud-babu:

I find myself more educated after reading this post. I wasn't aware of this Englishman and his commendable effort. Since our own culture has depended more on smriti and shruti than on written documents, it is no wonder that it took an Englishman to compile a book on Bengali grammar. It does not matter that it contained errors. What is important is that it opened up avenues for fresh thinking. It drew the attention of capable people, people who could produce more perfectly what this wonderful Englishman had attempted.

I am personally attracted to the study languages. You cannot understand a people unless you know the language they speak. And it does not matter whether it is spoken by a minority group. During my days in Japan, I fell totally in love with the language, the spoken as well as the written form. The more I learnt it, the more interesting it looked. I don't think I would understand that country the way I do if hadn't made this effort. I will never regret the time I spent on Japanese, even though I am fully aware that it is not a ligua franca.

The same way, I enjoy the study of English. Not because it is practical to know English, but because English is a beautiful language. When I began writing here, my sole purpose was to practise this beauty. Later on I realized that I could not establish anything close to a wave length with anyone at all. Much to my unhappiness, I have found out that the pursuit of beauty for the sake of beauty is not exactly what the world likes anymore. Justifiably so probably. It makes me feel lonely, but not lonely enough to join the bandwagon.

I deleted everything I ever posted here.

Best wishes.


18-Dec-2010 02:14 AM

Comment Dear rdashby, Thanks for reading this blog and offering comments. English has emerged as the world language and for international communication it has become the lingua franca no doubt but that does not mean that other national and regional languages should languish and die. Moreover use of English by people who are not its native speakers is changing the English language itself in such a way that  shortly it will become unintelligible. It is not possible to deal with this subject in such short space. I would request you to read my comments on Mr. Puri's blog - Mind your language.
The purpose of my present blog is to explore one aspect of Tagore's genius. You are welcome to my other blogs on Tagore. I have also posted a large number of his poems and songs in my translation in boloji. Many poems are posted by many people in boloji. You will be able to see even in translation he is far superior and many consider that learning a language in which great writers like Tagore or Tolstoy wrote their immortal creations are not a wastage of time.

17-Dec-2010 18:47 PM

Comment Im afraid the call for a people to be proud of its own language comes over as anachronistic, parochial, and even smacks of rebellion against a standard.  It is the same, really, for the French and the Welsh, and many more,  all in a world view of the predominance of English as the universal medium of communication.  This explains why Indians, in your words, 'even after sixty years of independence, look down upon their countrymen who do not know English.'  

Russia Today (RT) is broadcasted in English, and any reversion to the use of Russian appears by default.  The world scene speaks for itself: English is viewed not so much as the language of the English people, who, as Prof Higgins in 'My Fair Lady' declaims, know least well to speak it, as the language of the world.  I am not saying studying and mastering a national language, in this case, a state language, Bengali, is a complete waste of time, but that in the context of the modern world its use is confined to its borders, evidently deficient of the power of universal communication such as inspires people to master English.

17-Dec-2010 09:35 AM

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