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OP-ED: ‘Jilapi’ vs ‘Jalebi’

  • Published at 09:18 pm April 26th, 2021
What do you see? BIGSTOCK

Changes in language are inevitable

In 2019, comedian/social media influencer Raba Khan’s book titled Bandhobi stormed the internet because of its controversial use of Banglish. Most of the people criticized and trolled Raba Khan ruthlessly but a few of them find the non-normative use of Banglish in written tradition as creative and showed support for her. 

Such controversies related to language, dialect, and accent have become a common phenomenon in recent times. The latest controversy surrounding it is the "jilapi" vs "jalebi" debate.  People are trolling the use of words like jalebi and suhoor instead of their traditional Bangla form of jilapi and sehri. They find the use of these “fancy foreign” words comical and inappropriate.  

Lexicons are one of the main structural elements of a language. With the change in the course of society, new words become part of the linguistic tradition and old words lose their usage. Bangla language has always been influenced by languages like Persian, Arabic, English, Urdu, and Hindi due to historical and political reasons. 

Hence, we see many “foreign” words have already become accepted in Bangali linguistic tradition, and even gatekeepers like Bangla Academy find the use of these words appropriate. But the new controversy brings the old debate back -- of what should be acceptable and what should be unacceptable in a linguistic tradition.

Basically, there are two schools of thought when it comes to maintaining linguistic integrity. The first group which does not tolerate any linguistic contamination could be labelled as language “purists.” Language purists are leading the crusade against the use of words like jalebi, suhoor, and Ramadan Kareem on social media. 

The second group, the realists, are less concerned about language purity. They know that linguistic change is inevitable and only dead languages do not change. As mentioned before, the Bangali linguistic tradition has gone through a lot of changes in the past and the change is frequent and most of the time unobservable while it is actually occurring.

Some of the changes come internally from the native speakers of the language. It leads to change in pronunciations and word arrangements over time. But other changes come externally when a language comes in contact with other languages and borrows their words. Changes that occur through borrowing from other languages are often quite clearly distinguishable, for a while at least, from changes that come about internally.

Words like jalebi are being borrowed from our neighbouring countries due to the sheer availability of their contents on the internet. On the other hand, words like suhoor and Ramadan Kareem came from Arabic tradition. Language purists see linguistic borrowing as a threat to the native language. But we know by evidence that change in language is inevitable.

Ironically, the overprotective attitude towards the language of the purist can interrupt the natural flow and evolution of language. Experts warn that extreme codification and gatekeeping of a language could result in the death of the language gradually. We have the example of Latin and classical Greek which now only exist in scriptures, not in spoken form. 

Calling out people for their dialect, accents, and use of “foreign” words is common. Similarly, a negative attitude towards some varieties of language also exists -- the core reason being linguistic hierarchy. We see speakers of some languages have more prestige, cultural capital, and soft power in society. They influence the consensus of the general public by establishing linguistic norms. When anyone fails to conform to these norms, they ultimately face trolling, mockery, and public shaming. 

All things considered, the purpose of writing this op-ed is not to inform people what to do and what not to do with their language. Language is a fundamental part of our culture. Humans have been using language to preserve their culture for centuries.

We find it astonishing when we decode cave paintings from the prehistoric age to know what our ancestors’ lives looked like. Now think about the mockeries we are leaving behind us. What will future archaeologists think about us when they glance over the jilapi vs jalebi memes? A question that I am leaving for the readers to answer.

Md Aftab Alam is Lecturer, Department of Economics and Social Sciences, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, BRAC University.

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