The phonology of the Bengali language is, like that of its neighbouring Eastern Indo-Aryan Languages, characterised by a wide variety of diphthongs and inherent o/ɔ vowel instead of the schwa used by almost all other branches of the Indo-Aryan language family. Pronunciation is largely uniform in Standard Bengali.
Consonants and vowels
The phonemic inventory of Bengali consists of 29 consonants and 7 vowels (8 in Eastern Dialects when accounting for vowel harmony), including the seven nasalized vowels. Several conventions exist for romanizing languages of India, including IAST (based on diacritics), ITRANS (uses upper case letters suited for ASCII keyboards), and the National Library at Calcutta romanization. Bengali words are currently romanized on Wikipedia using a phonemic transcription, where the pronunciation is represented with no reference to the spelling. The Wikipedia Romanization is given in the table below, along with IPA transcriptions above them. Sounds in parentheses are not distinct for all speakers. There are also y and w as predictable intervocalic glides, which are often confused in writing.
Although Standard Bengali is largely uniform across West Bengal and Bangladesh, there are a few sounds that are produced variably in different pronunciations of Standard Bengali (in addition to the myriad phonological variations in non-standard dialects):
- ^1 /f/: (written as ⟨ফ⟩) can be produced as a voiceless aspirated stop [pʰ] or a voiceless labial fricative ([ɸ] or [f]), depending on the speaker.
- ^2 /s/ is a phoneme for many speakers of Standard Bengali (e.g. সিরকা [sirka] 'vinegar', অস্থির [ɔst̪ʰir] 'uneasy', ব্যস [bas] or [bæs] 'enough').
- For most speakers, /s/ and /ʃ/ are phonemically distinct (আস্তে [ast̪e] 'softly' vs. আসতে [aʃt̪e] 'to come'). For some, especially in Rajshahi, there is no difference. e.g. bus (like autobus) and bash (nasalised word, meaning bamboo) have the same consonant sound.
- For some speakers, [s] can be analyzed as an allophone of either /ʃ/ or /tʃʰ/ ([ʃalam] for সালাম [salam] 'greetings' or বিচ্ছিরি [bitʃʰiri] for বিশ্রী [bisri] 'ugly').
- Some words that originally had /s/ are now pronounced with [tʃʰ] in Standard Bengali (পছন্দ pochondo [pɔtʃʰond̪o] 'like', compared to Persian pasand).
- ^3 /z/: ⟨জ⟩ and ⟨য⟩ may represent a voiced affricate /dʒ/ in Standard Bengali words of native origin, but they can also represent /z/ in foreign words and names (জাকাত [zakat̪] 'zakah charity', আজিজ [aziz] 'Aziz'). Many speakers replace /z/ with /dʒ/. However, a native s/z opposition has developed in Chittagong Bengali.
- Some words that originally had /z/ are now pronounced with [dʑ] in Standard Bengali (সবজি [ɕobdʑi] 'vegetable', from Persian sabzi).
- ^4 /ɽ/: In the form of Standard Bengali spoken in Dhaka, /ɾ/ and /r/ are often indistinct phonemically, and thus the pairs পড়ে [pɔɾe] 'reads'/'falls' vs. পরে [pɔre] 'wears'/'after', and করা [kɔra] 'do' vs. কড়া [kɔɾa] 'strict' can be homophonous.
|This section requires expansion. (February 2014)|
- ^5 Retroflex stops are fronted to either postalveolar or alveolar stops in speech in Bangladeshi districts east of those bordering West Bengal, as well as in Tripura.
In the form of Standard Bengali spoken in Bangladesh, speakers may pronounce /u/ as [ʊ]-or more rarely-[ɯ] when preceding /ɔ/, /o/, /a/ or /i/. Thus সুন্দর [ʃundor] 'beautiful' in Western Bengali becomes [ɕʊndor] or [ɕɯndor] in Eastern Bengali.
Native Bengali (তদ্ভব tôdbhôbo) words do not allow initial consonant clusters; the maximum syllabic structure is CVC (i.e. one vowel flanked by a consonant on each side). Many speakers of Bengali restrict their phonology to this pattern, even when using Sanskrit or English borrowings, such as গেরাম geram (CV.CVC) for গ্রাম gram (CCVC) "village" or ইস্কুল iskul/ishkul (VC.CVC) for স্কুল skul (CCVC) "school".
Sanskrit (তৎসম tôtshômo) words borrowed into Bengali, however, possess a wide range of clusters, expanding the maximum syllable structure to CCCVC. Some of these clusters, such as the mr in মৃত্যু mrittü "death" or the sp in স্পষ্ট spôshṭo "clear", have become extremely common, and can be considered legal consonant clusters in Bengali. English and other foreign (বিদেশী bideshi) borrowings add even more cluster types into the Bengali inventory, further increasing the syllable capacity, as commonly used loanwords such as ট্রেন ṭren "train" and গ্লাস glash "glass" are now even included in leading Bengali dictionaries.
Final consonant clusters are rare in Bengali. Most final consonant clusters were borrowed into Bengali from English, as in লিফ্ট lifṭ "lift, elevator" and ব্যাংক bæņk "bank". However, final clusters do exist in some native Bengali words, although rarely in standard pronunciation. One example of a final cluster in a standard Bengali word would be গঞ্জ gônj, which is found in names of hundreds of cities and towns across Bengal, including নবাবগঞ্জ Nôbabgônj and মানিকগঞ্জ Manikgônj. Some nonstandard varieties of Bengali make use of final clusters quite often. For example, in some Purbo (eastern) dialects, final consonant clusters consisting of a nasal and its corresponding oral stop are common, as in চান্দ chand "moon". The Standard Bengali equivalent of chand would be চাঁদ chãd, with a nasalized vowel instead of the final cluster.
|/ii̯/||ii||nii "I take"|
|/ei̯/||ei||dei "I give"|
|/æe̯/||æe||næe "(s)he takes"|
|/ai̯/||ai||pai "I find"|
|/ae̯/||ae||pae "(s)he finds"|
|/au̯/||au||pau "sliced bread"|
|/ao̯/||ao||pao "you find"|
|/ɔe̯/||ôe||nôe "(s)he is not"|
|/ɔo̯/||ôo||nôo "you are not"|
|/oi̯/||oi||noi "I am not"|
|/oo̯/||oo||dhoo "you wash"|
|/ui̯/||ui||dhui "I wash"|
Magadhan languages such as Bengali are known for their wide variety of diphthongs, or combinations of vowels occurring within the same syllable. Several vowel combinations can be considered true monosyllabic diphthongs, made up of the main vowel (the nucleus) and the trailing vowel (the off-glide). Almost all other vowel combinations are possible, but only across two adjacent syllables, such as the disyllabic vowel combination [u.a] in কুয়া kua "well". As many as 25 vowel combinations can be found, but some of the more recent combinations have not passed through the stage between two syllables and a diphthongal monosyllable.
In standard Bengali, stress is predominantly initial. Bengali words are virtually all trochaic; the primary stress falls on the initial syllable of the word, while secondary stress often falls on all odd-numbered syllables thereafter, giving strings such as সহযোগিতা shô-ho-jo-gi-ta "cooperation", where the boldface represents primary and secondary stress. The first syllable carries the greatest stress, with the third carrying a somewhat weaker stress, and all following odd-numbered syllables carrying very weak stress. However, in words borrowed from Sanskrit, the root syllable has stress, out of harmony with the situation with native Bengali words.
Adding prefixes to a word typically shifts the stress to the left; for example, while the word সভ্য shob-bho "civilized" carries the primary stress on the first syllable [shob], adding the negative prefix [ô-] creates অসভ্য ô-shob-bho "uncivilized", where the primary stress is now on the newly added first syllable অ ô. In any case, word-stress does not alter the meaning of a word, and is always subsidiary to sentence-stress.
For Bengali words, intonation or pitch of voice have minor significance, apart from a few isolated cases. However in sentences intonation does play a significant role. In a simple declarative sentence, most words and/or phrases in Bengali carry a rising tone, with the exception of the last word in the sentence, which only carries a low tone. This intonational pattern creates a musical tone to the typical Bengali sentence, with low and high tones alternating until the final drop in pitch to mark the end of the sentence.
In sentences involving focused words and/or phrases, the rising tones only last until the focused word; all following words carry a low tone. This intonation pattern extends to wh-questions, as wh-words are normally considered to be focused. In yes-no questions, the rising tones may be more exaggerated, and most importantly, the final syllable of the final word in the sentence takes a high falling tone instead of a flat low tone.
Like most Magadhan languages, vowel length is not contrastive in Bengali; all else equal, there is no meaningful distinction between a "short vowel" and a "long vowel", unlike the situation in most Indo-Aryan languages. However, when morpheme boundaries come into play, vowel length can sometimes distinguish otherwise homophonous words. This is because open monosyllables (i.e. words that are made up of only one syllable, with that syllable ending in the main vowel and not a consonant) have somewhat longer vowels than other syllable types. For example, the vowel in cā "tea" is somewhat longer than the first vowel in caṭa "licking", as cā is a word with only one syllable, and no final consonant. (The long vowel is marked with a macron in these examples.) The suffix ṭa "the" can be added to cā to form cāṭa "the tea", and the long vowel is preserved. Knowing this fact, some interesting cases of apparent vowel length distinction can be found. In general Bengali vowels tend to stay away from extreme vowel articulation.
Furthermore, using a form of reduplication called "echo reduplication", the long vowel in cā can be copied into the reduplicant ṭā, giving cāṭa: "tea and all that comes with it". Thus, in addition to cāṭa "the tea" (long first vowel) and caṭa "licking" (no long vowels), we have cāṭā "tea and all that comes with it" (both long vowels).
Regional phonological variations
The phonological alternations of Bengali vary greatly due to the dialectal differences between the speech of Bengalis living on the পশ্চিম Poschim (western) side and পূর্ব Purbo (eastern) side of the Padma River.
The aspirated velar stop খ [kʰ] and the aspirated labial stop ফ [pʰ] of Poshcim Bengali correspond to খ় [x~ʜ] and ফ় [f] or [ɸ] in many dialects of Purbo Bengali. These pronunciations are most extreme in the Sylheti dialect of far northeastern Bangladesh—the dialect of Bengali most common in the United Kingdom.
Many Purbo Bengali dialects share phonological features with Assamese, including the debuccalization of শ [ɕ] to হ [h] or খ় [x].
The influence of Tibeto-Burman languages on the phonology of Purbo Bengali (Bangladesh) is seen through the lack of nasalized vowels, a more fronted place of articulation for the retroflex stops ট [ʈ], ঠ [ʈʰ], ড [ɖ], and ঢ [ɖʱ], resembling the equivalent phonemes in languages such as Thai and Lao and the lack of distinction between র [ɹ] and ড়/ঢ় [ɽ]. Unlike most languages of the region, Purbo Bengali dialects tend not to distinguish aspirated voiced stops ঘ [ɡʱ], ঝ [dʑʱ], ঢ [ɖʱ], ধ [d̪ʱ], and ভ [bʱ] from their unaspirated equivalents, with some dialects treating them as allophones of each other and other dialects replacing the former with the latter completely. Some variants of Bengali, particularly Chittagonian and Chakma Bengali, have contrastive tone; differences in the pitch of the speaker's voice can distinguish words. In dialects such as Hajong of northern Bangladesh, there is a distinction between উ and ঊ, the first corresponding exactly to its standard counterpart but the latter corresponding to the Japanese [ɯ] sound listen (help·info). There is also a distinction between ই and ঈ in many northern Bangladeshi dialects. ই representing the uncommon to Bengali [ɪ] sound whereas ঈ the standard [i] used for both letters in most other dialects.
- Masica, C. (1991), The Indo-Aryan Languages, Cambridge University Press
- Chatterji, S.K. (1921), "Bengali Phonetics", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 2: 1–25, doi:10.1017/S0041977X0010179X
- Chatterji, S.K. (1926), The Origin and Development of the Bengali Language, Calcutta University Press
- Hayes, B.; Lahiri, A. (1991), "Bengali intonational phonology", Natural Language & Linguistic Theory (Springer Science) 9: 47, doi:10.1007/BF00133326
- Bhattacharya, Tanmoy (2000), "Bangla (Bengali)", in Gary, Jane; Rubino, Carl, Encyclopedia of World's Languages: Past and Present (Facts About the World's Languages) (PDF), New York: WW Wilson, ISBN 0-8242-0970-2
- Ferguson, C.A.; Chowdhury, M. (1960), "The Phonemes of Bengali: Part 1", Language 36 (1)