In a world that mixes up sheer numbers with qualities that can be described as pleasant, it’s de rigeur to celebrate the ‘biggest selling authors’, the ‘biggest box office-earning movies’, the ‘most populated countries’ etcetera etcetera. But without making a fetish out of the pixies that are ‘success’ and ‘popularity’, there are times when we give that appreciative nod to ‘quality’, unmindful of ‘how many’ and ‘how much’. Which is why, regardless of whether you agree with the ‘results’, it brings a smile to our Babel lips to hear that an unofficial survey by Unesco has conducted a worldwide vote on the ‘sweetest language in the world’.
The unofficial winner (of this unofficial survey) turns out to be Bengali. With its undulating row of vowels and soft-paletted consonants, not to mention its shades of sibilants and subtle elongations and contractions, that Bengali (Bangla in Bengali) has a dreamy, sensuous tone to many ears can’t be denied. Followed in the ‘sweet list’ by ‘Spanish’ and ‘Dutch’, many Bengalis would miss what many of them would consider ‘fellow sweeteners for the tongue’: Urdu and French — one with much historic links, the other with much romantic ones.
To make the ‘sweetest language’ a source of pride for a particular group that speaks Bengali — Bangladeshis, for whom it is the national language and for the defence of which they created a country; Bengalis in India, who treat it as a culturally superior form to other Indian languages, even if English continues to remain their badge of ‘social mobility’ pride; Bengalis anywhere in the world, who treat the language as their Jerusalem of sorts to mark their wandering tribe’s identity — is inconsequential. What is of consequence is that a language that has the numbers but doesn’t advertise power but something else is being feted. As they say in Bengali: apurbo, or chomothkar. Take your pick.