Identification. The Bengali people speak the Bengali (Bangla) language and live in the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent located in northeastern South Asia, and most follow either the Hindu or the Muslim faith. The Bengal Region is divided politically between the nation of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Bengalis themselves refer to their region as Bangla desh, meaning simply "the Bengali homeland," a term adopted by the people of eastern Bengal when they won sovereign independence for the nation of Bangladesh in 1971. The native ethnic term for themselves is Bangli—of which "Bengali" is an anglicization. However, Bengalis who are citizens of Bangladesh will also most readily call themselves Bangladeshi.
Location. Lying at the north of the Bay of Bengal and roughly between 22° and 26° N and 86° and 93° E, the Bengal region consists largely of a vast alluvial, deltaic plain, built up by the Ganges River and watered also by the Brahmaputra River system originating in the eastern Himalaya Mountains. As in much of South Asia, monsoon winds bring a rainy season that can last from April to mid-November. Bengal's total area is approximately 233,000 square kilometers, of which about 38 percent (just under 89,000 square kilometers) is in India, the remaining 62 percent (144,000 square kilometers) constituting the nation of Bangladesh.
According to the last available (1981) Censuses, India's West
Bengal contained some 47 million people (35 percent) and Bangladesh 86
million people (65 percent) claiming to be primary speakers of the
Bengali language, with the total of around 133 million constituting the
"cote" ethnic Bengali population. To this total must be
added at least another 7 million Bengali speakers living in adjacent or
nearby states of India—Assam, 3 million; Bihar, 2 million;
1.4 million; Orissa, 378,000; Meghalaya, 120,000; and Nagaland, 27,000—forming a kind of "Bengali diaspora" that, although concentrated in northeastern South Asia, is actually worldwide, with large numbers of Bengalis living as Immigrants in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. In sum, Bengalis comprised a population of about 140 Million in 1981, one which can be expected to have grown by at least 25 percent by the time data from 1991 censuses becomes available. Bengali speakers make up 85 percent of the population of West Bengal, which otherwise is home to an additional 9 million non-Bengali people. Most of these are from other parts of India, living in the metropolis of Calcutta, the state capital, but there are significant numbers of non-Bengali people locally classed as "tribale" in rural West Bengal as well. Bangladesh is far more homogeneous; all but 1 percent of its people identify themselves as Bengali. Most of the remaining 900,000 consist of non-Bengali ethnic groups also locally designated as "tribal," and the majority of these are speakers of Tibeto-Burman and other minority languages, often living in border areas of the country. Some speakers of dialects of Hindi-Urdu remain in Bangladesh as well. Overall population densities in West Bengal were recorded at 615 people per square kilometer in 1981, ranging from 466 in some rural areas to 56,462 in urban localities (especially Calcutta). In Bangladesh overall densities reached 624 persons per square kilometer by 1981, rising to 2,179 in the urban areas (especially Dhaka, the nation's capital), but also registering a quite high 693 persons per square kilometer in part of the countryside.
Linguistic Affiliation. Like most of the languages of northern South Asia, Bengali belongs to the Indo-Iranian (sometimes also called Indo-Aryan) Branch of the Indo-European Family. Descended from ancient Sanskrit, Bengali contains forty-seven sounds: eleven vowels, twenty-five consonants, four semivowels, and seven "breath sounds" (including sibilants and aspirates). Its script, also Sanskrit-derived, contains fifty-seven letter symbols. The Bengali language is associated with a long literary tradition, pride in which is a major factor in Bengali ethnie and national identity. A Bengali, Rabindranath Tagore, was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1913). The literary language with which educated speakers are familiar is, however, quite distinct from the urban and rural speech of the less well Educated. The eastern dialects of Bengali, notably those spoken in the Sylhet and Chittagong districts of Bangladesh, differ quite noticeably from those heard in West Bengal.