Code switching and code-mixing in 19th century Bengal

Aniruddha Baul, Jadavpur University

Code switching and code mixing strategies took an important part in the conversation pattern in 19th century Bengal.  I would like to highlight the variations of code switching and code mixing in Bangla, considering the prahasan (skit) and Rupchand Pokkhir gaan (songs of Rupchand Pokkhi, a renowned poet cum musician). Before discussing the examples and variations I would like to elaborate why these two particular literary traditions were chosen as the documents of code switching and code mixing while talking about conversation.

The dialogues of prahasans were mainly based on real conversations. The main target of the prahasans was to show the real image of the contemporary society including their language. There were no questions of loyalty to the standard language in the dialogues of most of the prahasan. So, we can take the dialogue of the prahasans as authentic language data. I chose a prahasan named “Ekei ki bole sovvota” by Michael Madhusudan Dutt for initial analysis. The prahasan is primarily based on the lifestyle of youth who have just learned English in 19th century Kolkata . Here are some dialogues –

Shibu: ja bol bhai, kintu ora dujon lekhanpora besh jane

(Whatever you would say but they are very learned persons)

Bolai: between ourselves, emon ki jane ?

(among us, what do they know?)

Mahesh: hya,hya, sokoleri biddye jana ache! se din je nobo ek khana chithi likhechilo ta toh dekheicho, tate Lindley Morer je durdosa ta toh mone ache ?

(I know about their knowledge! I think you can remember the letter written by Nobo where the English grammar was poor)

Naba :kintu gentle man, ekhon e desh amader pokkhe jeno mosto jelkhana;ei griho kebol amader liberty hall orthath amader swadhinotar dalan;ekhane jar je khusi se ti koro|gentleman, in the name of freedom let us enjoy ourselves

(But gentleman, now this country is like a prison to us, this room is our liberty hall, the passage of our freedom ,you can do everything whatever you wish to. Gentleman, in the name of freedom let us enjoy ourselves)

Despite the two having the same language background, we notice that there is a lot of code mixing and code switching in this dialogue. We see that sometimes vocatives or address terms of Bangla are replaced by English words like “gentleman”. Concepts like “liberty hall”, which came from Western thought, remained English in the dialogue. Prepositions are often replaced but the syntax follows the structures of the matrix language. Knowledge was measured by skill in the English language and English was the status symbol for native Bengalis during the colonial period of 19th century.  These kinds of code mixing and code switching established the speakers’ identity as “educated” people.

Sibu : That’s a lie

Naba: What! Tumi amake lair bolo? Tumi jano na ami tomake akhoni shoot korbo?

(What! You call me liar! Don’t you know that I am going to shoot you? )

Chaitan : Ha! jete dao, jete dao, ekta trifling kotha niye miche jhogra keno ?

(Ignore the thing! Why are you fighting meaninglessly for a trifling word?)

Naba: Trifling! – o amake liar bolle –abar trifling? O amake bangala bolle na keno? O amake mitthebaadi bolle na keno? Tate kon shala ragto? Kintu –liar –e ki bordasto hoye?

( trifling! he calls me liar? why did not he tell it in Bangla? If he calls me “mittyebadi” {Bengali word for “liar”} instead of liar I don’t mind anything).

From the examples above, we can see in sentences like “ami tomake akhoni shoot korbo” (I am going to shoot you), the verb “shoot” acts as a noun and  “korbo” the auxiliary verb of Bangla is added after “shoot” to become a compound verb like “shoot korbo”. If we focus on the content we can see the hierarchy of prestige languages – “liar” and  “mitthyebadi” have the same meaning but the word “liar” was considered superior to the Bangla equivalent term “mitthyebadi”. These dialogues show the language hierarchy during the Colonial period.

When the British communicated with each other they choose to do so in English but when they had to communicate with native people they had to use mixed language for the sake of negotiation. But it is interesting to observe that when the upper class and middle class native people communicated with each other they used mixed languages too. In this case, there was no question of negotiation. If we follow the songs of famous singer Rupchand Pokkhi, who became famous for singing using mixed languages in his songs in 19th century Bengal, we can understand the possible reasons why native people chose to use mixed language. There was a story that one day a high class British officer was invited as the main guest of the party organized by Rupchand’s patron. The British officer wanted to hear Rupchand’s song but it was impossible for him to understand the lyrics. Rupchand saved the day by singing ,

                                                   Let me go Ohe dwari I visit to bongsidhari

                                                  ( Oh gatekeeper)           (flute player, Krishna)

                                                    Esechi brojo hote ami brojer kulonaari

                                  ( I am coming from Braj, I am a respected woman from Braj)

                                         Beg you doorkeeper let me get, I want to see blockhead,

                                                Far whom our radhe dead ,ami search kori

                                                                      (I am searching for)

                               Srimoti radhar kena servant ,ei dakh ache daskhoth agreement,

                            (Servant owned by Srimati Radhe, see we do have signed agreement)

                                                   Ekhoni korbo present ,brojopure lob dhori,

                                       (I shall be presenting now, shall be hijacking to Brajapur)

                                                   Moral character suno or,butterthief nonichor

                                   (Please find the moral character of him, the butter thief)

                                                 Blaggard rakhal poor, chor mothurar dondodhari

                                        ( the poor shepherd, the thief is the authority of Mathura)

                                               Kohe R.C.D Bird king , black nonsense ver cunning


                                                     Flute te kore sing, mojayeche Raikishori

                                          (By singing using a flute, convinced the Raikishori)

(Friend of Radha wanted to meet Krishna and tell him the condition of Radha. But, the doorkeeper of the palace did not allow her inside so she was rebuking Krishna for cheating on Radha )

We can see the nature of code switching very clearly in the song where the matrix language of some sentences are in English and some of them are in Bangla. Most of the address terms are from Bangla. We also notice compound verbs like “search kori” where one item of the verb is in English and one is in Bangla. Apart from this, we can see that many lexical codes are mixed in the song. Both lexical mixing and structural mixing happened in the songs of Rupchand. Let us see a song here,

                                        Amare fraud kore kaliya damn tui kotha geli

                                 (To me)          (by doing)             (Where did you go?)

                                       I am for you very sorry, golden body holo kaali

                                                                                                 (Became pale)

                                        Ho my dear dearest , modhupure tui geli kesto

                                                                ( Krishna you went to madhupur)

                                      Oh my dear,how to rest,here dear bonomali

                                                       Soon re shyam tore boli

                                    (Oh Shyam, please listen, what I am saying)

                                      Poor creature milk gerel(girl),tader breast’e marli shel

                                                                         (their)               (by targeting arrow)

                                       Nonsense tor naiko akkel,breach of contract korli

                                                   (You have no sense)                   (did)

                                                        Femalegone fail korli

                                                     (You have failed the female)

                                       Lompot sother fortune khullo,mathura’te king holo

                               (The clever became fortunate, he becam the king at Mathura)

                                       Uncle’er pran nashilo,kubujar kuj pele dali

                                          (Killed his uncle……rest not understood)

                                                         Nile dashi re mohishi boli

                                                 (took your maid servant as queen)

                                       Sri nandar boy young lad ,croocked mind hard

                                    (of Sri Nanda)

                                      Kohe R.C.D Bird e pelacard krishnokeli


                                                  Half English half Bangali

(Radha was dumped by Krishna so she was rebuking him and expressing her grief)

In this song, there is not only lexical mixing but also structural mixing. For example, in the word “femalegon”, “gon” is the plural marker of Bangla which is added to the English world “female”. Bangla case marker like “e” or “r” which are added to the noun and make words like “breast-e” and “uncle-r”. We also notice syntactic changes of English sentences, where the changes are inspired by Bangla syntax. Objects follow the subject just like Bangla sentence structure so here we can see “I am for you very sorry” instead of “I am very sorry for you” .

Considering the sociolinguistic aspects of code mixing, we can ask: what are the reasons behind this kind of code switching and code mixing in Rupchand’s song? At first, we should know about the audience of his songs. If there were a few British people in the audience attending the performance, then these kinds of code switching and code mixing were natural. But, one could not be famous among the natives following this policy. So there had to be huge acceptance and demand for these kind of songs. We can assume that Rupchand created his songs for the British audience but the songs became famous gradually among the English loving natives, who could relate to the language of the song with their language of conversation where code switching and code mixing take a great part. So code mixing and code switching can be related to the identity of the natives in the 19th century Bengal.


Bandhopadhyay, Asit Kumar,first edition-1973, Bangla Sahittyer Itibrittyo,vol-4, by (History of Bengali literature by Asit Kumar Bandhopadhyay.) Modern Book Agency Pvt LTD,Kolkata

Chakraborty, Ramakanta, Bismrito Darpan (Forgotten Mirror edited by Ramakanta Chakraborty)Sanskrito Pustok bhandar,Kolkata

Khetrogupto, first edition-1965, Madhusudon Rachanabali (Collected Works of Micheal Madhusudon Dutt edited by khetrogupto) Sahittya samsad, Kolkata

Lahiri, Durgadas, first edition-1905, Bangalir Gaan  (Songs of the Bengalis edited by Durgadas Lahiri) Bangabasi Electric Press, Kolkata

Myers Scotton, C. 1982. ‘The possibility of code switching: Motivation for maintaining multilingualism’ in Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 432-444


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