Bengali and Hindi: Linguistic similarities and differences

India is a highly multilingual country where over a dozen different languages are spoken. In Delhi (the capital), Hindi is the most spoken language. In the city of Kolkata (Calcutta), where mother Theresa lived, Bengali is widely spoken. In addition, Bengali is the national language of the neighboring country of Bangladesh.

Hindi and Bengali are two of the most widely spoken languages in India and they both belong to the same family of languages: they are Indo-European languages. This is not the case for all languages spoken in India, in the south there are languages such as Tamil and Telugu which belong to the Dravidian language family.

Hindi and Bengali are closely related languages which have many similar vocabulary words in common, and there are also some interesting differences which we will look at in this language comparison.

Vocabulary similarities between Bengali and Hindi

There are many similar vocabulary words between Bengali and Hindi and most of these similar words come from Sanskrit, an ancient language which has had a big influence on these languages, in the same way that Latin has influenced many European languages.

Table: similar vocabulary words in Bengali and Hindi
Bengali Hindi English
ভাষা (bhaśa) भाषा (bhāṣā) language
হৃদয় (hridôẏ) हृदय (hŕday) heart
জীবন (jibôn) जीवन (jīvan) life
হাত (hat) हाथ (hāth) hand
পা (pa) पैर (pair) foot
শব্দ (shôbdô) शब्द (śabd) word
নদী (nôdi) नदी (nadī) river
মাছ (mach) मछली (machlī) fish
সমুদ্র (shômudrô) समुद्र (samudra) sea
আকাশ (akaś) आकाश (ākāś) sky
শহর (shôhôr) शहर (śahar) city
শিক্ষক (śikkhôk) शिक्षक (śikṣak) teacher
প্রশ্ন (prôśnô) प्रश्न (praśn) question
উত্তর (uttôr) उत्तर (uttar) answer
মেঘ (megh) मेघ (megh) cloud
পৃথিবী (prithibi) पृथ्वी (pŕthvī) earth

Notice how many Bengali words contain the ‘ô’ vowel sound whereas the ‘a’ vowel sound is more common in Hindi words. Bengali and Hindi have different default vowels, this is discussed in more details below.

Bengali and Hindi speaking regions

The Bengali language is mostly spoken in the Bengal region, situated north of the Bay of Bengal. This region contains the country of Bangladesh as well as the Indian state of West Bengal.

Kolkata (also known as Calcutta) is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, and it is the largest Bengali-speaking city in India. Another even larger Bengali-speaking city is Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Hindi is the most spoken language in Delhi, a large metropolitan area which contains New Delhi, the capital of India.

Bengali vs Hindi writing systems

The Bengali script (used for writing Bengali) and the Devanagari script (used for writing Hindi) both descend from a common ancestor: the Brahmi script.

Visually, they have in common a horizontal line which connects the characters at the top which is called mātrā or shirorekhā.

These writing systems differ from an alphabet because consonants are the main characters, and vowels are in most cases just secondary notation added to the consonant symbols. Linguists call such a writing system an alphasyllabary or an abugida.

Bengali and Hindi use different inherent vowels

In Bengali and Hindi, an unmarked consonant symbol has an inherent vowel, and together they form a syllable.

The inherent vowel (or default vowel) in Hindi is a short ‘a’ sound. Hindi resembles Sanskrit in this respect.

In contrast, the inherent vowel in Bengali is an ‘ô’ sound (sometimes an ‘o’ sound).

Bengali and Hindi are less phonetic than Sanskrit

A phonetic language is a language in which words are spelled exactly as they are pronounced.

Sanskrit (when written in the Devanagari script) is an example of a language which is highly phonetic.

Hindi is slightly less phonetic than Sanskrit. In spoken Hindi, there are words in which an inherent vowel is not pronounced and the spelling does not reflect that. Linguists call this phenomenon Schwa deletion.

The word schwa is linguistics terminology referring to a short vowel sound which corresponds to the ‘a’ in the English word “about”.

A number of different variations of the ‘s’ sounds which exist in Sanskrit have merged together in spoken Bengali, but they still have their own letter in Bengali spelling. Therefore knowing the pronunciation of a Bengali word is not always sufficient for spelling it correctly.

Language Families

Bengali and Hindi are both in the Indo-European family of languages. This is a very large language family which also includes English and most of the languages spoken in Europe (Finnish and Hungarian are among the few exceptions).

Although Bengali and Hindi are Indo-European languages, this is not the case for all the languages spoken in India. For instance, Tamil and Telugu are Dravidian languages.

Hindi and Bengali sentence structure

The verb is often placed at the end of the sentence, in both Bengali and Hindi. In fact Bengali and Hindi have similar word order, they are both what linguists call an SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) language.

English, which is a SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) language, differs from Bengali and Hindi in this respect.

For example, the phrase “he learns languages” is:

Both the Hindi and the Begali phrase start with the third person singular pronoun: « वह » (vah) in Hindi and « সে (sē) in Bengali.

In both the Hindi and the Bengali example phrase, the direct object is in 2nd position. The Hindi word for “language” is « भाषा » (bhāṣā) and the corresponding Bengali word is « ভাষা » (bhaśa). Both of these words come from the Sanskrit word « भाषा » (bhāṣā).

These example phrases end with the verb. The Hindi verb « सीखना » (sīkhnā) and the Bengali verb « শেখা » (shekha) both mean “to learn”. These verbs are similar because they both come from the Sanskrit verb « शिक्षति » (śikṣati).

Compared to the Bengali sentence, the Hindi sentence has an extra word at the end: « है » (hai) is the conjugated form of the Hindi verb « होना » (honā) which means “to be”. Hindi is a language which uses auxiliary verbs a lot.

Bengali vs Hindi grammar

In Sanskrit, nouns have one 3 possible grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter). In Hindi, nouns have one of 2 possible grammatical genders (masculine and feminine). And in Bengali nouns don’t have a grammatical gender.

In Sanskrit nouns are declined based on 8 grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental, ablative, locative, and vocative)

Hindi has 3 grammatical cases for nouns: direct, oblique and vocative. Bengali nouns are also inflected according to grammatical cases.

Going further

To learn more about the languages which are spoken in India, see these comparisons of Hindi and Sanskrit, as well as Hindi and Punjabi.