The Sylheti language, named after the city of Sylhet today in Bangladesh, is principally spoken to the west in the Surma river valley that today comprises four districts, or zila, (Sylhet, Sunamgonj, Hobigonj, and Moulvibazar) in the Sylhet Division in north-east Bangladesh, and to the east in the Barak river valley that today comprises three districts (Cachar, Hailakandi, and Karimgonj) in the Barak Valley Division in the state of Assam, India (as well as in border areas in the Indian States of Manipur (Jiribam district) and Tripura (Unakoti and Dhalai districts)).
The common cultural area where the Sylheti language has been historically spoken corresponds to the geographic area of the Surma and Barak river valley basins which make up ‘Greater Sylhet’.
This depressed, or low-lying, area historically flooded, creating lakes from valleys for a certain period each year, so that ancient kingdoms maintained their navy ships in ‘Sylhet’; modern engineering works has limited the extent of flooding today but it still occurs, making Sylheti people historically adept at sailing, despite being near the foothills of the Himalaya mountains, which predestined some Sylheti people to acquire employment on British ships and travel around the world.
Sylheti is today also spoken by members of the diaspora in places throughout the world, in South Asia and beyond, including here in London, where it is erroneously identified as ‘Bengali’. As the Sylheti Project is based at SOAS, University of London, our interactions with Sylheti come through speakers living in London.
What is interesting about Sylheti in London (or what some might call Londoni Sylheti) is that the diaspora speakers often come from different areas of Sylhet, bringing along with them the particular accents and innovations of Sylheti in from that region. This means that studying Sylheti in London actually means studying versions/varieties of Sylheti. For linguists and language enthusiasts alike, with all its variety and diversity Sylheti is an excellent example of just how complicated it is to define “language” according to varying features.
Sylheti was traditionally written in its unique script called Siloti Nagri. This historical script fell out of usage in the mid to late 20th century, but it is experiencing a revival today.