Sylheti Language

n-e_india_languages_mapThe 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)).

Screenshot 2019-01-03 16.33.11-mod


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’.

map - Kamarupa Empire 350-1140 - Copy

cropped map from: Dutta, Anima. 2008. Political geography of Pragjyotisa Kamarupa. Ph.D. Gauhati University.


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.


map - sylheti in the world

11 thoughts on “Sylheti Language

  1. Punam Bhattacharjee

    Very nice article. But I don’t understand why you people have no idea about lakhs of sylheti people residing in Tripura. Near about 1/4 population of the state Tripura speaks sylheti. Near about 100% population of North Tripura, Unakoti and Dhalai district speaks sylheti. Hope in next time you will add them to sylheti world. Thank you.


  2. emthaut

    Thank you for your feedback. There are many Sylheti speakers residing in many parts of India, in fact. But because Sylheti is an unrecognized language in both Bangladesh and India, figures simply aren’t available like they should be.
    We’ve learned from Sylheti-speaking residents in Surma Valley, Bangladesh and in Barak Valley, Assam, that geographically that is what they call ‘Greater Sylhet’, or undivided Sylhet.
    Should the(se) Sylheti-speaking region(s) in Tripura be included in one of these valleys? Do you have a name for the Sylheti-speaking region(s) in Tripura other than the modern governmental units? Have Sylheti speakers been long-time residents of Tripura or is there a history of migration, like under colonialism with the population of Sylheti speakers today in Hojai district, Assam, or with Partition, etc.?
    We would very much appreciate an updated map of Sylheti in Tripura, like what Hifzur R. Siddique drew for ‘Pre-Independent Greater Sylhet’. Sagir Ahmed Msa also provided a map of Assam with current Sylheti-speaking majorities. (See maps in post.)


  3. Sylotwala

    very nice article. I thought only Sylhet District is part of Surma Valley. Moulvibazar, Habiganj and Sunamgonj are not part of Surma Valley


    • emthaut

      Thank you for your comment.

      Yes, geographical, historical, and political boundaries are confusing and seemingly ever-changing. In response to your comment, we’ve updated the page with a screenshot from a satellite image that nicely shows the topography of the ‘Greater Sylhet’ region where we think it’s quite visible that the ‘Greater Sylhet’ region is geographically distinct from the surrounding areas. A unique geography can construct a unique cultural context from which a unique language is born over a matter of hundreds of years.

      Geography has a tendency to change at a slower rate than written history, like names for areas and for peoples, and political entities, like counties, divisions, districts, and roads. And in recent history, over the past 200-500 years, that area of the world has gone through significant political changes, from the Bengal Sultanate (Shahi Bangalah) and the Kamrupa and Kachari kingdoms to European colonialisation, speeding up to Partition and Bangladesh Independence and the breaking up of the Indian state of Assam. Because of political changes, names change so that the name used today doesn’t correspond exactly to what it referred to at various time periods in the past, so that even today ‘Greater Sylhet’ isn’t the same as Bangladesh’s Sylhet Division which is also not the same as Bangladesh’s Sylhet District, named after the town of Sylhet, today in Bangladesh, but in Assam before Partition.

      In opposition to strictly delimited political boundaries, cultural and language group boundaries are rarely as strict and can occur over hundreds of kilometers that vary according to different features, like traditional dress or verb conjugation. Because culture and language are part of a person’s identity, the best practice is to respect each individual’s right to self-determination; if a person says that they speak Sylheti, we respect their identity as a Sylheti speaker. Of course, speaking Sylheti does not exclude the possibility that the person also speaks other languages. The various and multiple aspects that compose a person’s identity can overlap but some aspects can also be incongruent and/or separate from one another.

      The wiki entry on the Surma River may lead to a better understanding of the geography of the Surma trough/basin:


  4. SylotWala

    Thank you for the quick reply however my question was that the article refers to the Bangladeshi Sylhet Division as the Surma Valley. The Surma Valley is a nickname for only the Sylhet District and not the other 3 districts of the Sylhet Division. Even people in the other 3 districts refer to the Sylhet District as “Surma gang-or far” and not the entire Sylhet Division. I think it would be more appropriate to just stick to the Bangladeshi Sylhet Division when referring to the Bangladeshi part of Sylhet. Even the link you have given shows us that the river does not flow through the Habiganj, Sunamganj and Moulvibazar Districts. Many thanks.


    • emthaut

      The geographical Surma river VALLEY which forms a large basin/trough of low-lying land that extends beyond the immediate banks of the Surma river is the geographical area where Sylheti has been traditionally spoken, and this area today is roughly delimited politically by the modern Bangladesh Sylhet Division. The Sylheti language is not only spoken in the Bangladesh Sylhet District. Yes, the Surma river runs through the modern-day Bangladesh Sylhet District, but the Surma river VALLEY, like the area where people speak Sylheti, is not limited to the Bangladesh Sylhet District.
      One shouldn’t confuse geographical, historical, and political terms for areas and peoples.
      Is it possible that ‘[t]he Surma Valley [being] a nickname for only the Sylhet District and not the other 3 districts of the Sylhet Division’ is a popular erroroneous notion that may be politically motivated? The Sylheti language has dialectal variation – the Sylheti spoken in Sylhet District is not the only or the ‘correct’ variety of Sylheti.


      • SylotWala

        I guess so. By the way, I never said anything about the Sylheti language only being spoken in the district. I am aware of other forms of Sylheti that differ from Jalalabadi. Coming from a district in the Sylhet Division (it’s not Sylhet District), we do say we speak Sylheti but our Sylheti is not as “khasa” (as some people say) as what they speak in the district. This is the opinion of the people and not mine and I do find it a bit offensive for some to refer to our language as khasa but that shows the pure is in Sylhet district


  5. emthaut

    The SOAS Sylheti Project works to document the Sylheti language in all its variety and diversity. All language varieties are linguistically equally valid regardless of political, historical, social, or economic aspects. Unfortunately, discrimination based on a person’s language, dialect, and/or accent, called linguicism, does exist, but the discriminatory perceived value judgements are linguistically unjustifiable.


  6. Jabed

    Nice article. But I think you should also include Hojai district as mostly spoken sylheti language in the first paragraph of your article, like you included about 3 districts of Barak Valley along with the districts of Tripura and Manipur. It is a fact that more than 50% of the total Hojai District population speak Sylheti. I appreciate your article that had included a map of Assam where it shows Hojai District map are Sylheti. But I will be glad if you mention that in the first paragraph too.


    • emthaut

      Thank you!
      We’ve included Hojai, Assam where we describe the Sylheti diaspora which we mention at the end. At the beginning, we describe the ‘original’ area where the Sylheti language most likely developped, where Sylheti is most likely the ‘indigenous’ Indo-Aryan language. (Indigenous in as far as a couple thousand years, the Indo-Aryan migration into South Asia meeting people who already populated the subcontinent, that is.)

      Sylheti does have a diaspora of speakers around the world, like here in London, in New York, but also in South Asia itself, in Shillong, in Hojai.

      The Sylheti diaspora in the UK began with sailors (laskars) on British Merchant Marine ships that were docked during the World Wars.
      Do you have information about the Sylheti migration into Hojai? Who migrated when?
      It seems that ancient trade routes went from Llasa in the north through Sylhet to Chittagon in the south. Did this trade pass through Hojai?


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