The East London man ‘who’s been threatened with death’ for trying to revive a language

An East London man has received death threats for trying to spread “the truth” about a heritage Bangladeshi language that is being lost.

Mace Hoque, a British-Bangladeshi who was born in Whitechapel, told MyLondon he has been on a mission to raise awareness about Bangladeshi Sylheti since he recently discovered it was its own language, independent of Bangladeshi Bengali.

Mace, who is in his late 30s and is a community safety officer for Tower Hamlets Council, said he stumbled across a Sylheti alphabet – which he had never seen before – two months ago. He then realised it was its own language, and was even recognised as such by the UK government.

After reading into it a bit more, he discovered a “big community around the world” trying to raise awareness of Sylheti.

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Mace has set up a one-man campaign to raise awareness about the lost Bangladeshi Sylheti language

“It’s like Hindi and Urdu, it’s very similar but it’s not the same it’s two separate languages,” said Mace, who compares the loss of the Sylheti language to being “like what happened with Welsh and Irish languages.”

He said these days almost every Bangladeshi person in London identifies as Bangladeshi Bengali, whereas Sylheti is seen as a “slang” Bengali dialect used by “second-class citizens,” who often face discrimination for speaking it.

Mace described how his mum and dad, who got married in Bangladesh and moved to East London in the 80s to become a nurse and start a leather factory, identify as Bangladeshi Bengali, just like “most British Bangladeshi people in London.”

But he claims his family and most Bangladeshi Londoners are actually of Sylheti heritage.

“Since the 70s up to 2010 the majority of people who come [to the UK] from Bangladesh are Sylheti,” said Mace, adding, “it’s only in the last few years that Bengalis are coming to the UK.”

Mace explained: “When Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 the national language of Bengali was made mainstream and the Sylheti language was completely wiped away from academic institutions.

“Since independence happened no one cares about Sylheti anymore.”

Mace said: “At the moment your only identity is British Bangladeshi, but you should be able to be British Sylheti. Sylheti needs its own identity.”


Mace said there is ‘a lot of crossover’ between the Bengali and Sylheti languages, which has led to Sylheti commonly being thought of as merely a form of Bengali dialect, rather than its own language

Mace described how the core of the problem is that “the languages are separating everyone, there’s no unity or equality.”

“People who speak ‘correct’ Bengali are superior automatically,” he went on, adding, “everywhere Sylheti people go they have to speak Bengali, they struggle, and they get embarrassed or shy – and that in itself is wrong.”

You only need to take a look at the responses to Mace’s social media campaign, where he has been called a “disgrace to Bangladesh,” and even been sent death threats, to confirm these prejudices.

After Mace Tweeted that “Sylheti and Bangla are not the same” (Bengali being the English translation of Bangla), one person replied: “I don’t want to waste my time on such a disgusting dialect like Sylheti.”

“If us Bangladeshi didn’t give you ungrateful Sylheti’s recognition you illiterate would have been stateless,” wrote someone else.

Another person argued: “There is no such thing as Sylheti Nagari, it has been used in other parts of Indian subcontinent. All Nagari alphabet are similar. Gada!”

“Kid don’t try this with me Sylheti language is a dialect of Bangla,” said someone else, and one person who saw the thread even suggested Mace had “lost it.”

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Mace described how, having been taught the Bengali education system since he was child, he too was initially “baffled” and “shocked” to learn Sylheti had its own language, and “was doubting it” until he did more research.

“People speaking the Sylheti language had it pushed out of them,” explained the council worker, who said now he knows about the language he feels “very sad and scared” that it will go “extinct” after existing for thousands of years.

The council worker described how many Londoners of Bangladeshi heritage still “know Sylheti orally,” but described how the confusion arises because they “don’t study it” as its own language.

Mace said the older generation are “in denial” about their Sylheti heritage, while “the young generation just don’t care – they want nothing to do with Bangladeshi.”

“They are losing it generation to generation,” he said.

Mace says he’s not trying to “create division” with his mission.

He said: “I don’t want politics, I don’t want division. Speak whatever language you want, but just acknowledge that it’s a language. It’s really important that people acknowledge what Sylheti people have done.”

Mace is working with UNESCO, Queen Mary university, SOAS Camden and other organisations to try to raise awareness, but as he pointed out, “ there’s only so much they can do unless the speakers pick it up.”

Despite the colossal scale of the challenge he has taken on, Mace is adamant to keep going, because: “I need to raise awareness otherwise as a British Bangladeshi Sylheti I’m going to lose the heritage… my worry is that nobody is going to know anything about it.”

Dr Sanjukta Ghosh, a professor from the South Asia Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, said: “I understand that various aspects of the Bengali identity are evoked through the prism of memory, narrative and myth – where the differences and common grounds between Sylheti and Bengali linguistic heritage are played out.”

Describing how the academic view “looks at the contestations emerging from the political divisions of Bangladesh,” Dr Ghosh added: “I have encountered passion for Sylheti among the diaspora youth living in London, East London Brick Lane areas and many of them describe it as a separate language.”

The student-led Sylheti project at SOAS, for example, aims to celebrate and document the “endangered” language through preserving academic essays, animated stories, an electronic dictionary, teaching materials, and other materials.

An explanation on the University’s website reads: “Sylheti is an under-described and under-studied language, spoken by 7 million people in Bangladesh and by approximately 400,000 people in the UK.

“Despite being spoken by 10,300,000 people worldwide there are no comprehensive dictionaries or grammars of the language, mainly due to the dominant political history that views Sylheti as a ‘dialect’ of standard Bengali.”

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