The Punjabi language, also spelled Panjabi, boasts a rich literary history that is still celebrated by the Punjabi-language community today.
Traditional oral poetry and Punjabi folklore has been passed down and transcribed for generations and remains a popular part of Punjabi folk culture. This rich cultural history, combined with the Punjab territory’s past of British colonialism, makes the development of the language an intriguing point of study.
Classification and Early History of the Punjabi Language
Punjabi is classified as a member of the Indo-Aryan subgroup of the Indo-European family of languages. All languages within the Indo-Aryan family developed in three major stages: Old Indo-Aryan or Sanskrit; Middle Indo-Aryan, consisting of Prakrit and Apabhramsha stages; and New Indo-Aryan, which dates from circa the 10th century CE.
The Punjabi language is a descendent of the Sauraseni Prakrit, a language of medieval northern India. It believed to have developed as a distinct language from the Shauraseni Apabhramsha language around the 11th century. Other early influences on Punjabi include Indo-Aryan and pre-Indo-Aryan languages.
Characteristics of the Punjabi Language
Modern Punjabi is a very tonal language, making use of various tones to differentiate words that would otherwise be identical. Three primary tones can be identified: high-rising-falling, mid-rising-falling, and low rising.
By using these tones properly, Punjabi language speakers are able to differentiate between words that otherwise appear to be the exact same as one another. Needless to say, for those who attempt to learn Punjabi as a second language, grasping the importance of and mastering the different tones can be extremely challenging.
Written Punjabi Language
The Punjabi language is written in a variety of scripts. The two most common are the Perso-Arabic script and a script based on the Gurmukhi alphabet. Developed by a Sikh, Guru Angad, the Gurmukhi alphabet was initially developed for use in writing scriptures during the 16th century.
Less commonly, Punjabi is also written using the Devanagari script.
History of the Punjab Territory
Today the Punjabi language is found primarily in the Punjab State of India and Punjab Province of Pakistan. These two areas were formerly united as part of the Punjab Territory under British colonial rule in India. “British India” was much larger than the country we know as India today and included present-day India as well as areas of modern Pakistan.
With the partition of British India in 1947, the nation of Pakistan was formed distinct from India, and the formerly united British Punjab Territory was divided between the two countries. Today, more than 100 million Punjab speakers can be found in the area that once formed Punjab territory. Interestingly, the name Punjab literally translates into “five waters” in the Persian language and is thought to refer to the five major rivers found in the formerly-united Punjab territory.
Punjabi Language in India
Punjabi is an officially recognized language in India’s constitution; however, as with most of India’s linguistic groups, Punjabi’s distribution in the country is very regional. The majority of Punjab language speakers are found in the Punjab state, formerly part of British India’s Punjab Territory, where Punjabi serves as the official state language. Hindi is also widely spoken in the Punjab state.
The Punjab state is home to a large Sikh population, as well as a number of holy Sikh shrines and temples. For this reason, Sikhism and the Punjabi language are often seen as having an intertwined identity in India.
Punjabi Language in Pakistan
Pakistan is a linguistically diverse country, and Punjabi is only one of many languages that can be found in the country. As in India, Punjab language speakers in Pakistan tend to be found primarily in the country’s Punjab Province, formerly part of British India’s Punjab Territory. The official national languages of Pakistan are English and Urdu, a form of Farsi. Even in the Punjab state, Urdu is more prominently used than Punjab for formal purposes.
Because Urdu is taught in Punjab schools and every Punjabi reads and writes the language, the Punjabi language is used predominantly in the spoken form. In the late 20th century, a movement calling for an increased use of Punjabi in Pakistan led to the publishing of many Punjabi language texts using the Urdu script.
Modern Punjabi Language and Dialects
Two main varieties of the Punjab language exist: western, also known as Lahnda, and eastern, also known as Gurmukhi. There are an estimated 88 million native Punjabi-language speakers around the world today, the majority of them located in India and Pakistan. Additional Punjab language communities can be found around the world, from the United States to South Africa.
Punjabi Language Literature
The earliest known examples of a Punjabi literary language date as far back as the 9th century CE and consist primarily of spiritual and religious texts, many of them written by Sufi mystics. Although the language in these early texts is closer to Shauraseni Apabramsha, the vocabulary shows early development of colloquial Punjabi forms.
The Punjabi language is known for its long history of folk literature, which is rich in traditional poetry. In fact, much of it is oral poetry that has been transcribed. From the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, the Punjabi language gave birth to a number of well-known poets who wrote on all manner of topics, from tragic love stories to the spiritual or historical. One of the best-known Punjabi language writers from this time is the poet Baba Bulleh Shah, who wrote in the Sufi tradition.
Today, Punjabi language literature has gained global recognition, especially Punjabi poetry, which is noted for its meaningful and beautiful verse. The works of a number of Punjabi language poets have been translated into other languages and are read around the world.
Punjabi Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Panjabi, Gurmukhi, Gurumukhi
Language Family: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Central zone, Panjabi.
Official Language of: India
Spoken by Approximately 27,125,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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