Punjabi is spoken by more than 150 million people in India, Pakistan, and many other countries. It is the 10th largest among about 7000 languages of the world. Punjabi is a graceful and fluid, ornate, and downright exotic language. The neglect of any language can lead to the erosion of the culture and identity of the people. “Scripts are a hugely important aspect of culture. Each writing system tells the tale of its culture’s history, its evolution, and its deeply embedded values”, write Martin Raymond and Lorna Evans, the world’s leading linguistic authorities.
Sanskrit was one of the languages spoken in India, though restricted to the priestly class. In Western Punjab (now in Pakistan), Punjabi was (and is still) spoken by a vast majority of the common people. It is written in the Persian- Arabic script called Shahmukhi. However, the Sikh Gurus did not believe in this elitism. Therefore, the Gurmukhi script was invented to enable people to initially read, pronounce and write the divine verses by Guru Nanak (1469 – 1539). Until then the written languages were reserved for the powerful and the so-called high castes. There was no writing system for the common people based on any common language.
Guru Angad (1504 – 1552) chose to make a new script, Gurmukhi, for the standard spoken Punjabi language for all the people. Punjabi is not only spoken by Sikhs but by Hindus as well as Muslims as their common language. Sikhs are expected to learn Gurmukhi in order to read the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) in its original written form. This scripture has Gurmukhi as its only script for the compositions of Sikh Gurus and some other saints whose verses are in the Punjabi language or in different dialects of Punjabi. As such Punjabi also was given the general title Sant Bhasha.
Punjabi has the freedom to evolve unique features, like new letters for sounds. The mercantile scripts of Punjab (meant for trade) were known as the Laṇḍā (without tails) scripts. These scripts were not useful for literary purposes, as they did not have any vowels. Of all such scripts, Mahajani was the most popular. The use of vowels in Gurmukhi gave it increased versatility. Soon Punjabi became the main medium of literacy in Punjab and adjoining areas. For centuries, the earliest schools were attached to Gurdwaras. Punjabi spread widely under the Sikh Empire and was used by Sikh kings and chiefs of Punjab for administrative purposes. The first grammar of the Punjabi language was written in the 1860s in Gurmukhi.
Singh Sabha Movement of the late 1800s started to revitalize Sikh institutions which had declined during colonial rule after the fall of the Sikh Empire. This also advocated the usage of the Gurmukhi script for schools and colleges, the printing of books, and Punjabi-language newspapers. Later in the 20th century, Gurmukhi became the official script and is now used in all spheres of culture, arts, education, and administration, with a firmly established secular character.
Mother-tongue of more than 40 million people in Eastern Punjab in India and about 90 million in Western Punjab (a majority of Pakistan) is Punjabi. This amounts to nearly 45 % of the population of these two states. It is also spoken in most of the Northern Indian states as well. Punjabi is known to have been spoken by a large population during the Indus Valley civilization. Some sister languages of Punjabi are Khudabadi, Khojki, Mahajani, and Multani.
Dialects of Punjabi are similar to each other, and speakers can understand most of them. In India, the main dialects of Punjabi are Majhi, Doabi, Malawi, and Pwadhi. Malawi is spoken mostly in areas South of the river Sutlej. In Pakistan, the main dialects are Majhi and Shahmukhi. In India, Majhi is spoken mostly in Amritsar, Tarn Taran Sahib, and Gurdaspur districts. Pahari, Saraiki, and Dogri dialects are spoken in Kashmir. In both countries, the percentage of Punjabi speakers is nearly 2 %. Punjabi is also spoken as a minority language by nearly 30 million people in several other countries where large numbers of Punjabis have emigrated. In Australia, it is the second most commonly used language. In UK and Canada, it is the third-most-spoken language. There are Punjabi speakers in most of the European and African countries, Singapore, Hongkong, Bangkok, Malaysia, the UAE, the USA, Saudi Arabia, and some other Middle Eastern countries.
Characteristics of Panjabi words
Punjabi language in Gurmukhi script designed by Guru Angad opened the door of the unique concept of Shabad Guru. The Shabads or words of Gurus (in Sri Guru Granth Sahib) were exalted to the status of a Guru (Divine Teacher). English has 26 alphabets, but Gurmukhi has 35, arranged in seven rows of five letters each. The first three in the first row form the basis for ten forms of vowels The other consists of consonants. The seventh row has unique Gurmukhi letters. Equivalents in English exist for only 26 out of the 35 Gurmukhi alphabets including the two nasal sounds. Also, there are six additional consonants in Gurmukhi, equivalents for which do not exist in English.
The consonants have inherent vowels as marks ( diacritics), placed above or below (or next to) an alphabet in a word to indicate a particular pronunciation. Gurmukhi uniquely affixes three subscript letters that merge parts of each letter into a distinct character. In addition, there are special symbols for sound modification and enhancement. A vertical bar is used to indicate the end of a sentence. Some of the vowels and the words formed from them are uttered from the backside of the throat with some help from the front part. Some are uttered from the middle portion of the mouth. Others are uttered from the front side, which the mouth has to be opened a bit wide. Sound Enhancers include Ṭippī and Bindī produce, respectively, short and long nasal sounds in words The third is called Adhik which stresses a part of the word. There are three “subscripts” ( letters at the foot), utilized in some words. These subscripts are ਹ , ਰ and ਵ.
Panjabi as a tonal language has variable pitch to convey different meanings of similar words rather than just using new consonants. Words that sound similar can be differentiated by various tones (or frequencies) in Punjabi. The tone is a measure of the quality of a language. Such a language is called ‘lexical’. It has three phonemically distinct tones: (a) low to rising, (b) neutral – sometimes rising and sometimes falling, and (c) high to fall. They can span over one syllable or two but phonetically they are different. There are combinations of words formed by making slight changes in a word and using the actual and altered words together. The second part of such ‘combo words’ usually does not mean anything by itself, but the combination makes the language rhythmic. This effect is also achieved sometimes by adding a second related word with a different meaning. F
Gurmukhī has its own set of digits, which function exactly as in other versions, used in older texts. In modern contexts, they are sometimes replaced by standard Western Arabic numerals. Unicode. Gurmukhī script was added to the Unicode Standard in October 1991 with the release of version 1.0. Latin ASCII codes can be converted to Gurmukhī glyphs (purposeful marks). The Unicode block for Gurmukhī is U+0A00–U+0A7F: Panjab Digital Library has taken up digitization of all available manuscripts of Gurmukhī Script. The script has been in formal use since the 1500s, and a lot of literature written within this time period is still traceable. Panjab Digital Library has digitized over 5 million pages from different manuscripts and most of them are available online. Punjabi University Patiala has developed label generation rules for validating international domain names for the internet in Gurmukhi.
Note: You may read more about Panjabi Language, Culture and Heritage in our monthly magazine:
SANJHI VIRASAT (www.sanjhivirasat.org).