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Number of Speakers: 104 million

Key Dialects: In India, the key dialects of Punjabi are: Majhi, Doabi, Malwai, and Powadhi. In Pakistan, the key dialects are Pothohari, Lahndi, and Multani. Following the work presented in Grierson’s (1905) Linguistic Survey of India, a number of Indic scholars have further divided Punjabi into two principal dialects – Western Punjabi or Lahndi and Eastern Punjabi. This decision, however, is controversial and by no means reflects the majority view in Indic linguistics. The standard Punjabi dialect is Majhi and standard written Punjabi is based on this dialect.

Geographical Center: Punjab state, India. Punjab province, Pakistan

Punjabi is the official language of the Indian state of Punjab and is also one of the official languages of Delhi. In addition to Punjab and Delhi, Punjabi is spoken in a variety of neighboring locales such as Haryana, Jammu, Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh. Although not considered an official language in the Pakistani province of Punjab, the language is spoken by the majority of the population. Outside of India and Pakistan, Punjabi is spoken in Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Fiji, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, where it is the fifth most widely spoken language in the country. A total of 104 million people speak the language, making Punjabi the tenth most widely spoken language in the world.

Punjabi is an Indo-Aryan language of the Indo-Iranian subgroup of the Indo-European language family.

Punjabi is comprised of many dialects that form a dialect continuum. The dialects that comprise this continuum eventually merge with Hindi in India and Sindhi in Pakistan. The dialects enjoy a relatively high level of mutual intelligibility and can be differentiated primarily with respect to their lexicons and phonology. Pakistani dialects of Punjabi tend to incorporate Persian borrowings, while the Indian Punjabi vocabulary is populated by a variety of English and Hindi loan words. Between twenty-five and thirty Punjabi dialects are typically recognized.

Different scripts are used to write Punjabi, depending on a number of socio-geographical factors. In India, Punjabi is written in the Gurmukhi script (translated literally as “from the mouth of the gurus”), while in Pakistan it is written in the Shahmukhi script (translated literally as “from the mouth of the kings”). These scripts are the most commonly used and, as such, they are considered the official orthographies of Punjabi.

Like the Devanagari orthography, the Gurmukhi script is an abugida writing system, a system where each consonant has an inherent vowel (namely [a]) that can be modified using vowel symbols that attach to the relevant vowel-bearing consonant. This orthography has forty-one consonant graphemes, nine vowel symbols, two graphemes for nasal sounds, and one symbol that duplicates the sound of any consonant. Also like the Devanagari, Gurmukhi is both written and read from left to right.

The Shahmukhi orthography is a modified version of the Persian Nasta’liq script and as such, it is written from right to left. In addition to the introduction of four additional letters, a number of different writing conventions have been employed, further differentiating the Shahmukhi script from standard Nasta’liq.

The Punjabi phoneme inventory consists of twenty-five consonant phonemes, ten vowel phonemes, three tones (High, Mid, Low), and seven diphthongs. A number of non-native speech sounds are also attested, however, these sounds occur in loan words alone (mostly Persian and Arabic loans). Punjabi is the only tone language in the Indo-European language family, making it of considerable interest to both phonologists and historical linguists.

Within the consonant series, aspiration and gemination (consonant lengthening/doubling) are phonemic or contrastive (only the stop series may be aspirated, but virtually all consonants may occur as geminates) and within the vowel series, nasalization serves a contrastive role as well. As in many other Indic languages, the phoneme inventory of Punjabi includes both the trill and tap/flap, as well as a number of retroflex articulations. Stress in Punjabi is phonemic and as such can be used to differentiate pairs of otherwise phonologically identical words. The placement of stress in the language is determined by the syllable structure and weight of a word. In general, stress falls on the penultimate syllable of a word. However, if the penultimate syllable ends with a short vowel (i.e. if it is a “light” syllable), then stress falls on the preceding syllable (i.e. the antepenultimate syllable). In addition to diphthongs and geminates, consonant and vowel clusters/sequences are permitted. Up to three vowels may appear in series in the language. Regarding consonant clusters, consonant-consonant sequences occur frequently in medial and final positions within the syllable, but only in initial position in a limited number of loan words. (In these cases, the initial consonant precedes the phoneme [r].)

Morphologically, Punjabi is an agglutinative language. That is to say, grammatical information is encoded by way of affixation (largely suffixation), rather than via independent freestanding morphemes. Punjabi nouns inflect for number (singular, plural), gender (masculine, feminine), and declension class (absolute, oblique). The absolute form of a noun is its default or uninflected form. This form is used as the object of the verb, typically when inanimate, as well as in measure or temporal (point of time) constructions. There are seven oblique forms in Punjabi, corresponding more or less to the case forms: agentive/nominative, accusative-dative, instrumental, ablative, genitive, locative, and vocative. All cases except for the vocative are distinguished by means of postpositions. The vocative form takes no postposition, but may be preceded by a vocative particle or term of address.Punjabi verbs inflect for tense, aspect (perfective, imperfective), mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conditional), voice (active, passive), person, number, and gender. In this way, Punjabi verbs agree with their subjects, as is the case with other Indic languages. Adjectives inflect for gender and number and thus agree with the nouns they modify. Adverbs do not inflect. With respect to morphology, Punjabi and Gujarati are nearly identical.

Syntactically, Punjabi is a head-final SOV language. Postpositions are attested and affixation is largely suffixal. With respect to the structure of the noun phrase, adjectives, non-adjectival modifiers, and relative clauses precede the nouns they modify. Inside the verb phrase, indirect objects precede direct objects and negative, auxiliary, and interrogative elements precede the main verb. Adverbs typically follow the subject and precede the object(s) of the verb, while embedded clauses follow their verbal complements.

Punjabi is the official language of the Indian state of Punjab and is also one of the official languages of Delhi. Although it is the predominant spoken language in the Punjab province of Pakistan, it does not have official status there. In fact, English and Urdu are considered the languages of the elite in Punjab, Pakistan, rendering Punjabi somewhat marginalized in this region. Where it is spoken as an official language, Punjabi is used in government, education, commerce, art, mass media, and in everyday communication. Punjabi has a rich literary tradition and is the typical language used in Bhangra, a fusion of traditional singing and dancing that has recently gained popularity in south Asia. Punjabi is spoken by a variety of religious denominations, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs living in both India and Pakistan. With respect to the Sikhs, Punjabi is the preferred language. A good deal of Sikh religious literature is written in the language. There are a fairly large number of Punjabi ethnic groups scattered around the world. The most notable diaspora include populations in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and most notably in Canada where, according to the 2001 Canadian census, Punjabi is the among the top five most commonly spoken languages in the country.

It is uncertain as to which point in history the Punjabi language or ethnic group came into being. The Punjabi heritage can be traced back at least to 2500 B.C., when the group inhabited the ancient Indus Valley centered at Harappa. Over the centuries, Indo-Aryan, Persian, Greek, Arab, Afghan, and British invaders all influenced the cultural and linguistic landscape of the region inhabited by the early Punjabis. Around the period of 2000-1250 B.C., the Indo-Aryans exerted great influence over the region, largely shaping the language by means of Sanskrit, the linguistic driving force behind the Indo-Aryan Vedic civilization. Over time, a number of Eurasian invasions resulted in the fragmentation of the Punjabi homeland. The western portion of this region (now modern-day Pakistan) was especially war-torn and linguistically fragmented as a result of the invasions. Although an ancient language, Punjabi’s literary tradition is relatively young. It was only with the creation of the Gurmukhi script toward the end of the sixteenth century that Punjabi came to develop a literary tradition. The first Punjabi writings, however, can be traced as far back as the twelfth century to the writings of the poet Farid-udin Masood.

Bailey, Rev. T. Grahame. 1904. Panjabi Grammar. Lahore: Punjab Government Press.

Cardona, George. 2003. The Indo-Aryan Languages. New York, New York: Routledge.

Dulai, Narinder K. 1989. A Pedagogical Grammar of Punjabi. Patiala: Indian Institute of Language Studies.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Gill, Harjeet Singh Gill and Henry A. Gleason, Jr. 1969. A Reference Grammar of Punjabi. Patiala: Patiala University Press.

Grierson, G.A. 1905. Linguistic Survey of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Koul, Omkar N. and Madhu Bala. 1941. Punjabi Language and Linguistics. An Annotated Bibliography. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Language Studies.

Malik, Amar Nath. 1995. The Phonology and Morphology of Panjabi. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Masica, Colin P. 1991. The Indo-Aryan Languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Newton, P.E. 1896. Panjabi Manual and Grammars. (Second Edition) Jullundur City: Bharat Printing Press.

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