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Punjabi - The Language of People of the Land of Five (Punj) Rivers (Ab)

Aug 17, 2007
The Punjabi language today is spoken by over a 100 million people in India and Pakistan alone. Punjabi, one of the recognized national languages of India is also official language of Punjab State. It is widely used in Delhi and Haryana, where it's the second official language and also in Himachal and J&K.

However, Pakistan has larger number of Punjabi speakers (mostly Punjab Province), but it does not enjoy any official status. With a large number of Punjabi immigrants settled across the globe, mostly in USA, UK (2nd largest language) and Canada (5th largest language), all put together, Punjabi has gained the status of 6th most widely spoken language on the planet.

Everyone, most likely is familiar with the evolution of the word "Punjab". "Punj" or "Panj" (in Hindi "Paanch") means five and "Ab" in Persian (and also Urdu) means water, referring to five great rivers Jhelum, Chenab, Sutlej, Ravi, and Beas. Starting from 3,500 BC, the land around the beds of these rivers formed a cradle for the evolution and growth of Indus Valley and later the Indo-Aryan civilizations.

However, the first recorded mention of this territory as "Punjab" was found only during the Mughal rule (around 1580 AD). Thus, "Punjabi" today refers not only the language the people of Punjab speak, but also to all those who dwelled there.

Though, the "land of five rivers", the cradle of Indus Valley civilization existed for long, it was around 1800 BC, after its cultural decline that the Harappan language of those times paved way for evolution of a large number of Aryan languages, including Punjabi. Though, the languages of that period did not resemble Punjabi, but a vast semblance in the culture it represented with that of Punjabis points to their ancient roots. Punjabi has three major variants - Western, Eastern and Mirpuri, each having several local dialects. All these dialects have common roots with Sindhi and other languages in Pakistan and Hindustani in India.

By 17th century, Punjabi was being written in 3 distinct scripts - Lhanda, Nagari and Perso-Arabic. Eastern Punjabi language, which is spoken in the Indian side of Punjab and 14 other regions, evolved from Vedic Sanskrit The script for Eastern Punjabi, Gurumukhi (the script of the Guru) was further devised from Lhanda, as a script most suitable to record religious writings. Gurumukhi has 42 characters (32 consonants and 10 vowels). It is also sometimes written in Devnagri script and like it, from left to right.

Western Punjabi is written in Shahmukhi (the script of the kings) and like Urdu is written from right to left. As the Punjabis in Pakistan took to Islam, the Arabic and Persian words and Arabic-based scripts in all Pakistani languages have united them culturally, like the Sikh and Hindu religions have brought oneness amongst Punjabis on the Indian soil.

It is now a well known fact that though the "land of five rivers" has been the cradle to some of the most ancient civilizations of the world, the equally old languages and culture of this region always remained alien to the foreign rulers of this region and therefore never used by them. Whether they were Iranians, Greeks or Muslim Arabs, Turks, Pathans or the British, their presence only enriched the Punjabi languages (with loanwords from Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and English), making modern Punjabi multilingual and varied.
About the Author
Ostom Ray is a linguist. His website provides information on Indian languages and translation services, Culture, Travel, Outsourcing and more.
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