A Backgrounder on My Next Language Challenge: Punjabi
Punjabi (also spelled Panjabi), is spoken by 130 million people and is the 10th most widely spoken language in the world. The majority of its speakers live in Pakistan and in the Punjab state of northern India, as well as large diaspora populations of speakers in other countries such as Canada, the United States, England, and Australia. It is the third most widely spoken language in Canada (after English and French), with over 430,000 speakers here, and it is the language of my in-laws which is why I’d like to speak it too!
The Punjab region (divided between India and Pakistan) gets its name from the Persian for “Five Waters”, referring to the five tributaries of the Indus River. The Punjabi language developed in the region in the 12th century. It is an Indo-Aryan language and a descendant of the Sharauseni language. The Sikh religion originated in Punjab in the 15th century and most Sikhs speak Punjabi. Along with religious texts, Sufi poetry and other literature can be found in Punjabi from at least the 16th century.
Grammar and Writing
Punjabi is a tonal language, meaning that different tones (going up or down in intonation, holding the sound for longer, etc.) distinguish words from each other even when they are pronounced the same otherwise. There are several dialects of Punjabi, the Majhi dialect being the standard for writing, and there are two main scripts: Shahmukhi used in Pakistan, and Gurumukhi used in India. The Shahmukhi script (written right to left) is a modification of a Persian script, while the Gurumukhi script (written left to write) is influenced by Hindi and English.
For those who understand grammar terms, Punjabi distinguishes two genders, two numbers, five cases, and has a canonical word order of Subject-Object-Verb. I recently learned how to say “I want to learn Punjabi” which roughly translates back to “I Punjabi Learn Want”.
Recognition and Influence
As mentioned, Punjabi is spoken in several countries around the world, and it has gained recognition in the last years. It is more and more common to find Punjabi language media (for example Hockey Night in Canada is now available in Punjabi), as well as Punjabi literature and poetry translated into other languages. In fact, my in-laws have been involved in launching the first ever international Punjabi literature prize. Perhaps the influence of Punjabi is most notable in the spread of its music and dance around the world. It is common to hear Punjabi songs in popular Bollywood movies, and even to see Bhangra flash mobs in downtown Vancouver. There is a long tradition of beautiful Punjabi folk music played with typical instruments from the region, but perhaps the upbeat dance style of Bhangra is the most well known around the world today. To hear what Punjabi sounds like, and for your viewing pleasure, I’ll leave you with this video of an impressive Bhangra performance: