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South Asia Department

Languages of South Asia at SOAS: Panjabi

Geographically, the present-day area of Punjab is divided between the nation-states of Pakistan and India, after the Partition of the sub-continent in 1947. Large-scale migration of Panjabis has meant that today there are three areas of the world in which Panjabi is spoken: West Punjab (Pakistan), Eastern Punjab (India), and the diaspora, particularly the UK, the USA and Canada, East Africa and Australia. Although there are no accurate figures available for Panjabi speakers, either as a first or second language, a figure of about 90 million would be not far of the mark. One of the forms people encounter Panjabi outside of Panjab is through bhangra music, which second-generation diaspora musicians have developed as their own particular cultural form.

As a language, Panjabi is related to other north Indian languages (called Neo-Aryan Languages) like Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, etc., with which it shares grammar and vocabulary, though it has a higher proportion of words deriving from Persian. Historically, it has been written either in the Gurmukhi script or in the Persian script (also called Shahmukhi in this context). Gurmukhi means “from the moth of the Guru”, and in this form it was long associated with Sikhs and Sikh scriptures. It is widely acknowledged that Guru Angad (1504-1552), the second Sikh Guru, was instrumental in devising it by modifying existing scripts. But the works of Sufi poets like Baba Farid, who were among the first to compose in Panjabi, and later the widely popular qissas, tales of doomed love, of Hir-Ranjha and Sassi-Punnun were usually copied in Shahmukhi. Over the last hundred years or so, however, Panjabi has been written almost exclusively in Gurmukhi. In East Panjab (Pakistan), Panjabi is in fact mostly used as a spoken language.