PUNJABI is the language of the Punjab. Spoken slightly differently in two parts of the Punjab after the State was politically split into two, East Punjab and West Puṅjāb (or Pakistan Punjab), on 15 August 1947. But the Punjabi speaking population is not confined to the political boundaries of the two Punjabs. In India Punjabi is also spoken in vast areas of Haryāṇā, Himāchal Pradesh, Jammū and Kashmīr and the Gaṅgānagar district of Rājāthān. In Pakistan too there are Punjabi speaking areas beyond the Western Punjab; they are in North Western Frontier Province, Sindh and some territories of Jammū and Poonch under Pakistan's occupation at present.

         Dr George A. Grierson, author of the monumental, Linguistic Survey of India accepts Western Punjabi the language of Western Punjab as an independent language; but all speakers of Eastern and Western Punjabi have always treated Western Punjabi as a dialect of Punjabi. Even on the basis of linguistic analysis it cannot be established that it is a language different from Punjabi. The label Lahndā, given it by Grierson, is also incorrect; it is Lahndī, or more properly, Laihndī.

         Punjabi has three dialects with a number of sub-dialects in each of these. Eastern Punjabi, the language of Indian Punjab, has four sub-dialects, viz. Mājhī, Malvaī, Doābī and Puādhī. Western Punjabi or lahndī contains Multānī, Shāhpurī-Jhaṅgī, Poṭhohārī and Hindko as sub-dialects. The third dialect, Pahāṛi or ḍogrī, also has four sub-dialects Kāṅgṛī, Bhattiālī, Jammuālī (the language of Jammū region) and Poonchī. The ḍogri speaking people are striving to get government recognition claiming that their language is different from Punjabi. But each region is claiming a separate entity of its own language : language of Jammū with the label ḍogrī, and that of Himāchal Pradesh, naming it Himāchalī, Pahāṛī-Mājhī. The language of Mājhā region, consisting of Amritsar and Gurdāspur districts of the Indian Punjab, and the Lahore district of the Pakistani Punjab, is accepted to be the standard form of Punjabi both in India and Pakistan.

         Punjabi is one of the New Indo-Āryan languages. Indo-Āryan is a branch of Indo-European family. It has passed through several phases of development, which, for the sake of convenience, are divided into three main stages : Old Indo-Āryan (OIA), Middle Indo-Āryan (MIA) and New Indo-Āryan (NIA). The period of OIA is accepted to be from 1500 BC to 500 BC. The earliest form of OIA is called 'Vedic', that is, the language in which the Vedas were composed. Its next phase is Sanskrit, which ceased to be the spoken language of the masses by the sixth century BC, but extensive literature was produced in Sanskrit up to eleventh and twelfth centuries. The MIA has three phases of development. Pālī is the representative of the first phase. It is believed that it was the spoken language in the north western parts of India from about 500 BC to the beginning of the Christian era. The various languages which were current in the second phase of the MIA are given a common label Prākrit; their period extends from the beginning of the Christian era to around AD 500. In the third phase again all languages have a common label Apabhraṅsha. It is from these Apabhraṅshas that Punjabi and New Indo-Āryan languages developed around the eleventh century A.D.

         Before analysing the linguistic characteristics of Punjabi it would be desirable to discuss the process of development through which Punjabi has attained its present form. The earliest form of the Indo-Āryan language, the OIA, was structurally much different from NIA or Punjabi. Vedic had 52 phonemes,13 vowels and 39 consonants. In Sanskrit some of these phonemes disappeared and some others were articulated in a changed form. On grammatical side OIA was a highly synthetic language. It employed suffixes and prefixes to perform the function for which independent words are used in NIA. Suffixes, called vibhaktīs, were employed where Punjabi, Hindi, etc., are using postpositions. Again, the verbal forms of the OIA were also of synthetic nature. The auxiliary verb did not exist, its function was performed by affixes. There were three genders — masculine, feminine and neuter; three numbers — singular, dual and plural; and eight cases. The nouns and adjectives in OIA changed their form according to number, gender and case, and as such the grammatical forms of a noun or adjective could run into hundreds. In addition to these devices, OIA made extensive use of sandhī and samās (compounding). The result of all these processes was that morphological forms were much complicated, but syntactic structure was simpler than it is in the NIA. Since the grammatical status of a noun (whether it was subject, object, etc.) was determined from its form; its position in a sentence did not have much significance.

         Pālī is considerably different from OIA on phonological level. Against 52 phonemes of Vedic, Pālī had only 46 󈟚 vowels and 36 consonants. Out of the 13 vowels of Vedic 4 were diphthongs in Pālī. All vowels are simple, none has a diphthongal character. Of the three fricatives /Ś/, /ṣ/ and /S/ of OIA, Pālī retains only /S/. The grammatical structure of Pālī is not much different from OIA. The language is still synthetic. Three genders are present, there are only two numbers — the dual number has disappeared. There are only six vibhaktīs(case-endings) in place of eight that existed in OIA.

         Next, in the sequence of development, come the Prākrits. Scholars have varied opinions about the number of Prākrits. The specimens available to the modern scholars prove that there were at least four major Prākrits — Shaursenī, Māhārāshṭṛī, Maghdhī and Ardhamaghdhī. Paishāchī is sometimes counted as a fifth Prākrit. On the phonological side, Prākrits are not much different from Pālī. The fricatives /Ś/ and /ṣ/ do not exist in Prākrits. The semi-vowel /y/ has changed to /j/ in some Prākrits, particuarly in Shaursenī, which was spoken in the north-western India, and is, like Pālī, the ancestor of Punjabi. Consonant clusters, which abound in OIA, go on progressively decreasing in MIA. Prākrits are less synthetic than Vedic, Sanskrit and even Pālī. Words, which have functions akin to those of postpositions, are used in certain constructions. Now there are only four case-endings mostly in use. Most of the nouns and adjectives, in masculine, singular form, end in — o, and therefore Prākrits are called ‘o-ending languages'.

         The number of Apabhraṅshas remains undecided. Different sources count from three to about thirty Apabhraṅshas. There is no clue available to ascertain as to which of the Apabhraṅshas is the source of Punjabi. None of the Apabhraṅshas which have extant specimens, can be associated with Punjabi. The Apabhraṅshas are more analytical than even the Prākrits. Some postpositions are in use now. The auxiliary verb has also appeared in a few verbal forms. Only three case-endings are in common use. The compounded form of verbs is quite common. Still the language is much more synthetic than the NIA. In Apabhraṅshas most nouns end in—u, in masculine, singular form; on the basis of this characteristic the Apabhraṅshas are sometimes called 'u-ending languages.' There are some variations in phonological pattern as well. The phoneme /n/ has a very high frequency. The number of voiced, aspirated consonants has considerably increased and aspirated forms of /n, ṇ, m, l, r/ are found in most Apabhraṅshas.

         This is the brief survey of the history of the development of Indo-Āryan languages from its earliest form to the New Indo-Āryan. Punjabi is one of the NIA languages, the others being Sindhī, Western Hindī, Eastern Hindī, Rājasthānī, Gujarātī, Marāṭhī, Oriya, Bihārī, Beṅgālī, Assamese and Pahāṛī.

         Punjabi, along with other NIA languages, is believed to have originated in the eleventh century. It is not logically or linguistically correct to accept that all NIA languages originated at the same time, or they developed at the same pace. Languages do not change their form in a few years, or in a few decades; it takes centuries for a language to adopt a recognizably different structure. When we say that Punjabi originated in the eleventh century, it simply means that by this time the language had acquired most characteristics of modern Punjabi but it certainly was not exactly akin to the present-day language. Punjabi has passed through different stages or phases of development during these nine centuries. For the sake of convenience we can divide the course of development into the following four phases :

First phase up to AD 1400
Second phase 1400 to 1700
Third phase 1700 to 1850
Fourth phase 1850 onwards

         The only specimens of the first phase that have reached our hands are in the form of the poetic compositions of Sūfī saint Shaikh Farīd (1175-1265), which are preserved in Sikh Scripture, the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The linguistic structure of the verses of Shaikh Farīd is not different from the language of Gurū Nānak and his successors contained in the same holy book. The language of Farīd linguistically belongs to the second phase, and true specimens of the first phase are not available.

         The poetry of Gurū Nānak (1469-1539), Gurū Aṅgad (1504-1552), Gurū Amar Dās (1479-1574), Gurū Rām Dās (1534-1581), Gurū Arjan (1563-1606), and some other saint poets found in the Gurū Granth Sāhib belongs to the second phase. The poetry of Sikh scholar and poet Bhāī Gurdās, Sūfī saint Shāh Husain and Damodar who versified the love story of Hīr and Rāñjhā, also belongs to the same period. Some prose was also written in this period. But these compositions have not reached us in true, original form. Therefore, we shall consider the Punjabi poetry of the first five Sikh Gurūs only for the purpose of a linguistic analysis of this phase. This period is rightly called ‘Gurū period'.

         Punjabi of this period is much more analytical as compared to Sanskrit, Pālī, etc. Still it retains some synthetic features. Some of the case-endings are quite common, particularly the suffixes of instrumental, locative and ablative cases. The auxiliary verb is almost non-existent, and the verbal forms are of synthetic nature. All the postpositions of modern Punjabi, with the lone exception of ne, are in use, though some of these are slightly different from their modern form. Thus synthetic and analytic devices (suffixes and postpositions) are used side by side. On the phonological level too the Punjabi of this period has some variation from the modern Punjabi. Fricatives /ṣ/ (/sh/) and /z/ do not exist in the Punjabi of this period. Vowel (/au/) has a very low frequency; on the contrary (/ai/) has much higher frequency. Again, nasalization was not so frequent as it is today. The plural forms of masculine and feminine nouns end in nasalized vowels in modern Punjabi, most of these have only oral vowel at the end in the language of the Gurū-period. Most masculine nouns have the ending 'a' in singular form, and most feminine, singular nouns end in ‘ī'. But the Apabhraṅsha 'u'-ending nouns are also very common. All masculine nouns which end in a consonant in singular form in modern Punjabi retained the Apabhraṅsha 'u' at the end in old Punjabi of first and second phases. Short vowels do not occur in word-final position now, but in the Punjabi of Gurū-period final short vowel was a common feature.

         The Punjabi of the third phase is almost as analytical as the modern language. Some of the case suffixes do exist, as they exist today, but in most cases the postposition of modern Punjabi, including nai (modern ne) is in use. The forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives are almost the same as they are today. Short vowels in word-final position are disappearing. Nasalization is increasing and plural form of the nouns and adjectives ends in a nasalized vowel in most cases. /ṣ/, (/sh/) and /z/ are still non-existent. The frequency of vowel /au/ has considerably increased. The most significant aspect of the Punjabi of this period is the emergence of tone which has vastly changed the phonological structure of the language. The period of emergence of tone cannot be ascertained with any reasonable precision. Certain orthographic symbols in the Gurū Granth suggest that some form of tone did exist in the Gurū-period. At the same time it seems certain that the tone had not the same frequency and the same characteristics as in modern Punjabi, otherwise the orthographic pattern of the Gurmukhī script would have been quite different.

         Like the two earlier phases this was also primarily a period of poetry. Very few prose works were produced. The poetic language of this phase lacks the sophistication and dignity of the language of Gurbāṇī (poetry of the Gurūs). Prose writings are wanting in controlled expression and literary discipline. However the language of prose is simple and has a poetic flow.

         The fourth phase, which continues till today, is different from the earlier stages in many ways. It begins with the establishment of British sovereignty in Punjab. A large number of schools were started, which enabled common people to get education. The advent of the printing press and the start of newspapers and journals made a drastic change in the language awareness of the Punjabis. As the number of readers increased, more and more books were written and printed. The teaching of English was responsible for initiating a new era of linguistic innovation. A large number of vocables of Perso-Arabic origin were borrowed by Punjabi during the period of Muslim domination, but phonological and grammatical structure of Punjabi remained unaffected by these borrowings. Loan words were assimilated by Punjabi, but foreign sounds were not accepted. Punjabi retained its original character in spite of heavy borrowings. During British rule, however, foreign sounds were also accepted at least by the educated people. Many words were borrowed from English. Written Punjabi underwent a complete change. The punctuation marks were introduced for the first time; the full stop was the only punctuation mark used in earlier writings. Another significant innovation was writing of separate word units, instead of the line unit which was the common mode of writing in earlier works. Paragraph forming was yet another device which Punjabi acquired from English. Punjabi writers copied the English style of framing lengthy complex sentences. In addition to borrowing of vocables from other languages, new words were coined and new shades of meanings were given to the existing words. The words were selected with discretion and linguistic craftsmanship was exercised in the construction of sentences.

         It was for the first time in the history of Punjabi that planned development of the language was undertaken; in the earlier phases it was only natural development.

         Spoken Punjabi could not remain unaffected. The educated Punjabis tried to pronounce loan words in their original form, and this resulted in the borrowing of foreign sounds. /sh/ and (z) were the first to be adopted. Perso-Arabic /f/ and even /kh/' / gh/ were also pronounced by some Punjabis. Nasalization and tone increased considerably and are still increasing. A fairly large number of English words found place even in the language of non-literate Punjabis. On the phonological level, tone is a significant phoneme of Punjabi, which distinguishes it from other NIA languages. No major Indian language, except Punjabi, has tone as a distinctive sound. The tone has affected the entire phonological structure of Punjabi. Tone has replaced the voiced aspirates /gh/, jh, dh, ḍh, bh, /h/ in specific situations, and these voiced aspirates have very limited occurrence in the standard Punjabi today. Tone is still increasing and in many cases non-distinctive tone is also articulated these days. Similarly nasalization is also increasing, and vowels are nasalized, in some cases, where nasalization is not required according to grammar. For instance /āīāṅ/ (these women came) is pronounced as /āṅīṅāṅ/ by all Punjabis although grammatically only the final /aṅ/ should be nasalized. The fricatives /sh/ and /z/ are now pronounced almost by all speakers; the frequency of /f/ is increasing, and on the contrary Arabic /kh/ and /gh/ are disappearing from the speech of the new generation. Very few consonant clusters can be heard in the language spoken by the masses. The short vowels are not articulated in word-final position.

         Grammatically Punjabi is, on the whole, an analytical language, though it still retains some of the synthetic characteristics. Suffixes of instrumental, ablative and locative cases are used with some nouns. In addition to these, vocative forms of all human nouns can be formed with, the help of suffixes, and there are separate suffixes according to number and gender. There are two numbers, singular and plural, and two genders, masculine and feminine. Every noun in Punjabi is assigned to one of the two genders. The verb agrees with the subject according to gender and number, and in a few cases according to person and number. But if the verbal form contains the past participle of a transitive verb, the verb agrees with the object. The tense is mostly decided by the auxiliary verb, which comes after the main verb. There are very few verbal forms in which the auxiliary verb does not occur. Compounding of verbal forms is a common feature. The verbal form baiṭhā hoiā sī (was sitting) contain past participle of two verbs in addition to the auxiliary (was); they are baiṭh (sit), and ho (be). In some cases three verbs are compounded in a verbal form. Punjabi employs postpositions in place of the prepositions of English. For word-formation Punjabi mostly uses suffixes; prefixes are very few, and all have adjectival function. Again, more than one prefix does not occur in any word, whereas there can be three or even four suffixes in some words. Punjabi makes extensive use of reduplication which can be of varied forms. The same word can be repeated as in haulī-haulī (slowly), two synonyms can come together as kālā-siāh (jet-black), two antonyms may form a compound nikkā-moṭā (of ordinary nature); rhyming words may form a pair — neṛe-teṛe (around). Punjabi has five degrees of proximity against two in English, Hindi, Urdu, etc. For English ‘this' Punjabi has three words expressing proximity on quite different basis. They are—āh, (which is nearer to the first person and away from the second person), hāh (which is closer to the second person, but away from the first person), and eh (close to both). For English ‘that' Punjabi has auh (away from both, but within sight) and oh farthest in time and space, not within sight.

         Since Punjabi is mainly an analytical language, word-order in a sentence plays a significant role. The general order of a Punjabi sentence is subject-object-verb, when the sentence has transitive verb, but the other words occur in the same order. The adjective precedes the noun it qualifies; with a pronoun the adjective is used normally in a predicative form only. In rare cases when an adjective qualifies a pronoun in an attributive form, it comes after the pronoun, as in he oh vichārā (poor thing). The adverb also occurs before the verb it qualifies. The interrogative words, in normal construction, come immediately after the subject of the sentence — oh kadoṅ āiā sī (when did he come?) The shifting of the position of the interrogative element results in change in the sense of the sentence — kadoṅ āiā sī oh, oh āiā kadoṅ sī have a connotation different from the earlier sentence. The auxiliarly verb comes after the main verb. If the verbal form is compound of two or more verbs, the auxiliary will occur after all components of the compound. Interrogative sentences are formed with the help of interrogative words, and there is no other change in the order of the sentence as in : muṇḍā āiā sī (the boy had come), muṇḍā kioṅ āīā sī (why did the boy come?), muṇḍā kadoṅ āīā sī (when did the boy come?) A change in the general order of the sentences changes the connotation — kartār kitāb paṛh rihā hai (Kartār is reading a book) is a general statement. If the question is who is reading the book?, the answer will be kartār paṛh rihā hai kitāb, and if the question is — what is Kartār doing?, the answer would be kītab paṛh rihā hai Kartār.

         Punjabi is very rich in the vocabulary concerning the culture of ancient and medieval ages. It has most extensive kinship vocabulary. Most Indo-Āryan languages have separate words for uncle and aunt relations of different levels; for instance there are separate words for father's brother, mother's brother, husband of father's sister, husband of mother's sister, etc. Punjabi has the widest range in kinship vocabulary. In addition to separate names for relations like father's sister, mother's sister, brother's wife, wife's sister, etc, Punjabi has words for father of father-in-law, brother of father-in-law, father of mother-in-law, brother of mother-in-law, and also for the wives of all these male relations. The Lahndī dialect of Punjabi has separate names even for cousin category of kinship. patreru is the son of father's brother, and pitrerī is daughter of father's brother. Similarly there are independent names of sons and daughters of mother's brother, mother's sister, father's sister. There is wide range of names of natural objects and their parts. A minute division of time is made and each division is given a name. The example of division of space has already been given while explaining the degree of proximity. There are three sparate pronouns for English ‘he'-eh (he, who is close by), auh (he, who is bit away but is within sight), oh (he, who is far away, may not be within sight). But there is no distinction of gender in the pronouns in Punjabi and the same pronouns are used for ‘he', ‘she' and ‘it'. There is a vast vocabulary concerning agriculture the names of agricultural implements and their parts, crops and their stems, leaves, fruits, and words for agricultural processes. In Lahndī, for example, there are five separate words for a drain — paggun, khālsā, nālī, kassī, wahā. Again, Punjabi has a rich treasure of vocabulary pertaining to theology, mysticism and ethics.

         Because of political reasons, Punjabi could not develop, through natural process, the vocabulary concerning the scientific and technological subjects of modern civilization. The result was that when it was called upon to perform the duties of meḍium of instruction up to university level, and to act as the language of administration and polity, it found itself inadequately equipped for these responsibilities. Extensive borrowings were made to make up the deficiency. But that could not be enough, hence new terms were coined, existing words were given new connotation; new forms of old words were acquired through acceptable, and quite often, unacceptable grammatical process. The result of all. these efforts was that Punjabi was forced to own many words, grammatical forms, idioms, and even phonemes which could not fit into the linguistic structure of this language. This situation still exists and the process of making old experiments still continues.

         The oldest specimens of Punjabi literature are preserved in the Gurū Granth Sāhib. In addition to these are poetic compositions of some saints, some vārs (war ballads) and some qissās (narrative poetry). The same genres continued to be the main vehicles of literary expression during the seventeenth century. But, after the compilation of the Sikh scripture there is very little Punjabi poetry composed by the Sikhs. There are some poetical works, mostly dealing with Sikh history written by Sikh scholars, but Punjabi poetry of that century mainly came from the pens of Muslim poets. After the death of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh the Sikhs had to pass through a period of persecution and oppression for about seven decades; and later when they established their empire, they were throughout engaged in warfare. They had, as such, no time to devote to literary pursuits. This situation continued till the end of the Sikh rule in AD 1849. The Sikh literature produced during this period is mostly by the Nirmalās or the Udāsīs. These two sects had close links with the Hindu tradition, and were itinerant recluses who roamed through whole of northern India, preaching the message of the Sikh Gurūs. They had, as such, to use a language which could be understood in any part of northern India. This language which is now labelled Sādhu Bhāshā, was adopted by these Sikh writers. They used Sādhu Bhāshā but wrote always in Gurmukhī script, which was originated by the Second Gurū, Gurū Aṅgad, and had throughout remained specially associated with Sikhs and Sikhism. The Muslim Punjabi poets wrote their poetry in Persian script. Thus, Punjab, which was enriched by the sublime poetry of the Sikh Gurūs, remained neglected by Sikh scholars almost till the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was under the influence and guidance of the Siṅgh Sabhā (founded in 1873) that the Sikhs declared Punjabi as their language and Gurmukhī its script.

         The Punjab was divided into two parts, the eastern part, remaining in India and the western going to Pakistan in 1947. The Sikhs who had en masse migrated to the Indian Punjab, wanted that Punjabi should be declared the official language of Punjab which demand was not accepted by government. The whole of India was divided into unilingual states, but not the Punjab. The Sikhs had to resort to a long drawn struggle to have their claim accepted. Punjabi is now prospering, and non-Sikhs including a fairly large number of Hindus are amongst the leading scholars and writers of Punjabi.

         After Independence Urdu was declared the official language of Pakistan. The Punjabis of Pakistan after some time realized that they had made an error in discarding their mother tongue, Punjabi. They made concentrated efforts to get recognition for Punjabi at least as the State language. Some facilities for teaching in schools and colleges were granted. Punjabi is being taught up to M.A. level at the Pañjāb University. The Department of Punjabi at Pañjāb University, Lahore, is the publisher of a literary magazine. Magazines have also come up through private enterprise. Poetry and prose have splurged. But government support for Punjabi is meagre. Punjabi, in Pakistan, has not acquired the prestige and influence which belongs to it as a major language in the country.


  1. Grierson, G.A., Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. IX [Reprint]. Patiala, 1970
  2. Gill, H.S., and H.A. Gleason, A Reference Grammar of Punjabi. Patiala, 1969
  3. Bailey, Grahame T., Punjabi Manual and Grammar. 1912
  4. Bailey, Grahame T., Pañjābī Bhāshā dā Itihās. Ludhiana, 1956
  5. Harkīrat Siṅgh and Ujjal Siṅgh Bāhrī, Bhāshā Vigiān te Pañjābī. Delhi, 1973
  6. Harkīrat Siṅgh, Pañjābi Viākaraṇ. Chandigarh, 1988
  7. Prem Prakāsh Siṅgh, Pañjābī Bolī dā Nikās te Vikās. Ludhiana, 1971

Harkīrat Siṅgh