Want a 101 on Punjabi – a widely spoken language in the Indian subcontinent? Learning about the history of Punjabi language is an excellent place to start your learning journey.
Punjabi is an Indo-Aryan language hailing from the Indo-Iranian subcategory of the Indo-European language family. Now, that’s quite a windingly long introduction, isn’t it? But tracing back the history of the Punjabi language isn’t going to be that convoluted. Let’s dig deeper.
Interesting History Of Punjabi Language
Itihāsa (ਇਤਿਹਾਸ), or the history of languages, is a fascinating exploration of how the language that we speak today reached its colloquial form over a journey of at least a few centuries. The Punjabi language spoken in the Indian subcontinent and among the Punjabi diaspora of Indian and Pakistani origin in the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries today has gone through many a change and influences to reach its current form.
It is believed that the Punjabi language originated in the 7th century AD as an Apabhramasha or a degenerated form of Prakrit. The Prakrit languages were the lingua franca – the common man’s language – from the third century BC until the eighth century AD. These were Sanskrit, Shauraseni, and Jain Prakrit, known as the Middle Indo-Aryan languages spoken in medieval northern India.
During this time, because of influences from many regional languages, the Prakrits came to take shape into various Apabhramshas or the more colloquial forms. Punjabi is believed to have taken form from the Shauraseni Prakrit language in the seventh century AD. By the 10th century AD, it is said to have taken an entirely new form as an independent language.
Evolution Of Punjabi
Punjabi evolved from Prakrit with some influence on its phonology and morphology from pre-Indo-Aryan languages. At its core, the Punjabi language is based on a foundation of Tadbhav words from Sanskrit – words of Indo-Aryan origin. In that manner, it shares similarities with the Hindi language. But modern Punjabi, especially those spoken in Pakistan, carries heavy Persian and Arabic vocabulary influences. Not only that, but the adjoining region of Sindh also played a significant role in the evolution of this language through the regional Sindhi language influences.
The earliest Punjabi written literature is believed to hail from the ninth century AD to the 14th century AD. A smattering of the early Punjabi literature was written by the Nath Yogis (ਨਾਥ ਯੋਗੀ), a monk order belonging to the Vedic Hindu religion. In short, Hindu writers composed these texts mostly built on the Vedic language.
A few centuries down the line emerged Fariduddin Ganjshakar, the famous Punjabi Sufi poet. Popularly known as Baba Farid, he is credited with pioneering the emergence of Sufism in Punjabi literature. Many ancient Sufi mystics greatly influences Punjabi literature. As with other regions in the subcontinent, the Punjab region also had a very rich oral tradition that Baba Farid took further with his poetry which was later included in the Adi Granth (most popularly known as Guru Granth Sahib ਗੁਰੂ ਗ੍ਰੰਥ ਸਾਹਿਬ ) compiled by Guru Arjan Dev (ਗੁਰੂ ਅਰਜਨ ਦੇਵ), the fifth Sikh Guru.
Thus, Punjabi literature is a treasure trove created by the contribution of many Hindu and Sikh writers with a strong Muslim Sufi influence.
Punjabi And The Sikh Religion
Punjabi writing came into its own with the founding of Sikhism by a saint named Guru Nanak Dev (ਗੁਰੂ ਨਾਨਕ ਦੇਵ). He is revered as the founder and the first Guru of the Sikh religion. As was the tradition back then, most of his teachings were expounded orally. It was only during the times of the later Gurus that the teachings were compiled into couplets and verses in the Sikh holy book – Guru Granth Sahib (ਗੁਰੂ ਗ੍ਰੰਥ ਸਾਹਿਬ). Guru means teacher, granth means sacred scripture, and sahib is an honorific title to convey respect and reverence.
It was the second Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Angad Dev (ਗੁਰੂ ਅੰਗਦ ਦੇਵ), who is credited as the creator of the Gurmukhi script. The word Gurmukhi (ਗੁਰਮੁਖੀ) means ‘from the mouth of the Guru.’ The motivation behind this initiative was to create a writing system free of the inaccuracies of the previous Lahnda script to ensure an accurate compilation of the sacred Sikh scripture whose foundation was laid by Guru Nanak Dev. Today, the Gurmukhi script is synonymous with the Sikh religion.
All these languages – Braj Bhasha, Khari Boli, Hindi, Nepali, and Marathi – are written using the Devanagari script, derived from the Brahmi script. Guru Angad Dev based the system on the Devnagari script and incorporated all the sounds used by Punjabi speakers.
Indian Punjabi Vs. Pakistani Punjabi
Any recounting of the history of the Punjabi language is incomplete without the mention of the most significant geographical divide of the Indian subcontinent, known as the Indo-Pak division. With the end of the Imperial rule came the creation of a new state – Pakistan, from India, dividing the Punjab region into two. Not only did it impact the demography and culture of the area, but it also had a role in shaping the Punjabi language that flourished as two entities – Indian Punjabi and Pakistani Punjabi. Punjabi is one of the 22 official languages of the Indian state.
The Punjabi language that is spoken in the Indian Punjab is written in the Gurmukhi script, while the spoken language used in Pakistani Punjab uses the Nastaʿlīq-based Shahmukhi (ਸ਼ਾਹਮੁਖੀ) script. In that way, Urdu and Punjabi spoken in Pakistan share an identical script, with some extra alphabets added to Shahmukhi based on the Punjabi vocabulary and phonology.
Moreover, in the literary context, the language spoken by the Punjabi-speaking Muslims in Pakistan (written in Shahmukhi) is referred to as Western Punjabi. In contrast, Indian Punjabi, which is written in Gurmukhi, is referred to as Eastern Punjabi.
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