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Home » Cartography, Cultural Geography, GeoNotes, Linguistic Geography

Punjabi and the Problems of Mapping Dialect Continua

Submitted by on March 11, 2013 – 3:24 pm 14 Comments |  
Dialects Sometimes Called Punjabi MapThe Wikipedia list of the world’s most widely spoken languages, by mother tongue, puts Punjabi in tenth place, with its roughly 100 million native speakers exceeding the figures given for German, French, Italian, Turkish, Persian and many other well-known languages. The Wikipedia article on the Punjabi language stresses its growing appeal, noting that, “The influence of Punjabi as a cultural language in Indian Subcontinent is increasing day by day mainly due to Bollywood. Most Bollywood movies now have Punjabi vocabulary mixed in, along a few songs fully sung in Punjabi.”

But despite Punjabi’s obvious importance, it is extremely difficult to find a map of the language on the internet. Partly this is due to the fact that Punjabi spans the India-Pakistan border, and most maps of individual languages are country-based. One can thus find many language maps of India that depict Punjabi, and virtually all language maps of Pakistan do so as well. But on Pakistani language maps, the area covered by Punjabi has been diminishing in recent years. Maps made in earlier decades typically showed virtually all of northeastern quadrant of the country as Punjabi-speaking, whereas many recent maps retain the Punjabi label only for the core zone of this region. On these maps, what used to be the southern Punjabi area is now typically mapped as Saraiki-speaking, whereas the north is depicted as Hindko-speaking. Saraiki and Hindko, moreover, are sometimes merged together as the Lahnda language, sometimes called “Western Punjabi.” This linguistic reclassification scheme, however, is quite controversial, especially in Pakistan. Here Punjabi partisans are often irritated by the diminution of their language, whereas locally based scholars are happy to see their own speech-forms elevated to the status of separate languages.

Such controversies stem from the fact that Punjabi forms a dialect continuum, which means that adjacent dialects may be virtually identical, but the farther one travels, the more distinctive they become. As a result, dialects on the opposite sides of such a continuum may be non-mutually intelligible, and hence separate languages by standard linguistic criteria, yet no clear language boundaries can actually be located. The Punjabi dialect continuum is further complicated by the fact that it merges with the Hindi dialect continuum in northern India and with the Sindhi dialect continuum in southern Pakistan. To a certain extent, one can thus imagine a much larger dialect continuum stretching across most of northern South Asia. The standardized form of Hindi is a completely different languages from standardized Punjabi, but on the margins the situation is not always so clear-cut. The presence of Urdu adds yet another layer of complexity.

A relatively new Wikipedia language map (dated January 31, 2013) deals with these issues by mapping local dialects in the Punjabi-speaking area in both Pakistan and India. The caption of this map found on the “Punjabi Language” Wikipedia article (but not on other Wiki articles that use it) is delightfully honest: “Dialects Sometimes called Punjabi.” Note that on this map “Hindko” is highly restricted, whereas “Saraiki” does not appear at all. One must wonder how much sub-dialectal variation is found in some of these mapped dialect areas, particularly in the elongated Derawali zone (colored red on the map).

The Wikipedia article on Derawali  indicates that a certain degree of linguistic convergence is now occurring: “Today like all other dialects in Punjab, a process of unification and getting closer to Standard Pakistani Punjabi (Urdu influenced Majhi written in Shahmukhi) has made it [Derawali] quite similar morphologically, syntactically and mutually intangible with Standard Punjabi.” The lexical table provided in the same article, however, makes Derawali seen quite different from standard Punjabi. Whereas in the latter, the English words “boy, girl, woman, and man” are rendered “Munda, Kuri, Znaani, Aadmi,” in Derawali they are given as “Chohr, Chohir, Aurat, Mard.”

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  • dw

    The problem, as in so many things with language, is political/religious rather than linguistic.

    In India/Pakistan, languages are often associated, in popular culture, with specific religions. So Punjabi is associated with Sihkism, Urdu with Islam, and Hindi with Hinduism. The Arya Samaj, a Hindu religious movement, encouraged the use of Hindi rather than Punjabi by Hindus living in the Punjab.

    So many people who, by purely linguistic criteria, speak Punjabi, would prefer to identify their language as Hindi, Urdu, or something else.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Interesting comments, especially in regard to the Arya Samaj — many thanks for sharing them. But I think that the problem is partly linguistic, just as it is partly political and religious. Dialects in northern South Asia do tend to form complex continua, and such features are notoriously hard to map. One can map separate dialects, but they still tend to blur together at the edges. Also, different isoglosses tend to have different geographical patterns, adding yet another level of complexity.

      But your point is still well taken. I think that it is precisely where linguistic, political, religious (and I would add, economic) issues come together that things get really interesting!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Saim-Dušan-Inayatullah/100000494491873 Saim Dušan Inayatullah

    Interesting stuff. I’m half-Punjabi, and a learner of the language as well, so I’ve thought about this issue lots of times before. Another interesting thing to note is that many people along with Hindko and Saraiki also speak of a Potohari-Pahari language, which includes the Potohari dialects of the region around Rawalpindi and the “Pahari” dialects of Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Keep in mind too that the “Chachi” and “Kohati” dialects shown are usually subsumed under Hindko, while what is marked as Hindko is known as Northern Hindko.

    I can tell you now that the word “aurat” is also found in Majhi, and indeed all varieties of Punjabi as it is a word of Perso-Arabic origin shared with Hindi-Urdu. I’ve never heard the word “znaani” before, although of course I’m a learner. It can’t be indigenous Punjabi either, given that it has the English/Persian/Arabic sound “z” in it, so it would be disingenuous to show znaani/aurat as a difference . Another thing is that the Majhi word for “this” is pronounced more like “e” than like “ae” (although I have no idea what they’re going for with that amateurish transcription with no Nastaliq offered either).

    There are also political issues within Pakistan that influence language/dialect consideration that have little to do with the India/Pakistan split. There is a very strong Saraiki regionalist movement, and the word “Saraiki” itself was popularized first amongst such regionalists. Furthermore, the Hindkowans have strong historical ties with the Pashtuns, and indeed many of them consider themselves Hindko-speaking Pashtuns (then again, there were Hindko protests against the renaming of the NWFP to “Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa” which according to them only represents the dominant Pashtun people).

    I consider myself Punjabi much before Pakistani (the first is an ethnicity and culture while the second is more of a citizenship than a real “nationality” in the traditional sense). However, I feel nowadays Seraikis, Hindkowans and even Potoharis have pretty distinct identities and I would at least at the moment consider them related but distinct peoples. There is also a (fairly weak) Punjabi regionalist movement, that seeks the officialization of Punjabi in Pakistan, but unfortunately (IMO) at least their online representatives spend much more of their time attacking the Saraiki movement and any suggestion at dividing the Punjab province on linguistic lines than actually critiquing Pakistani centralism and the Urdu language, the real threats to the Punjabi language and identity. I don’t understand why they care so much about the division of a province that has so little autonomy to begin with.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for sharing these thoughts and observations! Fascinating stuff!

    • http://www.facebook.com/scott.kooner Scott Kooner

      I am half punjabi too and am looking to learn the language. Which dialect is most widely spoken in the sikh community in the UK?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Saim-Dušan-Inayatullah/100000494491873 Saim Dušan Inayatullah

        Most Sikhs speak Majhi (the basis for the standard) or Doabi (quite close to the standard), so in terms of resources you should be fine with standard Punjabi, getting passive exposure to Doabi on the way. The diasporic Sikhs I’ve met are all Doabi speakers, and I’ve heard lots of Doabi traits in Punjabi music as well. Jalandhar is the capital of the Doab area.

        Some of the distinctive traits of Doabi are:
        -In colloquial speech “hai” (is) is pronounced “aa”, whereas in Majhi colloquial speech it’s “ai”.
        -”Sige” (was/were) is equivalent to the standard “si” and “san”.
        -What is “v” in Majhi is often “b” in Doabi, so “vaDa” (big) becomes “baDa”, similar to Hindi-Urdu “baRa”.
        -They say “dekhna” (to see), which in standard is “vekhna”.

        These dialect differences shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge, just learn the standard and adjust your speech to the people you meet. That’s what I do, as my family is from villages in the Hafizabad district, they speak Majhi but not the same kind as in Amritsar and taught in Punjabi resources, so I try to adopt their speech patterns rather than the ones I read in learning resources. For example, in some western varieties of Majhi people say “main va” (I am) instead of “main haan”, which I’ve also adopted.

        Good luck in your studies! :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Saim-Dušan-Inayatullah/100000494491873 Saim Dušan Inayatullah

        I remember the English comedy show Goodnes Gracious Me had constant references to Jalandhar, which also seems to be the place of origin of most Sikhs I’ve met here in Catalonia. I imagine then that most English Sikhs also speak Doabi.

      • Malkeet Singh Aulakh

        It is Majhi .

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.kooner Scott Kooner

    I am half punjabi and am looking to learn the language. Which dialect is most widely spoken in the sikh community in the UK?

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Hopefully, one of our British readers can answer that question…

      • MARIA

        YOUR RESEARCH is wrong in self assumption of DERA WALI similarities with standard punjabi…instead of DERA WALI only few differences with standard punjabi….WP article is correct and it was edited by me…Saraiki Hindko all are Punjabi dialects 0% doubt in it.

    • sdsdsd

      it depend which part of British India you family is orginally from

      • sdsdsd

        specifically united punjab lesser extent Jammu, Khyber paktoowa

        • sdsdsd

          Most sikh that immigrated from modern day pakistan,left for republic of india,as result stop speaking there native tongue such as hindko,punjabi,pothwari,multani .Thus most likly speak a dialect from india east punjab of origin.