The curious case of Punjabi

Recently, a well-written column appeared in a local newspaper advocating the teaching of Punjabi in schools across the province. This was followed by a news item stating that the provincial higher education department has sought comments from Principals of all colleges in the province regarding the promotion of Punjabi amongst students. ‘Mother-tongue’ advocates have been trying to restore some dignity to the language that in urban Punjab is widely regarded as the communication tool of and for the uneducated. These are all admirable goals but they beggar the question: why does Punjabi need so many contingency measures and ‘advocates’ to stay alive in its own homeland?
The case of Punjabi in Pakistan is a curious one. Few people can tell exactly why it fell from favour amongst the educated Punjabis on the Pakistani side of the border except for the assertion that Urdu was the language the British favoured, and the ever-opportunistic Punjabi took it up for reasons of upward mobility. However, like most historic occurrences, the process of the educated Punjabi embracing Urdu is gradual, murky and not so easily pinned down.
Apart from the obvious financial advantages of adopting Urdu, there is enough evidence to support the fact that Urdu and Punjabi are essentially the same language with the same root and structure, and much of the same vocabulary, hence Punjabi speakers have little difficulty in making Urdu their own. Just the fact that urban Punjab has taken to Urdu as naturally as it has is testament to the similarity between the two.
Baba Farid, widely recognized as the first Punjabi poet, wrote in an idiom very different from the Punjabi that is spoken today. Often words and phrases from his poetry echo what we understand to be Urdu today. Recent evidence shows that ancient Punjabi poets like Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah, apart from writing in the popular Punjabi idiom, also wrote poetry in a language much like modern-day Urdu. This is symptomatic of the ease with which speakers of both languages can interact and engage.
Names of many Punjabi towns and villages end in the Urdu ‘ki’ or ‘ka’: Pattoki, Sadoki, Maddoki, Kamoki, Faazilka, unlike the ‘di’ and ‘da’ that are used in today’s Punjabi, suggestive of a closer embrace between Urdu and Punjabi than is given credit today.
But thanks to the patronage of the British, the Urdu script managed to develop at a pace that left Punjabi behind, especially amongst its Muslim speakers who, unlike Sikh Punjabis had no religious affinity with the language. With the mass exodus of Sikhs after 1947, Punjabi on the Pakistani side was left completely adrift with no standardized Persian script and certain sounds like the hard ‘n’ and ‘r’ unprovided for in the Urdu-Persian universe. When Urdu, despite the patronage it received, struggled to develop a body of prose massive and varied enough to rival the world’s bigger languages, Punjabi stood no chance.
Punjabi revivalists talk of reinvigorating a language that has never been able to become a written language over its long history, certainly not in the script that is understood on this side of the Punjab today. In so far as Punjabi is used as a medium of instruction in primary schools, it can go a long way in making young children from rural Punjab feel comfortable with the education system. However, continuing written instruction in Punjabi beyond that requires resources and a body of literary work that is non-existent. Young Punjabi children, once familiar with school, can easily transition to Urdu. In the light of this reality pumping resources into Punjabi, when its script still remains contentious and clunky, seems redundant.
Concluding that Punjabi children have little difficulty in picking up Urdu, the demand for Punjabi in schools is less about the difficulties that Punjabi children face in their early education and more about certain educated Punjabis’ awareness of the sense of shame the hard sounds and earthen texture their indigenous tongue excites in them, and the need to redress this.
Teaching Punjabi in schools is not the answer to getting over this inferiority complex, the same complex that urban Sindhis have about Urdu. A posh private school in Lahore teaches Punjabi to its students in grades 7 and 8. This makes its students want to speak in Punjabi as much as a Karachi kid on the right side of the divide wants to speak Urdu just because it is taught in school. Languages, and why they spread, is a function of power. For a language to be desirable it needs to be lucrative and it needs to capture the imagination of the young through its popular culture. Currently most of Pakistan’s upcoming music and literature produced by and for the young is in English. Vital Signs’ Urdu and Abrar-ul-Haq’s Punjabi are relics of the past. No literature or popular television show for children or young adults exists in either Urdu or Punjabi. The last time any Pakistani child cared about a show in a local language was when ‘Ainak Waala Jinn’ was aired back in 1993. If the government or activist individuals are serious about reviving Punjabi (or saving Urdu) they need to invest their money in adventurous creatives who can bring a freshness to these languages’ idioms and create cultural icons that the young can follow and mimic. That is what Punjabi and Urdu advocates need to look into. Merely barking up the textbook tree will only yield limited and mostly ineffective results.

Sabahat Zakariya is a writer and editor, interested in exploring the intersection between Pakistani pop culture and feminism.

Tweets at:@sabizak_

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