Is Punjabi a Dialect of Hindi?

Punjabi is a language that I have been surrounded by for almost my entire life. Despite the fact that I have lived in a community with many Punjabi speakers since I was a baby, the language itself has been a source of mystery, and I’m even embarrassed to say that I don’t actually know how to speak any Punjabi.

But recently, I wanted to make a video about Punjabi, and there was one question at the top of my mind: What is the relationship between Punjabi and Hindi? I’d heard before that Punjabi and Hindi speakers could understand each other to some extent, but to what extent was it?

Most of all, I wanted to know: Is Punjabi simply a dialect of Hindi?

The Punjabi Language

Punjabi is a language spoken by more than 120 million native speakers. Most of these native speakers live in the Indian province of Punjab and the Pakistani province of Punjab, and actually the word “Punjab” itself is derived from Persian meaning “Five waters”, referring to the five major branches of the Indus River. Additionally, Punjabi is spoken worldwide by one of the largest Indian diasporas on the globe: it is estimated that there are almost 10 million Punjabis who live outside of India and Pakistan. Punjabi is also an Indo-Aryan language. This makes it a descendant of the Sanskrit language, and it is related to Gujarati and Bengali.

250px-Punjab_map_(topographic)_with_cities
Author: Apudram.

In fact, talking about Punjabi’s language family brings into question just how closely it is related to languages in its language family. Namely, is Punjabi a dialect of Hindi? This question has been raised a number of times in the past 100 years, especially in the context of a post-colonial India attempting unity and various religious and cultural identities. In fact, prior to India’s independence and the formation of the Punjab province in 1966, Punjabi was considered a dialect of Hindi. After Punjab was defined as a province, Punjabi became its official language for media and education, and its distinctness from Standard Hindi was highlighted and a new Punjabi-speaking identity was formed.

Is Punjabi a Dialect of Hindi?

While pondering this question, a quote from Max Weinreich comes to mind: “a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy”. What Max means to say that the lines between language and dialect are blurry, and that distinction often comes down to politics. What some people consider a dialect maybe in fact be a separate language, as is the case of the Chinese languages Mandarin and Cantonese. Conversely, dialects may be given official language status in order to distinguish groups of people, as is the case with North Germanic languages Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian.


Related: Sanskrit & Armenian: Mothers of ALL Indo-European Languages?


So, how do we begin to answer the question about Punjabi? Anecdotal evidence gives us a pretty unclear picture of how well speakers of Punjabi and Hindi can understand each other, but there are a few trends. Generally, it is agreed upon that speakers of Punjabi have an easier time understanding Hindi than the other way around. Some informal estimates put mutual intelligibility between 30% and 65% percent. However, another trend points to the idea that Hindi speakers have trouble understanding even basic Punjabi.

This asymmetrical relationship could be due to the status of the two languages with India: while Punjabi is widely spoken in Punjab, Hindi speakers living outside of Punjab do not encounter the Punjabi language on a daily basis. Conversely, Hindi is the official language of India. Even if citizens of Punjab speak Punjabi daily, they are also constantly exposed to Hindi. This could be the reason why Punjabi speakers are more able to understand Hindi and not the other way around.

What Does the Science Say?

Since anecdotal evidence doesn’t give us a clear picture of the situation, we have to turn to academic work that has been done on the topic. Well, according to one study published by the Language Technologies Research Centre in Hyderabad, India, Hindi and Punjabi share quite a few cognates. Cognates are words that are similar between two languages, often due to the fact that the languages share a common ancestor, and thus, the words share a common linguistic origin. In this case, the common ancestor is Sanskrit, and we can see cognates between Punjabi and Hindi in the following examples.

Punjabi 40.jpg

As we can see, these examples show that some words are nearly identical in Hindi and Punjabi. That seems to be no surprise, if we take a deeper look at the study. In fact, researchers sought to count the number of cognates between Hindi and Punjabi in written samples, and they found that the two languages have a lexical similarity of 57.63%. That means that almost 60% of the words in both languages have the same origin, and it is postulated that they could be understood by speakers of the other language.

But does this mean that the two languages are mutually intelligible, and thus, Punjabi a dialect of Hindi? Not necessarily. English has a lexical similarity of 60% with German, but that does not mean that English speakers can understand German without studying it and vice versa.

In fact, given the conflicting evidence, I am forced to make the following conclusion: it is very likely that Punjabi is a dialect of Hindi; however, due to certain political positions and the relationship between Punjabi and Hindi within the modern Indian context, it is difficult to know for certain. At the end of the day, the mutual intelligibility between the language could just be due to the fact that speakers are multilingual and that Punjabi and Hindi are in constant contact with each other.

What do you think? Are you a speaker of Punjabi or Hindi? Leave me a comment below and let me know if you think Punjabi is just a dialect of Hindi.

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