Punjabi will not die in 50 years
Jagmohan Singh

 Ma-boli Punjabi is spoken by lesser number of people, is facing threats of assimilation and acculturation, its oral history has not been well documented and its use on the internet is lost in the maze of a variety of fonts.  Still it is not an When a prominent Indian newspaper highlighted that there is a UNESCO report forecasting the death of Punjabi language in 2050, like many others, World Sikh News too was concerned. WSN decided to verify the veracity of the report and find out how the Punjabi language which was spoken by a few millions worldwide would vanish from the surface of the earth in the next forty years or so. 

WSN decided to go to the root of the matter and contacted the UNESCO office in Delhi.  Like us, even the UNESCO researchers and documentalists were distressed at the news report purportedly referring to a UNESCO report, about which they too were not aware of.  The refrain of a researcher “oh! It is in a newspaper in Punjab” reflected the contempt for newspapers in the region. Lackadaisical approach to important matters is not a problem only with governments; even the most competitive media ignores basic norms of journalism. 

No such report, says UNESCO:

The UNESCO office in Delhi diligently checked up their records, verified facts from their Paris headquarters and this is what they had to say, The second (and latest to date) edition of the Atlas (Atlas of endangered languages) does not list Punjabi as an endangered language. We are currently in the process of developing the third updated and extended edition, and it will be up to the editorial board to take this kind of decisions.”

Not fully satisfied, we wrote back again, urging them to look for the basis of such reference by eminent author and journalist Kuldip Nayar as part of his lecture delivered under the aegis of Punjabi Bachao Manch a few days ago, which function was also attended by leading authors and a former vice-chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University.  The only basis they could find was a report on Welsh and Punjabi language in Europe. We perused the summary of that report too and found absolutely no reference to the language being endangered in any way, either in Europe or in the world.

Probing further, we asked them, “Is there even a remote possibility of Punjabi being there in the next draft report and somebody leaking this report to the media or to some leading journalists?  Their reply was that “it was highly unlikely that the media could access such a report even before its finalization.”

So, it can be safely said, with a justified sigh of relief that there is no UNESCO report to suggest that Punjabi would disappear in the coming decades.

The correspondence with UNESCO provided an opportunity to dig deep and understand the concept of endangered languages.








How do languages become endangered and what is the status of Punjabi?

Language diversity is essential to the human heritage and each and every language embodies the unique cultural wisdom of a people is the UNESCO mandate.  Although 6,000 languages exist, the cooperative efforts of language communities, language professionals, NGOs and governments will be indispensable in countering the threat to the existence of many.  

UNESCO undertakes extensive research into the status of languages worldwide.  We view UNESCO guidelines in the context of Punjabi language. UNESCO says, “A language is endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next and if a language looses all its speakers, it becomes an extinct langugage.”   Well, as far as present-day Punjabis are concerned, they do use Punjabi, may be somewhat less, but they do pass it on from one generation to another. The Sikhs and Muslims continue do so.   

UNESCO further says, “Language endangerment may be the result of external forces such as military, economic, religious, cultural or educational subjugation, or it may be caused by internal forces, such as a community’s negative attitude towards its own language. Internal pressures often have their source in external ones, and both halt the intergenerational transmission of linguistic and cultural traditions.”  Undoubtedly, the Sikhs are developing a negative attitude towards their own language.  The government of India has attempted cultural genocide of the Sikhs in a variety of forms including machinations to subvert the Punjabi language.   






Starting with the delayed formation of the state of Punjab, when the whole country was demarcated on linguistic lines to the non-acceptance of Punjabi as an official language in those states where it is spoken extensively, lack of sponsorship of research and development in Punjabi as an internet language, --all these have definitely affected the growth of the language, in its own homeland. 

Another parameter used by UNESCO to test language vitality is review of the governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies including official status and use.    UNESCO should carry out a review of the role of the government of India with respect to the Punjabi language. 

As regards the type and quality of documentation, only the Punjabi University Patiala has done some documentation into the origins and oral history of Punjabi and the roots of the Gurmukhi script.  This too is being done with a shoe-string budget by a handful of dedicated and diehard lovers of Punjabi. 


The impact of Bollywood cinema, the anti-Punjabi lobby of Arya Samajis, partisan neo-intellectuals and unyielding monolithic policies of India is unswerving.  Though professedly secular, de facto the Hindi language is the official lingua franca in Punjab and other parts of India.  This has affected the growth and development of many languages including Punjabi.   

According to UNESCO, “in bilingual or multilingual settings, the phenomenon of acculturation applies when the use of a dominant majority language is associated with social, cultural, political or economical advantages. In this case, parents of children in the "weaker" culture may encourage their children (and themselves) to use the language of the stronger culture rather than their own language. Soon enough the young generation would loose the interest in the mother tongue and would not any longer speak the original language.”  This is the case of Sikh children today.  In Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, parts of central India and even in Punjab, Sikh parents encourage their children to speak Hindi because they consider Punjabi to belong to a “weaker culture” as compared to the rest, not to mention the perceived economic disadvantages of learning Punjabi. 

Politicalisation of Punjabi: 

Over generations, Punjabi has come to be identified with the Sikhs, just as Urdu with the Muslims.  India has the Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Minorities and the Linguistic Minorities Commission but what is the status of love and respect for languages in the country?   Most decisions are politically perverse.  This is not to say that the Sikhs themselves, the Akali leadership and the Punjabi fraternity as a whole has not contributed to the crises. The apathy towards heritage and culture, including language is pathetic, to say the least. 





Making Punjabi Compulsory and what more should Punjab do:

The Punjab State Official Language Act was passed in 1967.  The provisions of this Act were held more in the breach than in observance can be gauged from the fact that on 25 March 2008, the Punjab Assembly was forced to adopt a resolution making Punjabi compulsory in the running of the government, administration and educational institutions.  Do we need more proof of the official step-motherly treatment to the mother-tongue?  

If the government of Punjab has to demonstrate interest in promotion of Punjabi, it may be well advised to follow the Canadian pattern. All Canadian official literature is in English and French. All stationery, including business cards of legislators, all government functionaries, all public documents, should be in Punjabi and English.  The language policy of the country popularly known as “the two language formula” has not been seriously implemented at all.  As UNESCO has stated, “A language policy can serve as a political instrument, designated either to build an integrated (or assimilated) monolingual society or to promote the co-existence of multiculturality and multilinguism what would enrich all engaged parties. A closer look at the language policies of some nations reveals a trend towards a single language (my addition –Hindi as in India), whereas the activities of South Africa and the Member States of the European Union promote the wealth and enrichment of linguistic diversity.” 

All religious, social, cultural and political organizations in Punjab and the Diaspora must adopt a policy of publishing every piece of literature in a minimum of two languages –Punjabi and English.  This norm must percolate down to schools, seminaries, training centres and SGPC too.  All day to day work must be in the two languages. 

International Commitment and respect for Language diversity:

UNESCO encourages its Member States to develop strong policies which promote and facilitate language diversity on the Internet, create widely-available online tools and applications (such as terminologies, automatic translators, dictionaries, software) for content in local languages and encourage the sharing of best practices and information. The contribution of Diaspora based Maboli Systems and other Punjabi groups to build fonts and popularize Punjabi on the internet must be acknowledged.  All organizations in India, including the Punjabi University should actively associate with UNESCO for the growth and development of Punjabi on the Internet.  

Recitation of Guru Granth Sahib:

So long as the Sikhs continue to recite and listen to Gurbani, Punjabi will stay alive and kicking.  If every member of the Sikh nation resolves to do this, no conspiracy or detraction can succeed; in case we show vulnerability, the sharks are waiting.  

Corporate Sector must use Punjabi:

The flourishing internet and telecom sector, run by giants with unlimited funds, use the local language of respective regions where they have their networks, except in Punjab. The customer care services of all companies must be forced to use Punjabi as the primary language.  

It is time for Punjabis themselves to wake up. Left to governments, we may have to wait till Punjabi actually becomes an endangered language.  

www.worldsikhnews.com    26 March 2008