Saturday, 15 January 2011

Punjabi - The Case for Roman Characters

Resumo en Esperanto (Abstract in Esperanto)

La panĝaba estas la dekdua aŭ dektria plej parolata lingvo en la mondo. La parolantoj de la lingvo uzas tri malsimilajn skribsistemojn por skribi la lingvon kaj nur malofte parolanto konas skribsistemon krom la sia. Tiu kaŭzas multe da malkompreneco inter tiuj, kiuj parolas panĝaban. En tiu ĉi artikolo, mi proponas, ke, malkompreneco povas malkreskigi, se ĉiuj parolantoj de la panĝaba komencas uzi la latinajn literojn krom sia propra skribsistemo. Tiu ago ne nur faros popolojn en ambaŭ Panĝaboj pli amikaj pri unu la alian sed ankaŭ helpos normigi la lingvon.

La Artikolo (the Article)

Punjabi is the twelfth or thirteenth most spoken language in the world. There are already three different scripts - Gurmukhi, Shahmukhi and Devanagri - used to write the language. Of these, Gurmukhi is the only script with an official status. It is recognized in the Indian Punjab. Speakers of the language in Pakistani Punjab write it using Shahmukhi and Punjabi speakers in India (outside Punjab) employ Devanagri to pen their thoughts in the language. 

What I just said is common knowledge. But what most people don't know is when the English, through the East India Company, firmly established their rule on Punjab (both Pakistani and Indian) after defeating the Sikh armies in both Anglo-Sikh wars during the 1840s, they tried to introduce Roman characters to write the language.

In fact, in 1894, Lieutenant Colonel J A L Montgomery, the Officiating Commissioner and Superintendent of Rawalpindi Division, wrote a letter(1) to the then Under Secretary of Government in which he, citing Mr. Wilson, suggested:
  1. "In all Government schools and colleges and in all Government offices only the Roman character should be used.
  2. "In all primary schools education should be carried on only in the Punjabi language written in the Roman character. 
  3. "A committee of scholars should assemble to draw up in Punjab and in the Roman character a grammar and dictionary of the authorized Punjabi language and school-books composed in that language and that character."
As to why the change in the script was required, many reasons were put forward. Among the primary ones were the need to standardize the language and make it easier for Punjabi to adopt English (European) scientific and technological vocabulary.

That's what the experts were talking about more than a hundred years ago. Now the question arises if these attempts still hold any relevance today. The answer is yes. 

The learned vocabulary of Punjabi on each side of the border is being increasingly  either Persianized or Sanskritized. A Punjabi speaker in India calls 'astronomy' khagol-vigyān (from Sanskrit) but a Punjabi speaker in Pakistan will not understand term unless you used the word falkiat (from Urdu, Persian).

Also, you rarely find a person who is able to read Punjabi in script other than his own. Shahmukhi is Greek to Indian Punjabis and a Pakistani Punjabi doesn't know how to decipher Gurmukhi or Devanagri. A disadvantage of this is that the people in both Punjabs are virtually unaware of the literature of other.

Having said that, it does not mean the problems resulting from the incomprehensibility of written word and over-Sanskritization or -Persianization are insuperable. A way out could be to first standardize the script and then coin new words either from existing roots or from widely recognized international scientific vocabulary.

Of the three scripts in current use, Gurmukhi is the most suitable to write the language. The only problem is: three-quarters of Punjabi speakers in the world don't know the script and are unlikely to adopt it for various cultural or religious reasons. But if a new script based on the Latin alphabet is introduced, no one is going to raise objections as such a script would be culturally neutral all sides - Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus.

Also, this script does not need to be created from scratch because there already exists a system for transliterating Sanskrit and Pali into Roman characters.  It is known as the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration. An extension of this alphabet,  called the ISO 15959 Transliteration of Devanagri and Other Indic Scripts into Latin Characters can be adopted to write Punjabi.  The ISO 15959 system is currently used in dictionaries and other scholarly works.

Here is what Punjabi written as per this system looks like:

Sab To Khatarnāk(2)
Kirat di luṭ sab to khatarnāk nahī hundi
Pulas di kusab to khatarnāk nahī hundi
Gadārī-lobh di muṭh sab to khatarnāk nahī hundi

Baiṭhe suteā faṛe jāā burā ta he
 Ḍurū jehī cup vic maṛhe jāā burā ta he
Sab to khatarnāk nahī hundi


Sab to khatarnāk hunda he
Murdā shāti nāl bhar jāā,
Nā hoā taṛap dā, sab sehe kar jāā
Gharā to nikalaā kam te
Te kam toṅ ghar jāā
 Sab to khatarnāk hunda he
Sāḍe supneāṅ dā mar jāā...

The use of diacritics - dashes and dots - is a necessity because I don't think it is possible to write the language in Roman characters in a manner that is both readily comprehensible to most people and not weird looking!

Before I conclude, I'd like to talk about another system which, though less perfect, is more popular with the people here. It is colloquially called Panjābi English Vich and it roughly translates as 'Punjabi [written] in [the] English [or Roman script].'

This system has not been devised by linguists but it has developed out of necessity. Mobile phones are a commonplace item in both Punjabs but surprisingly very few of these devices support Gurmukhi or Shamukhi characters.

This system, as the name suggests, is based on transliterating Punjabi through English values of Roman characters. Here are the main idiosyncrasies of this system that I've noticed: 
  1. Long vowels and short vowels are only distinguished if it is difficult to interpret them from the context. For example, ਆਜ਼ਾਦ is normally written as azad but it is  also not unusual to insert another 'a' and write it as azaad if the meaning is not clear from the context. 
  2. Both a regular 'n' and a nasalized '' are written as 'n'.  
  3. Finally, the system does not differentiate between retroflex consonants (ਟ, ਠ, ਡ, ਢ, ਣ) and dental consonants (ਤ, ਥ, ਦ, ਧ, ਨ). These sound clusters are transliterated as t, th, d, dh and n. It may given an impression that the distinction between dental consonants and retroflex consonants is not important but it's not true.
  • To cite an example, here are two sentences: 
ਉਹ ਦਾਦਾ ਹੈ। (Oh dada he.)
ਉਹ ਡਾਡਾ ਹੈ। (Oh dada he.) 
  • Though no distinction is made while expressing both sentences in Panjābi English Vich system, they are far from being interchangeable. The first sentence means, He is a grandfather while the other refers to him being a sadist. (Lit: He is a sadist.)
To summarize, I'd say that Punjabi will gain significantly by shifting to a Latin Alphabet based script from the current Gurumukhi, Shahmukhi and, to some extent, Devanagri. The shift will not mean a ban on the use of old scripts - people will continue to use their respective scripts for liturgical purposes if they want so - it would only mean more open communication, less differences and an increased feeling of shared common heritage between Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus.

    (1) = Bringing Order to Linguistic Diversity in India: Language Planning in the British Raj; Ranjit Singh Rangila, MS Thirumalai and B Mallikarjun
    (2) = Sampūran Pāsh Kāv, pg 256, Chetna Parkashan