Punjabi is spoken in mainly three areas of the world; in East Punjab (India) where it is a state language, in West Punjab (Pakistan) where it is most widely spoken and in the diaspora, particularly Britain, North America, East Africa and Australia. No exact figures are available on the number of Punjabi speakers, either as a first or second language, but if the speakers of various dialects of Punjabi are taken into account an approximation of 100 million would not be too far from the truth.

One of the main problems with designating the exact number of Punjabi speakers is the presence of a large number of distinct dialects that are spoken across the large geographical area of East and West Punjab. There are some recognized dialects of Punjabi according to Language Department of Punjab:

1. Pothohari

2. Jhangi

3. Multani

4. Dogri

5. Kangri

6. Pahari

7. Majhi

8. Doabi

9. Malwai

10. Powadhi

11. Bhattiani

12. Rathi

    According to Linguistic Department of Punjabi University, Patiala there are following dialects of the Punjabi language.

1. Bhattiani

2. Rathi

3. Malwai

4. Powadhi

5. Pahari

6. Doabi

7. Kangri

8. Chambiali

9. Dogri

10. Wajeerawadi

11. Baar di Boli

12. Jangli

13. Jatki

14. Chenavri

15. Multani

16. Bhawalpuri

17. Thalochri

18. Thali

19. Bherochi

20. Kachi

21. Awankari

22. Dhani

23. Ghebi

24. Hindki

25. Swaen

26. Chacchi

27. Pothohari

28. Punchi

            One of the more interesting facts about the Punjabi language is that where it is numerically the most widely spoken, in Pakistani Punjab, it is hardly written at all. Punjabi is most often written in East Punjab in the Gurmukhi script. It is also possible to write the language in the Persian script often referred to as Shahmukhi in this context.

Despite the modern day usage of Gurmukhi, the first Punjabi literature was written in Shahmukhi, and popular history associates this writing with Sheikh Farid and Goraknath. However, the literary period of the language begins with the sacred scriptures of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, This collection of writings by the Sikh Gurus is probably the first manuscript of the Punjabi language. After the period of the Gurus, it was the Sufi poets who developed the Punjabi language. In fact it is the folk literature developed by the Sufis, and particularly the Quissa-Love ballad form-which has had a long and lasting impact on the development of Punjabi literature. The stories of Heer-Ranjha and Mirza-Sahiban are deeply embedded in the everyday life and culture of Punjab.


           Punjabi is most commonly written in the Gurmukhi script which is the most complete and  accurate way to represent Punjabi sounds. Unlike Roman script, the Gurmukhi script follows a ‘one sound-one symbol’ principle.

           The Gurmukhi script has forty one letters including thirty eight consonants and three basic vowel sign bearers. There are ten clear  vowel signs and three auxiliary signs. The most striking characteristic of the Gurmukhi script, in comparison with Roman, is that, with the exception of five, all letters are joined by a line across the top. Like English and other European, Latin-based languages, it is written and read from left to right. However, there are neither capital letters in Gurmukhi nor articles such as ‘a’ and ‘the’. Punjabi spellings are, for the most part, regular and relatively simple to learn, though you may come across variations in spellings of some words. However, as is the case in English, Punjabi spellings are not fully standardized. Equivalent sounds which have been given in romanised script are only approximate since the Gurmukhi script has many  sounds unfamiliar to the English speaker which often may not be exactly represented by the Roman alphabet.


Essential Features of the Gurmukhi Script

  • There is no concept of upper or lower case letter.
  • The Gurmukhi script, unlike the Greek and Roman alphabets, is arranged in a logical fashion: vowels first, then consonants (Gutturals, Palatals, Cerebrals, Dentals, Labials) and semi-vowels.
  • This is a syllabic script in which all consonants have an inherent vowel. Diacritics, which can appear above, below, before or after the consonant they belong to, are used to change the inherent vowel.
  • When the Gurmukhi letters appear in the beginning of a syllable, vowels are written as independent letters.
  • When certain consonants occur together, special conjunct symbols are used which combine the essential parts of each letter.

Gurmukhi Alphabet

           All letters of a script have three aspects. Every letter has a particular shape, particular name and it represent a particular sound. Sanskrit may have been one of the first languages to group the letters according to their sounds. At one time there were only thirty-five letters in the Gurmukhi script, but later, five more letters were added in order to accommodate other sounds correctly. This need arose because  many loan words are used in Punjabi. More recently, an extra character ( ) was introduced. The shape, name and sound of Gurmukhi alphabet is as below:




Matra Vahak





Mul Varag


Kavarg Toli


Chavarg Toli


Tavarg Toli


Tavarg Toli


Pavarg Toli


Antim Toli

Naveen Toli

Note: ੳ, ਅ, ੲ are only vowel bearers. So they don’t represent any sound independently except as mukta vowel.

           It can be noted that most of the characters have a horizontal line at the upper part. The characters are connected mostly by this line called head line to form a word. A letter in Gurmukhi script can be partitioned into three horizontal zones. The upper zone denotes the region above the head line, where the vowels reside, while the middle zone represents the area below the head line where the consonants and some sub-parts of vowels are present. The middle zone is the busiest zone. The lower zone represents the area below middle zone where some vowels and certain half-characters lie in the foot of consonants.

Three zones of a letter in Gurmukhi script 

           It is quite possible to learn the characters of the Gurmukhi script and sounds of the language at the same time as, by and large, Punjabi is  a phonetic language. It is more accurate to call the Punjabi writing system a syllabary because each character represents a syllable. It is important to note that two phonetic features of all North Indian Languages are the system of contrasts between aspirated and unaspirated consonants and the contrast between retroflex and dental consonants. These do not occur in English. Aspirated consonants are accompanied by an audible expulsion of breath, whereas non-aspirated consonants are those produced with minimal breath.


Letters with a dot

           It is also important to note the distinction between plain letters and those letters which are marked by a dot, as shown below:   













sa sha kha ḵẖa ga ġa ja za pha fa la ḷa

These letters are named by adding the words ਪੈਰ ਬਿੰਦੀ (pair bindī)  to the name of the letter, so is called ਸੱਸੇ ਪੈਰ ਬਿੰਦੀ  (sassē pair bindī ), which literally means sassa with a dot in its foot. Many Punjabi speakers do not make a distinction between ਖ ਖ਼ ਗ ਗ਼ and ਫ ਫ਼ . There are two main reasons for this, first their pronunciation is quite similar and second, they are used to differentiate borrowed words from other languages, the knowledge of which is decreasing in East Punjab. You may come across written texts in which writers have not used the dot. In this study, however, we have maintained its use.

Subjoined consonants

           Some Punjabi words require consonants to be written in a conjunct form, which takes the shape of a subscript to the main letter. The second consonant is written under the first as a subscript. There are only three commonly used subjoined letters and to distinguish them from their normal forms the word ਪੈਰੀਂ (pairīṃ), which means belonging to the foot, is attached under the letter.

Full Letter

Name of Full Letter

Subjoined Letter

Name of subjoined Letter


 ਪੈਰੀਂ ਹਾਹਾ

pairīṃ hāhā


 ਪੈਰੀਂ ਰਾਰਾ

pairīṃ rārā


 ਪੈਰੀਂ ਵਾਵਾ

pairīṃ vāvā

For the purpose of transliteration there is no special sign for the subjoined character so you will have to pay careful attention to the Punjabi spelling.


There are five nasal consonants in Punjabi:

¨        ¨        ¨       ¨    ¨

As shown above, the nasal consonants belong to the five different classes of consonants. Nasalisation is produced by directing a substantial part of the breath towards the nasal cavity as the sound is being uttered. In addition there are two nasalization signs in Punjabi which accompany consonants:

 ਬਿੰਦੀ   (bindī)                ਟਿੱਪੀ  (ṭippī)  

These will be dealt with in detail later.


There are ten vowel phonemes in Punjabi in contrast to the English twenty or so. Punjabi symbols are generally as they are written following the one sign- one sound rule. They are vowels making only one sound. However, there are two forms that vowels can take. The independent vowel form which does not require a consonant and the dependent form which is attached to a consonant. All consonants use the dependent form of the vowel. First table shows the name and sound of the dependent vowels and second table shows their sound combined with the consonant .


Vowel Sign

Name of vowel











































Consonant and vowel sign




a in about


a in part



i in it


ee in see



u in put


oo in food


a in cake



a in man


o in show



o in bought

You may note that the vowels are divided into five pairs. In the first three, the distinction is between a short and long sound, for example between u and oo. In the last two pairs distinction is between closed and open sounds so e is closed and ai is open sounding.

Independent vowels

           The independent form of vowels can occur in three ways. First, when the vowel comes at the beginning of a word or a syllable, second in those instances where two vowel sounds are required as a consonant cannot support two vowels, and third, in a diphthong-when two vowels are present in one syllable. In fact one of the features of Punjabi is the presence of many diphthongs, sometimes with three vowel sounds in one word with no consonant, for instance ਆਇਆ  (āiā), (he) came.

Independent vowels are represented by dependent vowels carried by the first three letters of the Gurmukhi alphabet.

 ਊੜਾ  (ūṛā)             ਐੜਾ (aiṛā)              ਈੜੀ  (īṛī)

           oorhaa and eerhee are never used on their own. These three vowel signs do not represent any consonant sounds. They must be accompanied by their allocated vowel signs. Their main function is to denote their own respective vowel sounds. They are founder, basic or parent vowel bearers representing the ten sounds. However, the pronunciation of both independent and dependent vowels is the same. 


u is added to

to give

oo is added to

to give

o is added to consonant letters and when added to consonant sign to give ਕੋ

to give

invisible sign


aa is added to

to give

ai is added to

to give

au is added to

to give

i is added to

to give

ee is added to

to give

e is added to

to give


Auxiliary Signs


 1.Nasal Signs

(A) ਬਿੰਦੀ (bindī)

It serves to add a nasal sound to a particular vowel. Bindee is used with kannā, lāṃvāṃ, dulāṃvāṃ, bihārī, hōṛā and  kanauṛā and the independent forms of vowels where a is the bearer. Its sound is same as 'n' in band, grand, slang, grant. For example

kāṃ (crow) = ਕਾਂ                                                                           

gāṃ (cow) = ਗਾਂ   

(B) ਟਿੱਪੀ (ṭippī)

It serves to add a nasal sound to a particular vowel. Tippee is used with muktā, sihārī, auṅkaṛ and dulaiṅka only. It is not used upon a (instead bindī  is used with this letter) and last letter of a word. Its sound is same as 'n' in punch, lunch. For example

amb (mango) = ਅੰਬ

pañchī (bird) = ਪੰਛੀ

jhaṇḍā (flag) = ਝੰਡਾ

2. ਅਧਕ (adhak) 

The function of ਅਧਕ (adhak) is to allocate a double sound to the particular letter that it is assigned to. It should be placed above the preceding letter that is to be read twice, however, in practice it is placed between the two letters. Therefore, when the adhak occurs between two letters, it is the second of the two that is to be repeated. For example, in the Punjabi word for boundary ਹੱਦ (hadd), the adhak affects the letter (d) changing the sound of the word from had to hadd. In some cases another vowel sound may come in between the two letters, but the adhak still affects the second letter, for example in the word ਬੱਚਿਓ (bacciō), the adhak comes before the sihaaree vowel but still affects the letter (c), so it is pronounced chch. The adhak is a very important, though subtle device, as two letters without an adhak give rise to completely different meanings. For example ਕਦ (kad) means when, whereas ਕੱਦ (kadd) means height.


One of the unique features of Punjabi, in the variety of modern South Asian Languages, is the presence of pitch contours. These change the meaning of the word depending on the way it sounds. In technical terms these are called ‘tones’ and there are three types: low, high and level. The Punjabi tone system is far less complex than Chinese, the best known tone language. The low tone is characterised by lowering the voice below the normal pitch and then rising back in the following syllable. In the high tone the pitch of the voice rises above its normal level falling back at the following symbol. The level tone is carried by the remaining words. Tones are not represented by any letters or symbols in the Gurmukhi script.

Low tone Level tone High tone
ਝਾ jhā  peep ਚਾਅ cāa desire ਚਾਹ cāh tea
ਘੋੜਾ ghōṛā  horse ਕੋੜਾ kōṛā whip ਕੋਹੜਾ kōhṛā leper
ਘੜੀ ghaṛī  watch ਕੜੀ kaṛī link of a chain ਕੜ੍ਹੀ kaṛhī turmeric curry

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