chapter  1
11 Pages

Bringing a Field to Focus

Punjabi is an idiosyncratic language. A mixture of Arabic, Persian and Urdu words, its speech full of metaphor, allegory, proverbs, small witticisms (totkeh) and rhyming puzzles (paheliyan), it is nevertheless oddly unmelodic in its intonations. Punjabi speakers migrating across different regions and nation states took their tongue with them, but often wrote their thoughts in different scripts. In Pakistan, for example, Punjabi is written in Shahmukhi, a modified Perso-Arabic script. In Indian Punjab, Gurmukhi (literally, the Guru’s tongue) is the primary script. Punjabi cinema posters use the Roman script to reach out to non-Punjabi speakers and transnational audiences. A language transcribed in different scripts means there is no real consensus on spellings or transliterations of words. Disparate spellings are one reflection of movement. Migration is also apparent in the vast number of ‘borrowed’ words and idiosyncratic grammatical construction. Diaspora Punjabi in Europe, America and Canada is a complicated mixture of ‘loan’ terms from local contexts, but also a process of code-switching between the grammar of Punjabi and other languages. I was told by a migrant in Southall that Californian Sikh grape growers translate the plural of ‘grape’ into ‘grapaan’. The phenomenon of code-switching and code-mixing with other languages ‘…is a natural part of the verbal behaviour of Punjabis…(though) this type of verbal behaviour makes Punjabis a subject of jokes’ (Bhatia 2008: 130). A professor of mine used to echo another standard version of Punjabi as an ‘aunty-uncle’ culture, which borrowed so freely from other language systems that it lost itself in the process. In a globalising world, however, cultural hybrids created through encounter are celebrated — sometimes ironically — as intrinsic to a ‘portable’ Punjabi culture.