Punjabi: The Secret Language

A couple of weeks ago while driving with my friend Rajpreet, I started speaking Punjabi in the middle of an English conversation. I was caught off-guard by Rajpreets response, why are we speaking the secret language when its just us two in the car? Rajpreet for some reason thought we only spoke Punjabi amongst ourselves around other English speakers when we had something secret to say [in the past we also spoke it when there was another Punjabi-dominant speaker with us]. However, for myself, it just happened, after some thought I feel I spoke out of the comfort of knowing that Rajpreet also understood Punjabi not to say anything secret. Rajpreet’s statement made me think about how at department stores and other official places of business, I sometimes spoke a mixture of Punjabi/English to family and friends because we did not want other English speakers to know what we were saying in translation but it was not always the case. Sometimes it was out of comfort, group/ethnic solidarity, or just plain funny. In my eyes, I wasnt using Punjabi as a secret language, but more as a form of code-switching or hybrid language use.

Code-switching is a sociolinguistic phenomenon where bilingual speakers (i.e. Spanish/English and Punjabi/English) use terms from both languages in a sentence or conversation. In the past researchers have argued that code-switching was a sign of language inability. For example, the speaker did not know the terms for bowl or potato in English so used the Spanish or Punjabi terms. However, now sociolinguistic researchers believe it is a marker of group identity, ethnic solidarity, and relationship-building. I remember one person telling me that as part of his research on hybrid language use at a major state-owned park, he found that one park employee spoke Spanglish to their largely Latino cliental because she wanted to convey safety, comfort, and other feelings of home at this large American “place”. By creating such an environment through language she felt that the Latino cliental was more likely to explore the site and ask questions.

Thus, I ask do you ever speak Punjabi to English-speaking friends and family? If so, when?

Do you code-switch? Why?


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20 Responses to “Punjabi: The Secret Language”

  1. Singh says:

    hahaha – the "secret language"

    i think your friend makes a good point – a lot of us grew up speaking punjabi in public whilst traveling with parents and siblings. i can think of a few occasions where, what used to be a necessity (communicating with parents and relatives more effectively), showed signs of habit – i have been in department stores with siblings and instructed them to speak punjabi exactly for the reasons your friend mentioned.

    for me, comfort factor definitely plays a role in when i choose to switch, or switch back and forth – sometimes what you want to say just doesnt translate well…

  2. Mewa Singh says:

    What I find most interesting at times is mine and others' transference of grammatical patterns of one language upon the other.

    In Central California, few people that I know would ever refer to their grapes as 'angoor.' Most prefer the English – 'grape.' However, when making the words plural, we use the Punjabi plural form, making grape (singular) into grapaan (plural).

    In conversation yesterday, I used the word 'bakwas-ing.'

    I guess it goes both ways.

  3. Singh says:

    hahaha – the “secret language”

    i think your friend makes a good point – a lot of us grew up speaking punjabi in public whilst traveling with parents and siblings. i can think of a few occasions where, what used to be a necessity (communicating with parents and relatives more effectively), showed signs of habit – i have been in department stores with siblings and instructed them to speak punjabi exactly for the reasons your friend mentioned.

    for me, comfort factor definitely plays a role in when i choose to switch, or switch back and forth – sometimes what you want to say just doesnt translate well…

  4. Mewa Singh says:

    What I find most interesting at times is mine and others’ transference of grammatical patterns of one language upon the other.

    In Central California, few people that I know would ever refer to their grapes as ‘angoor.’ Most prefer the English – ‘grape.’ However, when making the words plural, we use the Punjabi plural form, making grape (singular) into grapaan (plural).

    In conversation yesterday, I used the word ‘bakwas-ing.’

    I guess it goes both ways.

  5. harinder says:

    let us all develop a netpunjabi language linking all of us.

    Let each Punjabi from each part of globe help in developing this neo Punjabi language.

    eg :-

    German Punjabis can chip in with German words

    Italian Punjabis can chip in with Italian words

    French Punjabis can chip in with French words

    Kuwati Punjabis can chip in with Arabic words

    Holland Punjabis could bring in Danish words

    Indain SIkhs living in different could bring in word from different states.

    Let our mother Punajbi stand tall amongst all other languages of the world.

    "THE COSMIC PUNJABI LANGUAGE"

  6. Mewa Singh says:

    Harinder,

    So what do Punjabis in Punjab contribute?

  7. TR says:

    I must admit to code-switching with my daughter. Now that she is an adult child (almost ex-teenager), I sometimes feel that I prefer to speak to her in a language other than English when in public if I feel her or my privacy is likely to be preserved.

    On the other hand….she forgot which language she should be speaking in – to maintain this 'privacy' the last time we travelled overseas. It was a hilarious disaster.

    The pther main reason for code-switching is that some words are simply more accurately descriptive of a sense, concept or feeling.

  8. harinder says:

    let us all develop a netpunjabi language linking all of us.
    Let each Punjabi from each part of globe help in developing this neo Punjabi language.

    eg :-

    German Punjabis can chip in with German words
    Italian Punjabis can chip in with Italian words
    French Punjabis can chip in with French words
    Kuwati Punjabis can chip in with Arabic words
    Holland Punjabis could bring in Danish words
    Indain SIkhs living in different could bring in word from different states.

    Let our mother Punajbi stand tall amongst all other languages of the world.

    “THE COSMIC PUNJABI LANGUAGE”

  9. Mewa Singh says:

    Harinder,

    So what do Punjabis in Punjab contribute?

  10. TR says:

    I must admit to code-switching with my daughter. Now that she is an adult child (almost ex-teenager), I sometimes feel that I prefer to speak to her in a language other than English when in public if I feel her or my privacy is likely to be preserved.

    On the other hand….she forgot which language she should be speaking in – to maintain this ‘privacy’ the last time we travelled overseas. It was a hilarious disaster.

    The pther main reason for code-switching is that some words are simply more accurately descriptive of a sense, concept or feeling.

  11. harinder says:

    LOL

    Dear MEWA SINGH a very good question.

    We in the indigenous Punjab will Booze our liver out and kill our daughters , chop our hairs and feel ashamed of our mother tongue.

    That will be our contribution.

  12. harinder says:

    LOL

    Dear MEWA SINGH a very good question.
    We in the indigenous Punjab will Booze our liver out and kill our daughters , chop our hairs and feel ashamed of our mother tongue.
    That will be our contribution.

  13. Mewa Singh says:

    Harinder,

    It seems a rather harsh assessment and patronizing assessment. Punjab's relationship will always be symbiotic with her overseas sons and daughters. So goes Punjab, so goes the Sikh people.

  14. Mewa Singh says:

    Harinder,

    It seems a rather harsh assessment and patronizing assessment. Punjab’s relationship will always be symbiotic with her overseas sons and daughters. So goes Punjab, so goes the Sikh people.

  15. Camille says:

    My mom used to code switch often, but in our multicultural East Bay city, this wasn't useful in front of other Punjabis! It also didn't help at the gurdwara. It was funny because Punjabi was clearly our "private" language, but it was the idea of privacy that transferred more often than the venue when my parents would code-switch.

    I often intentionally code-switch with my DBD cousins and siblings (we joke that we are speaking either Pungrazi or Pinglish). It's kind of a generational thing, although I sometimes pun in Pungrazi with my grandparents.

    Now that I'm older, I inadvertently code-switch between Spanish (which I speak more dominantly) and Punjabi. When learning new languages, however (e.g., German, Swahili), I tend to "automatically" answer in Punjabi if I am frazzled or zoned out. I do this sometimes in English, also (e.g., automatically answering "hunji" instead of "yeah"). I'm not 100% sure why it happens since I'm clearly storing all of these languages in different parts of my brain, but alas.

  16. Camille says:

    My mom used to code switch often, but in our multicultural East Bay city, this wasn’t useful in front of other Punjabis! It also didn’t help at the gurdwara. It was funny because Punjabi was clearly our “private” language, but it was the idea of privacy that transferred more often than the venue when my parents would code-switch.

    I often intentionally code-switch with my DBD cousins and siblings (we joke that we are speaking either Pungrazi or Pinglish). It’s kind of a generational thing, although I sometimes pun in Pungrazi with my grandparents.

    Now that I’m older, I inadvertently code-switch between Spanish (which I speak more dominantly) and Punjabi. When learning new languages, however (e.g., German, Swahili), I tend to “automatically” answer in Punjabi if I am frazzled or zoned out. I do this sometimes in English, also (e.g., automatically answering “hunji” instead of “yeah”). I’m not 100% sure why it happens since I’m clearly storing all of these languages in different parts of my brain, but alas.

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  18. jasleen kaur says:

    coming at from a completely different direction…

    i'm a non-punjabi sikh. when i married a punjabi, we started to form our own kind of "code switching" language. not to "hide" anything, but because it's my way of learning the language. as i incorporate more punjabi words into my vocabulary, i try to use them as much as possible. also, my husband likes to speak in punjabi to me to encourage me to learn more.

    i do like the term "code switching", it really is discriptive of how we speak in my household. :)

  19. jasleen kaur says:

    coming at from a completely different direction…

    i’m a non-punjabi sikh. when i married a punjabi, we started to form our own kind of “code switching” language. not to “hide” anything, but because it’s my way of learning the language. as i incorporate more punjabi words into my vocabulary, i try to use them as much as possible. also, my husband likes to speak in punjabi to me to encourage me to learn more.

    i do like the term “code switching”, it really is discriptive of how we speak in my household. :)

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