Writing Systems #2 - Gurmukhi

The Punjabi writing system is one that is not an alphabet nor a syllabary. The script consists of a primary graph that generally denotes a consonantal sound, and can be adjoined to by a secondary glyph, known as a diacritic, that shows vowel sound.

A photo of writing in Gurmukhi

Overall, each consonant-graph and vowel-diacritic creates a grapheme that many have equated to be syllables. The founder of the Gurmukhi abugida was the second guru of the faith, Guru Angad Dev Ji. Most orthographies have a generally accepted ordering known as an abecedarium, and a sentence that contains all the letters which is called a pangram. English has an abecedarium with a Levantine ordering, and a well-known pangram used for testing fonts: ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’.

Gurmukhi – the true name of the Punjabi language’s generally accepted orthography, does not currently have a widely accepted or talked about pangram, but it does indeed have a refined abecedarium that is both very familiar to it readers. I previously talked about the first, final, and extra lines of the abecedarium, but now to lines two through six. After the conception of the orthography, and a count of thirty-five graphs (which would fit snugly into a five-by-seven grid), there were ten more irregular sounds which could fit easily fit into two lines of five, it was obvious to order the rest of the regular phones (which are stop sounds that don’t continue), in a five-by-five grid. This all sounds a little odd, probably, but will hopefully make better sense when I show you the primary Gurmukhi graphemes.

Gurmukhi/Punjabi is phonetically transparent, which means one phoneme maps to one letter (a sound to each letter) and where they do not, there is a predictable rule to make up for this. English on the other hand, is phonetically opaque and has general mapping and general rules, but overall, it’s just a bit of a mess really (see my earlier blogs from this year). Lines two to six of the Gurmukhi abecedarium are ordered in a pleasing way, and to add to this, the columns in this area are also ordered pleasingly to add to the linguist’s contentment. The lines are arranged relative to the place of articulation:

  1. Line two contains /k kh g kə̀ ŋ/, which all come from the velum, which is commonly known as the soft palate.
  2. The third line has /ʧ ʧh ʤ ʧə̀ ɲ/, a set of alveolar sounds encompassing palatalisation – from a Punjabi viewpoint, they are palatals and come from the front of the hard palate.
  3. This line has the phonemes /ʈ ʈh ɖ ʈə̀ ɳ/, which are known as retroflex sounds that come from just behind that hard [alveolar] ridge in the mouth.
  4. The phonemes /t̪ t̪h d̪ t̪è n̪/ comprise the fifth line and come from the dental region of the alveolar ridge.
  5. /p ph b bə̀ m/ make up the sixth line and are all occurring at the lips, so are known as bilabial sounds.

So, that is both quite easy and quite helpful, if you know the Gurmukhi abugida, you’ll be able to work out roughly where the pronunciation comes from if you happen to remember any one of the other members of that line. Then we have columns to contend with, which are separated by manner of articulation – which is to say how the sounds are produced, or even more precisely, how the air travels through the vocal tract. This patterning, again, does not involve lines one and seven. Of the five columns, their manners of articulations are as follows:

  1. Column one contains /k ʧ ʈ t̪ p/, which are all plosives – sounds that require a pressure build-up before release. They are more specifically voiceless plosives without aspiration which means they sound softer and don’t have breathiness afterwards and sound like the phones in the words: ‘sky’ and ‘pie’.
  2. The second column has /kh ʧh ʈhh ph/, which occur almost exactly like the previous column because these are voiceless plosives too, only these are all superscripted with a small ‘h’ to show that these phones have aspiration such as in the words: ‘kin’ and ‘pin’.
  3. This column has the phonemes /g ʤ ɖ d̪ b/, which are plosives, yet again, and occur just as column one does, only these are voiced (and unaspirated) and sound like the phones in the words: ‘lodger’ and ‘logger’.
  4. The phonemes /kə̀ ʧə̀ ʈə̀ d̪ə̀ pə̀/ comprise the fourth column and are plosives. These can be described as tonal plosives and are written in this manner because voicing moves from the plosive sound and stresses the incoming vowel sound – they can alternately be written like this to better see Gurmukhi’s patterning: /gh ʤh ɖhh bh/.  There are no easy equivalents in English.
  5. /ŋ ɲ ɳ n̪ m/ form the fifth and final column in the Gurmukhi abecedarium and are, like the previous two columns, voiced. They are not typical plosives, though pressure does build up in the oral tract and instead of being released orally, it is done so nasally – these are the nasals.

Punjabi is a very plosive language, and its primary notation contains only three consonants – of which only one can be used as seen in the abecedarium. How come? Well, Gurmukhi prefers to build a syllable as a polyphonic grapheme (multiple-sounded letter) rather than just a monophonic grapheme (single-sounded letter). Gurmukhi is joined in the category of abugida by many Brahmic orthographies such as Devanagari (Hindi), Bengali, Tamil, Tibetan, and Gujarati, and builds syllables in a way that is similar to Hangul (Korean). Gurmukhi has primary consonant graphs and secondary vowel diacritics, whereas Korean has graphs for both, and neither is more prominent than the other, nor are they modified to a base grapheme. Before going any further, this is what Gurmukhi’s abecedarium looks like:

An image of writing in Gurmukhi

And now for the secondary notation, which consists of the vowel diacritics. There are ten of them, one of which is unmarked, and they are noted below in conjunction with the /k/ graph, and naturally how they would be written as pure vowels with the only three vowel graphs. Note that one of them is not in the abecedarium, and again, only one of the three of them can appear unmarked by vowel diacritics.

A photo of writing in Gurmukhi
  1. An unmarked graph receives /ə/ as <a> in ‘about’.
  2. This rightward diacritic gives the /ɑː/ sound as <ar> in ‘car’ and ‘star’.
  3. A leftward diacritic denoting an /ɪ/ phoneme as <i> in ‘till’ and ‘bin’.
  4. This rightward diacritic gives an /iː/ sound such as <ee> in ‘been’ and ‘seen’.
  5. A bottomward diacritic receiving /ʊ/ such as <u> in ‘put’ and <oul> in ‘would’.
  6. Another bottomward diacritic denotes /uː/ such as <oo> in ‘fool’ and ‘pool’.
  7. This upward diacritic gives /eː/ like a monophonic <ere> for ‘here’ and <eer> for ‘beer’.
  8. An upward diacritic gives /ɛː/ such as a monophonic <air> for ‘hair’ and <are> for ‘stare’.
  9. Another upward diacritic denotes /oː/ as in Northern monophonic <oa> for ‘road’.
  10. An upward diacritic receives an /ɔː/ as in <or> in ‘port’ and ‘sort’.

So that’s how the Punjabi language is written in Gurmukhi script – well, basically anyway. You can only add one of the vowel diacritics alongside a consonant graph, so, if you’re not already confused by this system known as an abugida, there is still a little bit more to confuse you with… On top of the primary and secondary notations, there are still a couple more to contend with such as the diacritic for consonant doubling, the ones for either nasalised or breathy voicing, the vowel reduction diacritic, and the six or so half-letter diacritics – all of which can be used on top of the consonant graph and vowel glyph. I think, however, you have probably had enough to deal with for now, but it is more than fair to say that Gurmukhi, as a phonetic abugida, is ordered not only in an efficient manner, but also in a way that allows a great amount of phonetic and acoustic information to be accounted for.

I will leave you with this Punjabi sentence written in Gurmukhi that translates to: ‘Goodbye, and take care’…

A photo of writing in Gurmukhi that translates to ‘Goodbye, and take care’

Next time I shall be going through the varied writing system types of the world seeing as I have been boggling you with them…

Written by DP, Digital Student Ambassador, on 27 January 2022.

Events at the University

Browse upcoming public lectures, exhibitions, family events, concerts, shows and festivals across the University.