Historically, the speakers of dialects now recognized as belonging to Sarāikī did not hold the belief that they constituted a cohesive language community or a distinct ethnicity. This consciousness developed among local elites in the years after the founding of Pakistan in 1947 in response to the social and political upheaval caused by the mass immigration of Urdu speaking refugee Muslims from India. Traditionally, the dialects were designated by any of a number of areal or demographic names (see table below), e.g. "Multani" for the dialect spoken around Multan, which has been the largest city in the "Sarāikī" speaking area for centuries. The name "Sarāikī" (or variant spellings) was formally adopted in the 1960s by regional social and political leaders who undertook to promote Sarāikī ethnic consciousness and to develop the vernaculars into a standardized written language. The word "Sarāiki" originated from the word سوویرا "Sauvira", a state name in old India . By adding adjectival suffix "-ki" to the word "Sauvirā" it became "Sauvirāki". The consonant 'v' with its neighboring vowels was dropped for simplification and hence the name became "Sarāiki". Although George Abraham Grierson reported that "Sirāiki" (that was the spelling he used) is from a Sindhi word sirō, meaning 'of the north, northern', Shackle :388 asserts that this etymology is unverified.
The standard Roman script spelling of the Saraiki language name (at least de facto) is "Saraiki"; this is the spelling used by two universities of Pakistan with departments of Saraiki (the Islamia University of Bahawalpur, department established 1989, and Bahauddin Zakariya University, in Multan, department established 2006), and by the district governments of Bahawalpur  and Multan, as well as by the federal institutions of the Government of Pakistan like Population Census Organization  and Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. Two of the native scripts, Gurmukhi and Devanagari, use the 'a' spelling (or rather, its native equivalent), which indicates that the vowel of the first syllable is a short /a/. In the Gurmukhi and Devanagari spellings given above, this is manifested by the lack of any vowel diacritic. As is standard for native Indo-Aryan orthographies, the absence of any diacritic over a consonant indicates that a short /a/ is spoken after that consonant.