'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Wish YOU were here!

We talked about a genuine difficulty faced by speakers of Malayalam while learning the phonetically alien language of English, here. This post is on yet another genuine difficulty with Malayalam, the reasons for which are entirely within the language.

While conversing in Malayalam, almost anyone will repeatedly face peculiar and severe problems with second person pronouns - there is no minimal and complete set of words which could be used in the sense of the single English word 'you' or for the complete triple of {tu, tum, aap} of Hindi (by completeness, one means that the set of words given can cover all situations where one addresses another person; One can address anybody from a kid to a venerable old man as 'you' in English). Malayalam has the words: "nee", "ningal", "thaangal", "angu", "thaan", "nammal", "iddeham", "saar", "madam" (and many more) which all CAN mean 'you' in various conversational contexts. And (this is the weird part!) even this gargantuan set is woefully incomplete. It has no words for addressing in second person, for instance, one's own parents!

To break free from this peculiar trap created by themselves, Mallus often use (1)the the relationship one has with the second person (2)or the proper name of the second person itself or (3) in some special cases, the profession of the socond person (doctor or teacher especially) as substitute for the straightforward 'you'. For instance, I ask my pop: "Did father like my blog?" where 'father' is a substitute for 'you'. Old friend and fellow-Mallu Anand can tell ME (directly) something like(hopefully!): "I liked Nandakumar's post on the second person" where what he means is "I liked YOUR post...". This runs into difficulties when the 'you' in question is say, self's father, an elder who cannot be addressed by HIS name. Then 'you' becomes 'Nandakumar's father'. Needless to say, this does not solve the problem fully since the 'you' is defined with reference to something else - such a trick can often fail. So some folks bring in words like 'uncle', 'brother' and so substitutes for 'you' - the problem keeps getting shifted, never solved.

Having watched the evolution of this language as a practitioner for so many years, one could recommend Governmental action to sort this out. Perhaps it could begin at primary schools where kids could be taught to address their teacher as 'thaangal' (the 'polite' you) and not ask questions like "What is teacher's name?". But it won't be easy at all; most Mallus find the word "thaangal" very awkward indeed! The wish for a single 'you' in Malayalam is unlikely to be ever fulfilled.

Historically, Kerala society was a very stratified one and in such a setting, a blanket 'you' for anybody could not have evolved. Indeed there used to be very deferential words 'you', as there were for 'I' as well: "adiyan", "eeyullavan",... (and the pompous practice of referring to self in plural). Modernization has largely eliminated many of these oddities but the second person difficulties persist.

One can see a clear link between prevalence of equality and the usage of a single second person pronoun, in Kerala. For instance, it is not surprising, given their substantial contribution to social equality, that the communists have a single word 'comrade' for any 'you' as long as the second person is also a commie. To give another example, at the Sabarimala temple (a rather odd place for the genuine equality prevalent there) one can address anybody as 'swami'. These are of courese sectarian solutions for a larger problem; and they can't help you address your parents!

Probably, one could again wonder: The rest of Indian society was equally stratified in olden times. How did only the Mallu fall into this weird 'second person trap'. There could be more complex reasons.


  • At 11:11 PM, Blogger Anand said…

    I liked YOUR post! How's that?

    Don't you think 'ningal' can be the 'generic' you? It's not too respectful to look awkward, and in no part of Kerala it has a derogatory tone.

  • At 11:28 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Nandi Anand (even this expression of gratitude is a bit odd, isn't it? Malayalam has a lot of growing up to do)!

    I agree, 'ningal', is the best of the lot. But it has a certain 'distance' about it, I suppose. Will a teacher like being addressed as 'ningal' by students? Perhaps, some amount of coercion from 'above' is needed if things have to be standardized. Odd!

  • At 8:35 AM, Blogger Vishnu said…

    Enikku taangalude post ishtamaayi. Never thought of such an issue in Malayalam. I don't think ningal or taangal sounds as good as the tum or aap in Hindi. Again, as Nandakumar chettan (uncle?) said, I would definitely feel odd to refer to my father as taangal. However, taan, ni etc sound better, even though they lack respect.

  • At 7:48 PM, Blogger mp said…

    this is something i have often felt too. i think i have developed a block to addressing anyone (except friends from childhood) as "nee." so i use their name every time (or talk to them in english :-) ).

    but i know many people who would just drop by and tell you "edo, thante post enikku ishtamaayi, ketto."

    anyway, i liked your post :) and btw, welcome to the Kerala blogroll.

  • At 2:07 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Thanks Vishnu,wonder how you guessed my age!

    Thanks Manoj,for your appreciation and for the entry at Kerala blogroll. I had once been asked by Umesh Nair to join up, somehow i missed it.

  • At 10:03 AM, Blogger Vishnu said…

    wonder how you guessed my age!
    It was just a shot in the dark!

    More on Malayalam: there seems to be some discrepancy on the number of letters
    in the malayalam alphabet. I have seen some websites which say that there are 53
    letters in the alphabet. However, they seem to differ on the number of vowels
    and consonants! And the same pages, do not have 53 letters either!!

    My father, a linguist, says that people were debating the number of letters in the
    alphabet (eg, some people saying that the "tta"(?), as in the word
    "meter" written in Malayalam, is a different letter). He believes that there are 49 letters,
    and so do I!

  • At 11:41 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…


    I too feel a certain murkiness as far as the total number of letters in Malayalam goes. One could count in various ways the three groups of letters, vowels, 'classified consonants' and the other consonants.

    (1)if you take all swaras (vowels) including the long ones like the 'A' in 'Ana'(elephant) would give you 16 swaras. then there are 25 'classified' consonants. then the 'ya', 'ra,... consonants which in my count total 11 (here I leave out 'shra', 'ksha', 'jna' etc.) So, you get a total of 52 letters.
    (2) if you leave out the long swaras and compound swaras like 'ai' (as in 'kai' - hand)
    that gives the count of vowels as only 9. This gives us a total of only 45.
    (3) if you leave out the long vowels but retain the compound 'ai' and 'au' as atomic, it increases the count to 47.

    So, I have produced 3 counts - on both sides of your 49 and the standard 51!

    I do not think the 'tta' of 'meter' should be included. It is the double of 'ra' as in 'thara' (floor). Only the pronunciation is slightly different.

  • At 6:18 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    One more thought:
    I had hoped for 'you' being standardized to a small and complete set of words in Malayalam. This language does not have a proper FORMAL word for 'father' either! The word 'Achchhan' is considered 'too Hindu' by many people (including many Hindus themselves) in Kerala. I have seen in many translations of Western novels into Malayalam, the supposedly more christian word of 'Appan' being used quite formally - not only in casual conversation. I dont know of translations of 'Muslim' (Arabic or Urdu or ...)works into Malayalam where 'Bapa' is used as the formal word for father but they should exist as well.

    I guess this is a rather touchy issue with many Mallus and many use the (religion-neutral)English word 'father' while talking to people of other faiths to avoid 'transgressions'. Kerala is a strange place!

  • At 9:52 AM, Blogger Vishnu said…

    Yes, the argument on the numbers of letters still continues...

    I agree that 'Achchhan' is not universal, but then isn't it the same in Hindi too? 'Pita' is not common, nor is 'bapu', or 'abba'.

    'Pita' of course came from Sanskrit, but what about 'Achchhan'?

    Don't Christians also use 'Achchhan', when they refer to a priest, who is supposed to be called 'father'?

  • At 9:40 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    I guess 'pita' is a relgion-neutral word in Hindi (and so is 'maa-baap' for parents). In Malayalam 'Amma' is not quite as divided as Achchhan .

    My understanding of 'Achchhan' is that it is derived as:
    'Arya' (sanskrit) -> 'Ayya' (Prakrit) -> 'Ajja' (Again Prakrit, ya getting replaced by ja and viceversa are universal) -> Achcha -> Achchhan. The last 'n' being a Dravidian-ism.

    I guess the Christian word of 'Achchan' (for priests) is closer to roots than the upper-caste-ish 'Achchhan'!

  • At 6:58 AM, Blogger Myna said…

    Nandhan bhai,

    That exactly is the reason why I borrowed this BHAI version. Couldn't find a better one in Malayalam.
    All your articles remind me the hours and hours we spent in 308 Brahmaputra hostel in IIT Madras. I feel great.

  • At 1:57 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…


    great to hear from you again!


Post a Comment

<< Home