One day in office, during lunch which all eleven of us were having together, my Malayali colleague and I started chattering in our mother tongue. Those of us who shared a common language (there were also Kannadigas, Tamilians, Andhraites etc. in the team) had this habit of slipping into our own language now and then, and none of the others would mind. If it was something everyone should hear, the medium was, of course, English (rather than Hindi, which some didn’t follow well). After a while a Tamilian, who was sitting next to me, asked, “Why do you guys use your names in the conversation? Don’t you have a word for ‘you’ in Malayalam?” My ‘compatriot’ and I grinned at each other. Sure enough, our conversations (directly translated from Malayalam) sounded like this:
“Did Joe go to the party last night?”
“No, did Jeena go?”
“I didn’t either. Did Joe stay late in office?”
One would have thought we were talking of people who were nowhere in the vicinity – nah, we were asking about each other. It’s not that there are no words for ‘you’ in Malayalam, the problem was elsewhere. Like most Indian languages, Malayalam too has two ways of saying ‘you’ – the word that you use with buddies, nee (‘tum’ in Hindi) and the more respectful one that we use with elders, ningal or thangal (‘aap‘ in Hindi). Nee was too familiar a form; my colleague and I were close, but not close enough to call each other ‘nee‘. Ningal or thangal were too formal, we didn’t use those either. The most courteous and favoured and easy (safe?) way (at least, in my part of Kerala – others may differ, I do not intend to spark a debate) to speak was to use the other person’s name. I haven’t heard this kind of third-person usage in any other language – and I have had a brush with more than a handful of them. It may be too far-fetched to call Malayalam a really unique language (or maybe not) – even considering that the name, Malayalam, is a palindrome – but it sure does have its own weird, interesting and rare styles of speech. But I don’t intend to digress.
The third-person usage is fine, more or less, as long as the correct phrases come into play when we switch to English or Hindi. However, recently I happened to listen to a Malayali speaking to a Kannadiga in English, and because of the direct translation, this is how it went.
“If I do this part, Auntie can take care of the rest, no?” (‘Auntie’ was the elderly Kannadiga lady.) “I will finish this and call Auntie.”
Of course, Auntie understood that she was being referred, so there were no issues.
When I speak to a child, I refer to myself as Auntie (or whatever s/he should call me) instead of saying ‘I’. “Auntie is feeling cold, so Auntie is wearing a sweater. Why aren’t you wearing one?”
To be frank, this is the exact sentence I spoke to a four-year-old today morning, that triggered the series of thoughts behind this post.