Layers of Language

Musings about hierarchies and power in language

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

In English language, it is easy to address someone — there is only one “you.” Whether it is a boss or a bestie, a grandfather or a niece, someone known for years or a new acquaintance, the term you is used to address the person in front. I like the egalitarianism the term connotes — there is no hierarchy set by age, gender, relationships, caste, class or myriad other categories. You and I have the potential to interact as equals. We do not have to try to determine each others’ position on the totem pole at the first meeting.

Not so in all the other languages I speak — where there are two, three, and even four levels of you. I often bristle at the formality and the hierarchy, especially in Nepali, the language I use the most after English. I consciously stopped using the term हजुर (hajur) to address people because of its feudal connotation. I do not like it used to address me either, but more and more Nepali-speakers seem to be adopting it in their everyday conversations.

I regularly move between तँ (taँ), तिमी (timi), तपाईं (tapā’īṁ) — reflecting the nuances of our relationships, including when they started and how they have evolved. Since I do not have siblings, only a few close friends from school days exist in the तँ realm. We started from तिमी, sliding into तँ territory as we grew closer, and some have reverted back to तिमी as we gradually drifted apart. तपाईं is the term I use most often now, as it can be a catch-all for friends and colleagues and acquaintances. Younger friends sometimes move into तिमी territory, but I never use तँ with them because of the potential power imbalance.

तँ is still used by people who want to lord over those with lesser power and privilege, and they expect to be addressed as हजुर in return. A relatively new and heartening trend I have noticed in Kathmandu is the use of तपाईं to address people in the service industry — taxi drivers and waiters alike — away from the most lowly तँ.

Of course, using just one “you” does not automatically make the hierarchies themselves disappear. Oftentimes they are just glossed over, unacknowledged, leaving us with an illusion of equality. It also erases the nuances, subtleties, ability to map the changing dynamics of relationships. While I complain about the hierarchies, I also miss the subtleties in English, and the power of resistance just by choosing one version of “you” over another. Does a language without subtleties also foster a culture without subtleties?

When you and I are together, it becomes we. But in English language, we can also be someone else and I, excluding you. If I were to say “we are going to have dinner,” you have to guess if I am inviting you or am I telling you about my intention to eat with someone else. In my mother tongue Nepal Bhasa, however, there is no guessing game — because झी (jhee) is with you and जिपिं (jipin) is without you. Of course, in Nepal Bhasa, I could never inform you that I am eating without also inviting you to join.

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organizer at heart. strategy consultant by trade. mostly prose with occasional forays into poetry. https://tinyletter.com/LunaRanjit

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Luna Ranjit

Luna Ranjit

organizer at heart. strategy consultant by trade. mostly prose with occasional forays into poetry. https://tinyletter.com/LunaRanjit

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