Understanding the use of the pronoun you : Lessons from a three year old


I am going to not confirm to the rule a bit with today’s blog. Specifically, I am not going to write about something which strictly starts with a U, rather the topic is loosely based on the term ‘you’, more specifically, the different ways you is stated in Indian languages and how it can get you into trouble.

One of the major difference between English and the Indian language is that the second person pronoun you in english is the only prevalent second person pronoun which is used any longer, and it has no connotations of respect you give the other person. Everyone is a you, irrespective of age, gender or station in life.

Almost all Indian languages use different second person pronouns based on the person who is being addressed. The verb forms also accordingly changes.

In my mother tongue Tamil, as well as Kannada, the other South Indian Language I am familiar with, these pronouns are not very different (nee, neenga in tamil, neenu, neevu in kannada). But when I started learning Hindi as a child, I eas extremely confused because the two second person pronouns did not really resemble each other. I could not imagine why Tum and Aap, which are really very unrelated as words should be chosen as the second person pronouns. To confound me further, there was a third pronoun tu, which existed but was apparently seldom used.

Learning Hindi in South India probably means that sometimes you just dont get the cultural context of a language. I did not realize that the use of Tu was not really encouraged and taken to mean very disrespectful. And I also realized that in most of North India, it was a positive sign to refer to everyone as aap, irrespective of age or whatever. For me, it was a bit confusing. I was used to referring to people older than me or even around my age with the respectful version of the pronoun, but using that when talking to kids also seemed a bit strange, and I found it a bit difficult. But as part of my attempts to be culturally sensitive, I tried to do it.

In fact I think I have schooled myself quite rigorously in it, and although it makes for a bit of halting speech when I speak Hindi, I generally dont use the disrespectful pronouns.

Imagine my surprise when I find myself having this conversation with a kid at my daughter’s daycare.

Kid : Aunty, Migu (referring to my daughter) is small

Me : Yes, I know that. You are her didi.

Kid : She is smaller than me.

Me : Yes of course.

Kid : Since I am bigger, you should refer to me as Aap.

Me (feeling like a kid adomonished by her teacher, despite the fact that this kid is about one tenth of my age) : Yes, of course.

For a long time, this conversation perplexed me. Had I referred to her disrepectfully sometime. Why this adomonishment, surely I was always very careful, and I used to address every kid in the day care with an aap. Had I slipped?

Much later I realized that she had been listening to me talk to Migu in Hindi. I speak to her very rarely in Hindi, and on the ocassions I do, I don’t use the respectful pronoun aap, but the other one, tum. I find it a bit hard to talk to my daughter so formally. This child had observed me using tum, with Migu, and wanted to explain to me that when I talk to her, she should be addressed in a manner which befits her ‘age’.

So yes, that was a good lesson in etiquette from a three year old.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding the use of the pronoun you : Lessons from a three year old

  1. saxtoncorner says:

    Such an amazing story, wow, were you told. Lol. It never ceases to amaze me that children will always teach us so much more than people (adults) would care to admit 🙂 Great post.

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