Friday, February 25, 2005

on english.

ive a question. how do you refer to a hijra? to simply call (oh dear... already getting tangled!) them "them" is convenient but what if youre saying this person said such and such? in tamil or hindi, you could use the respectful neutral avanga or unne....what dyou do in english?!

using "he" may insult those hijras who may consider themselves not male. but saying "she" insults women, cos its like saying merely anything non-male is female. calling them "it" is so sad. shouldnt be done.

english is such a narrow rigid language, everything is polarised as male or female. i really like the indian languages that way : sanskrit, hindi, tamil all have this napumsakaling concept which opens up a a nice spectrum in gender... (its not surprising actually, seeing how cool our culture used to be about gender roles, identity and sex.)

i dont know how many of you read asimov... im reading the foundation series again, and in foundation and earth, theres the same problem with i/we/gaia. to briefly explain the context, "Gaia" is a planet of the future where there is a phenomenally developed planetary consciousness which is shared amongst all the creatures. so each unit (plant/ microbe/ animal/ human) is "aware" of what other units of gaia are experiencing. its a really fascinating concept : vasudhaiva kutumbakam kind of thing. the point is, each time a unit of gaia speaks, the character ends up having to say "i/we/gaia think". (for those who are grammar conscious, you tell me! should we lump it as i/we thinks, or gaia think?!).

asimovs writing has a brilliant collection of ideas, specially in terms of the general direction of science and its priority areas, role in politics, people attitude towards science and superstition... some of what hes written about is already happening, so what if this planetary consciousness (as in, to that degree) also happens? english as we know it would be a really unwieldy kind of language!

ok, or if that sounded far fetched and conspiracy theory-ish, why go that far into the future, look at the present : its really irritating when youre writing something formally. i feel very impatient when i have to qualify everything with "he/she" because i dont want to ignore a half of society...! makes sentences really long and involved and complicated. i wonder how one modifies the grammatical structure of a language.... any ideas anyone?!



Blogger Woodworm said...

Quite interesting that you should bring this up - because I was thinking on similar lines for my next post. There is a very interesting concept called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which closely mirrors what you are talking about.

I guess you should be a Tamilian. I assume you would know this word called "Karpu" in Tamil which is supposed to loosely mean "fidelity" but sometimes is also employed to mean virginity (or) physical "purity". When describing a rape victim, you end up saying something that can be translated as "her fidelity was erased (????)".. somehow making it seem as if that quality in her - is not under her control, and can be taken away at will...!!!

Vernaculars are not all that encompassing - if you think about such cases...

2:42 am  
Blogger darrenabi said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:19 am  
Blogger Vitalstatistix said...

@m : English has its ambiguities, yes. But I really dont think the napumsakalinga in Sanskrit was conceived for the purpose of addressing 'hijras'. Infact this thought would never have crossed the minds of Panini and his followers. The napumsakalinga is primarily used to refer to inanimate objects for which a gender cannot be defined. I am not saying that it cannot be used to refer to hijras. I only think that our grammarians wouldnt have considered the use-case of addressing a hijra when writing the 'Thath' shabda.

7:02 am  
Blogger Vitalstatistix said...

@woodworm : Am not really sure about your analysis. Does Tamil not provide any other way to descripe a rape victim ? If it does, then the problem is not with the language but wrong usage by the people.

7:14 am  
Blogger Vitalstatistix said...

Typo : that was 'describe' in the prev comment and not 'descripe'

7:15 am  
Blogger m. said...


gosh, i wasnt implying that we could use "thath" in that context!!

i was merely appreciative of the fact that even the grammatical structure allows the flexibility to include the neutral gender.

while panini may not have spoken of the third gender in people, our mythology certainly does! our ancestors seem to have been nice broad minded people.

and yeah : that IS how they describe rape in shuddh tamil. other than tamil having that structural provision, i see NOTHING in favour of it! - at least currently, we dont even have names for all the parts of the body in tamil.

have to check sangam literature to see if the words were there initially and have simply been censored out of existence.

7:28 am  
Blogger Sanketh said...

I am not sure if any language is consciously insensitive to some aspects of society. I feel languages evolve and as and when we feel the need to add a new word to describe a "phenomenon" or a class we can come up with it. The word "blog" for example found its way to dictionaries and I am sure there are several other such words.
As far as vernacular languages go I don't think it helps if we try to qualitatively analyse their implications in English. They are better analysed in the native tongue. I am guessing there are some other connotations of the word that Woodworm used which we may not be aware of/ there is no equivalent in English.
(on "napunsakling",I remember it being used to describe "hijras" in some literature. I think it was in Hindi.)

8:47 am  
Blogger darrenabi said...

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1:24 pm  
Blogger vincibility said...

Of course, s/he is marginally shorter than he/she... Honestly, I use "they" most when I'm talking, and then either just "he" or "s/he" or maybe "he/she" when I'm writing, depending on my audience and intent.

Although I am feministic in the sense that I do believe women are just as good as men, I don't completely disagree with the old tradition of using "he" when you mean "he or she" (though there are times when things like that irk me).

11:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that English is a rigid language. BTW, I don't think there is napumsakaling in Hindi. I remember the trouble taken to remember that Kitaab is Masculine, while Pustak is feminine( or the other way around?).
What I most remember abt Asimov is where he describes how to predict weather. He says we can develop crystals with lower and lower times of dissolution, finally we have a crystal with a negative time of dissolution, then put it outside and we can find out if it will rain tomorrow.

9:26 pm  
Blogger m. said...

hullo. no, hindi doesnt have a third linga as clearly defined and built into its grammatical structure as sanskrit, but it does have these words which are gender neutral. i was referring to that concept, than the actual linga :)
oh! i dont remember coming across that asimov concept at all... but i wouldnt be surprised if he ended up being right again. the mans amazing!

8:43 am  

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