Honorable disrespect

A wife is calling a husband to dinner . Below are three general types of interactions that can happen : 1- positive, 2- neutral, 3- negative

Type1 : Positive

wife: Dinner is ready , dear

husband: I will be there in 5 minutes sweetheart.

type 2: Neutral

wife: Dinner is ready

husband: I will be there in 5 minutes.

type 3: Negative / shows inequality of gender

wife: Dinner is ready oh-human-deserving-of-respect

husband: I will be there in 5 minutes female-who-is-inferior-to-me

That last one is quite a mouthful…Isn’t it? But it won’t be if you talk Tamil.

Tamil – or rather KondunTamil as the version in use is appropriately called – is a language that makes showing gender and other social inequality in everyday conversations a breeze. Tamil uses Honorific suffixes of all kinds- some showing respect and some showing disrespect. (More about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_honorifics)

This language reflects the culture of a society that promotes overt display of social hierarchy, in social and interpersonal relationships, where in every interaction the power balance between the two parties conversing is expected to be shown. This language is the vehicle societies ride on to propagate inequality in age,gender,socio-economic status, power and caste.

Are honorific suffixes bad? Not necessarily. Suffixes that allow the show of mutual respect , love and intimacy is  a good thing. But using suffixes to show disrespect  is in my opinion undesirable.

Moreover, this honorific suffix usage promotes gender inequality in a marriage , validates male privilege and propagates the “culture of abuse“. Which is obviously my main area of focus in this article.

It is to be noted that not all humans who speak this Tamil language avail themselves to the ‘privilege’ of showing disrespect even though they ‘can’ under societal norms. I have witnessed many – male and female alike – address younger or  people in lesser status then them  with respect – using respectful honorific suffixes- and I applaud them for them for their dignity. These people bring out the beauty in the language and are role models for others to follow suit. But they are still in the minority.

Now, How do these honorific suffixes work and then how do they promote a culture of abuse?

For illustration ,let’s take  Tamil’s honorific suffixes: “di”  and “da”

“Di”  suffix is informal, denotes that a  female of lesser or equal status  is being addressed.

“Da”  suffix is the male counterpart.

So for example, if you want to call your younger brother towards you, you can say :

” Enga va da

The rough translation for the Tamil trans-literation sentence is:

Come here “you male who is inferior than me in either age or social status or power or all”

Or it can also be:

Come here “you male who is  equal to me because you are also allowed to respond back with a “di” or “da” “.

This latter ‘equal’ usage is the case in informal friendly /intimate relationships, where both the parties considers themselves equal, irrespective of age/socio-economic status.

The “da” or “di” gets translated into disrespect showing  the subtle inequality of the relationship when the person addressed with this suffix is not allowed to respond back with the “di/da” suffix in their response to the speaker.

E.g. A person can address his servant , disrespectfully, with “da” but the servant cannot use “da” towards his employer (if he expects to be gainfully employed). Instead he is expected to use another honorific suffix that shows respect like “ar” or “enga”- which denotes respect and reinforces his lesser economic status relative to his employer.

Some husbands use the suffix “Di”  when talking to their wives: publicly and privately. Wives are not allowed/expected to respond back or use the “Da” – they may do that in private (who knows?) but publicly it’s a huge ‘no-no’. The conversation between husband and wife  is expected to follow the pattern of the man/servant relationship, setting the stage for gender inequality – male superiority.

This “Di”, that husbands use when talking to their wives,  is  like an annoying sibling eating grapes and spitting the seeds at you – through out your lifetime.  It’s an offence where if you go to court and say “he spit a grape seed at me five times a day , 7 days a week” , and ask for justice everyone will laugh at you and ask you come back only when your limbs are broken.

The “Di” is like a vaccine – with a slightly ineffective virus – that builds immunity so when the real virus hits the nervous system – the body is prepared to deal with it.  As an immunized person may not even know that a deadly virus entered their body and was dealt with deftly – the female soul immunized with “Di”  doesn’t even feel much difference when an explicit disrespect is thrown at her. Say for example she is called a ‘bitch’ or to say in Tamil “nÃy” .

“Di” is just   a simple syllable- an innocuous reminder in every interaction that you are lesser than your husband and he deserves more respect than you get. A mere trifle of disrespect that is expected to roll off women’s back like water on a fish’s.

Some may argue that the usage of “Di” shows the intimate nature of the relationship between husband and wife and therefore “Di” expresses a romantic undertone. But if those same people, frown upon the wife’s usage of the “Da” and do not consider that usage romantic – their argument is not valid.

This  in-equal “Di” is just one example of a honorific in language usage that establishes the power structure within a marriage – and accepting this societal norm as normal  is to accept that women are lesser than men and therefore entitled to verbal abuse.

Honorific or not , gender inequality is conveyed in speech of all languages depending on how it is used and more importantly in the tone that it is delivered. Tamil and such languages that use honorific are not at fault . Fault if any lies in the society that uses it and normalizes disrespect towards one gender.

The issue in particular with honorific languages is that it makes showing overt disrespect easy, while cloaking the intent of disrespect under the ambiguity of grammar/societal norms of usage.  Whereas in non-honorific languages showing disrespect has to be explicit ,showing intent. e.g. ” I will be there in 5 minutes female-who-is-inferior-to-me” or  a short-cut  “I will be there in 5 minutes bitch”

Husband and wife (or Partners) should both bring love and respect to the marriage table and to their language. Bringing  love and expecting more than love (servile respect) in return is not fair. Bringing nothing but expecting both love and respect is even worse.  Our language is only an outward expression of these subtleties of inequality.

So how can we banish  “Di” and other such disrespectful words/inequality from our speech? Maybe we should switch mother tongues – move from Tamil to say English (or any other language that does not have honorific)  at least temporarily – and try to convey the whole message – subject/verb and honorific (and mainly the intent of respect or disrespect).

Since there are no such simple honorific suffixes substitutes in English as in Tamil – except maybe  “Sir/ Madam” or “Your highness” perhaps? –  in order to bring over all the inequality  to English we have to use more words than necessary ,making intent very clear and sentence structure very complicated. We would no longer be able to hide under the ambiguous shadow of honorific suffixes then.

Switching to English , carrying the baggage of honorific over , will be hard work.  Or we can make a true effort to have every interaction a positive one in our own mother tongues – turning Koduntamil (corrupt Tamil) into SenTamil (pure Tamil) . That will be harder work if one is not willing to let go of privilege, easy if one realizes that all humans- male are female-  are  equal.

Now , you may ask why all the fuss about one word ? How will discontinuing the usage of  honorific ,say  in-equal “Di” by a husband ,change the inequality of their relationship? What prevents the husband from taking the more explicit route to express disrespect for his wife if “Di” is banished?  Won’t “Di” be a more honourable disrespect (there’s a new oxymoron for you) than ,say, ‘bitch’?

I agree that eliminating the usage of a gender in-equality honorific suffix will not change the world , in itself. But it can do three things:

1- Those who take the subterfuge under the honorific today will be forced to be chose from the 3 word choices: explicitly disrespectful  ,neutral or respectful. Many will choose neutral without the  grey area of “honourable disrespect” to chose from.

2- It brings the enemy out of the shadows in to the open – the intent of disrespect will be explicit. It is easy to confront the enemy when he’s in front of you – easy to assess the threat- easy to formulate a defence strategy.  The fight comes out in the open. Today a father can tolerate his daughter being called “Di” by her husband in front of him – but will not tolerate the unwarranted and explicit disrespect of ‘bitch’ or ‘fool’ or any such thing.

3- It sets the societal expectation that both genders in a marriage are equal. Female babies are not born with the sense of inferiority , ready to accept verbal abuse, they learn that from the interactions they see playing in everyday life, day after day after day, at their homes, in the TV and around them. Neither are male babies born with the sense of superiority , ready to abuse. The girls see, father using “Di” and mother not using “Da” and intuitively learn that they should not use “Da”. The boys learn that they should use “Di” and not expect a “Da” back.  If they grow up seeing mutual respect in their parents language  and in the society around them then a new positive culture is formed- gender inequality and the evils associated with it will slowly fade away.

While this may seem applicable to only one segment of the world population that uses honorific suffixes, the basic premise  is respectful communication and being aware of  gender in-equality in language and the impact it has not only on relationships but on culture as a whole.

So, respected-reader-who-is-equal-to-me, what do you think?

Note: There are many other languages in the world that use honorific devices to show social hierarchy with more degrees of complexity…Tamil is the only one I speak, so I have used this as an example.

Disclaimers: (to keep trolls in bay) The intent of this post is to show the gender in-equality inherent in the usage of some languages today  not to put down any particular language. I do put down certain cultural norms that treats women as inferior though.


4 responses to “Honorable disrespect

  1. A fascinating article. I expect that making such a change would be a very long and slow process but I hope that it is someday achieved. Gender-inequality is something that belongs in the past.


  2. I agree – a fascinating read. A tiny word that signifies so much. But change will I’m sure be hard.
    I did not take my husband’s name on marriage and therefore also my title is not ‘Mrs’. It remains after years and years very difficult to get people to use my proper name (and especially within the family).
    Getting ready for the merry round of Christmas cards wrongly addressed. Now I consider that very disrespectful – surely I can choose my name/title. But people are careless with other’s feelings and most particularly if change is also involved. However it is in the end only an irritation – my husband respects my choice which is what’s important to me.


    • Thank you. You certainly have a right to choose how you want to be addressed and it’s indeed disrespectful to not be mindful of that choice when they know about it. I too retained my maiden name and sometimes when my husband is addressed as Mr. my-maiden-name it gets funny 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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