A recent campaign for banning the use of 'sir' and 'madam' in official communications rekindled the discussion on how to address individuals respectfully.

A film scene where two men are standing bowed down and respectfully outside an old fashioned house while another man sits inside wearing a towel around him, and her tied to a knot on top of his headA scene from the film '1921' depicting caste system / Courtesy - Saina Movies
Features Language Friday, January 28, 2022 - 19:23

Looking at the old court building in Ottapalam, a town west of Palakkad, Boban Mattumantha thought of the old days when it was one of the only two courts in Malabar. Those were the days of the freedom struggle and the court had played its part. It worried Boban that after all these years the building would be taken down and replaced by a six-floor court complex. He went home and wrote a complaint — the building and its history should not be erased. Soon, a reply came from the Palakkad sub-collector, asking Boban to be present on a certain day and time. Boban Mattumantha, a social activist, was not happy with the way the letter was worded. It sounded like an order and wasn’t he a citizen with the same rights as the one who wrote it, he thought. Thus began a long campaign for bringing a friendly language into official correspondences, and doing away with the overt marks of “respect” left behind by colonialism.

At the start of it, ‘sir’ and ‘madam’, had to go, said the campaign. A panchayat in Palakkad – Mathur — liked it enough to adopt the idea for its office. It banned the use of addressing its officials as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. Those who came to the panchayat could instead use the official’s name or designation. If a younger person, unused to calling elders by name, found it too hard, they could resort to Chechi (for women) and Chetta (for men) —  terms used for an elder sibling —  decided the panchayat. They also did away with words like ‘apekshikuka’ that people used to fill forms with, for that meant ‘request’. Citizens had a right to ask for the panchayat office services, they didn’t have to request.

“‘Apekshikuka’ is one of the worst of these words,” agrees Boban. He is happy the campaign is spreading, a few offices and an educational institution have already dropped ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ from their pages. It has also rekindled a discussion on how you address officials, or anyone for that matter, for Malayalam has too many of these words. There are a bunch of pronouns and addresses for individuals, in varying degrees of “respect”. ‘You’ in English has many Malayalam equivalents — nee or thaan for peers or younger ones or those you don’t need to respect, thaangal or ningal for those you respect, and in some places, angu is used for utmost respect.

Words of respect originate from caste

Angu is no longer used by the common people. But representatives in the Assembly and panelists in media discussions still use it. It is a dangerous trend, especially if you look at the history of how these words were formed,” says Rakesh Cherucode, Head of Dravidian Languages at Central Institute of Indian Languages.


Rakesh Cherucodu / Facebook

Angu was once used by subjects of a kingdom to address a king, or else by people in the oppressed community to refer to dominant caste members. Rakesh found in his research that the word came from the concept of “distance” that used to be maintained between members of different castes — when untouchability was widely practised. Angu, in Malayalam, also means ‘there’ or ‘at a distance’. “Angu akale” means far, far away. Another such word that denotes distance is avidunnu — also a respectful word that has its origins from a time when caste oppression was normalised.

Even thaangal and ningal, the respectful forms of ‘you’, came from the dominance enjoyed by certain castes, Rakesh says. “Ningal is plural of nee, used to denote more than one person (‘you guys’ for example) and thaangal is the plural of thaan. It denotes the power of the person you address when you use these terms for a single person.”

In an article in Mathrubhumi magazine, Rakesh argues that such plural words were used by the dominant caste to say just how “big” they are to the oppressed.

Like in the case of ‘you’, other pronouns in Malayalam, too, denote different forms of respect. The Malayalam of ‘he’ can be avan for peers or the not-respected, ayaal which is a direct translation of ‘that person’ and can be used on anyone, and adheham, which is the respectful form. There is also angeru which is sometimes used respectfully and other times, disrespectfully.

Lack of respectful terms for women

Many of these “respectful” forms of address are not inclusive of women. Adheham or angu or avidunnu were all used for men. “I wouldn’t say it was anti-woman. The truth is that there was never a need for these words because women hardly occupied the public space back then,” says Suja Susan George, director of Malayalam Mission.


Suja Susan George / Facebook

Back then, words such as ‘ammachi’ and ‘amma’ were used as marks of respect among women belonging to the dominant caste, says Suja. Much later, the word ‘avar’ which is essentially the Malayalam for ‘they’ began to be used as a form of respect for women. Suja reckons it came with the publication of women’s magazines, the use of words such as ‘avar’ and ‘mahati’ to speak respectfully of a woman. But like ‘angeru’ for men, ‘avar’ can also be used both respectfully and disrespectfully.

Suja argues that words have always changed meanings through the passage of time. “‘Sir’ is not used in the same way as it had been in the 19th century. You don’t need to be a lord or a knight to be called ‘sir’. Teachers came to be called sir. Now even casually, the word is used among friends in Malayalam —  “entha sir vishesham” (what’s new sir, in the same way one says, what’s new boss),” Suja says.

Boban points out that the problem with all these terms of respect is that they are one-sided. “After I wrote a letter to the government questioning the use of sir and madam, they sent me a reply saying that these were simply terms of respect used on everyone. But that was not the case and to prove my point, I went to the Palakkad municipality and called the engineer ‘sir’ two times. But he never called me ‘sir’. It is not that I wanted to be called ‘sir’, I was making a point that it is never two-sided. I replied that I hope the official who wrote me the letter called the peon who brought it to them as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’.”

He also registered a case with the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) pointing this out.

Creating gender neutral terms

The sir/madam terminology also raises the question of how one should address gender non-binary people or those who prefer gender neutral pronouns, Boban adds. “Police constable became civil police officer as a way of making it a gender neutral term. Ministers and people’s representatives don’t use ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ (except in Assembly), they use ‘ji’ for respect,” he says.


Boban Mattumantha / Facebook

In her capacity as a Malayalam Mission director, Suja too has tried to bring gender neutral forms of addresses. “Sriman is the Malayalam equivalent of Mister and Sreemathy of Ms. I have tried to make it Sri for all. Similarly ‘adheham’ — which literally means ‘that body’ — can be used for all genders, why only men.”

Interestingly, in English there was no common prefix for women's names, without knowing their marital status. Mister worked for all men, married or not. But a woman was either ‘Miss’ – means she is unmarried – or else Mrs – married. “It is much later that the common term ‘Ms’ came up. I have read that it happened with the women’s movement that rose in the last century,” says Kunjamma, Professor of Linguistics, Kerala University.

Rakesh Cherucode cites more examples where feminine equivalent words are missing. ‘Mash’ for instance, the term used for teachers, is in masculine form. Suja says that in the teachers’ handbooks, the word used was ‘adhyapakan’ —  meaning male teacher. Even ‘onnaman’ —  meaning first place winner — is by default of masculine form. On the other hand the word ‘veshya’ meaning sex worker is by default of feminine form.

“I began having such questions from childhood and realised that the word ‘manushyan’ – which means man – is also used for human beings. So as a woman, was I not included in this human species, I wondered. I think it is important that we deliberately create gender neutral words. A conscious intervention is needed in the language,” Suja adds.

Dalits struggled to be called ‘sir’: Sunny M Kappicadu

The other question regarding respectful forms is of its anti-caste nature. In SK Pottekatt’s award winning novel Oru Desathinte Katha, he speaks of the practice of dominant caste members giving demeaning names such as ‘choolu’ (meaning broom) to babies born in the oppressed caste.

“Malayalam uses a number of words for a single thing (in other words, too many synonyms). The words can be honorary or humiliating, connecting a person to caste. Avan, avidannu, adheham, avan, ayal – words used to refer to a third person – clearly define the status of the person you are addressing. It simply shows how caste has influenced the language structure,” says Sunny M Kapicadu, Dalit writer and activist.


Sunny M Kapicadu / Facebook

However, he is not quite on the same page as those campaigning against the use of ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ for official purposes. “They may be right in saying that it is an aftereffect of colonial history. But the truth is that Malayalam did not have a standardised word as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ to address one and all, regardless of caste, before that. There is no equivalent word in Malayalam. I have a feeling the movement to ban ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ has now begun because dominant caste members have an issue in addressing people in the oppressed caste as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’,” says Sunny M Kapicadu.

The Dalit community has struggled a lot to reach where they have, to reach a position to make others respect them, call them ‘sir’ and ‘madam’, he says. “When it was denied to us for so long, we found the alternative path of education and reached these positions. For that reason, I demand that a person call me ‘sir’, not ‘chetan’ (brother). Or else let’s think of a term together, a standardised word that can be used for all,” Sunny M Kapicadu says.

However, everyone agrees that all of these “respectful” terms can be replaced by names. Simply call an individual by their name, no prefix or suffix or ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ or any so-called respectful term. There can’t be a simpler solution than that.

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