The pronoun conundrum

One of the things that I really like about the English language is the universality of the pronoun. It’s just you for everyone and this includes your parents, children, siblings, coworkers, boss, president, CEO and basically whoever you meet. Well, I suppose there are exceptions, but let’s get to it later.

People who grew up in the US will struggle to have any idea about the power of pronouns inherent in other (mostly Asian) cultures. To be concise, Nepalese use different kinds of pronoun inflections that inherently denote a level of respect depending upon who you are talking to. If you are talking to your parents it’d be a respectful-you, same with your boss as well. For friends, it could be a semi-respectful-you or a plain and simple you, depending upon how long you’ve been friends with them. Whereas if you’re talking to your president, or a high ranking Minister, it’s an ultra-respectful-you. This formality is not restricted to just pronouns, either. Even calling someone by their name requires an addition of a suffix that appropriately conveys the respect reflected in the pronouns (I have heard of so many professors having to correct their South-Asian students who insist on suffixing their name with a -sir.)

It is thanks to the prevalence of the Japanese culture here in the US that it’s sometimes easier to explain this to my colleagues who are familiar with anime, manga, and other cultural artifacts of Japanese origin. I simply explain to them that it’s like the -chan, -kun, -san, -sama, suffixes that their favorite anime character uses. Or to those who follow K-pop, that it’s like -hyung, -oppa, -noona, -unnie etc. that they might’ve heard their favorite pop stars use sometimes. It then becomes easy to explain that this respect deeply ingrained in linguistics is driven by the age, stature, prestige, and position of whoever you happen to be talking to.

So whenever I meet someone new from my country who looks my age, there’s a bit of conundrum on which pronoun, name-suffix, and verb (due to the subject-verb agreement) to use. And thus ensues an awkward dance for a few minutes where both of us try to infer the other’s age or their high-school batch (also a factor) to determine if they deserve a respectful pronoun. This is so important in our language that it feels absurdly wrong to not do this. The pronoun we use colors our tone, behavior, and the overall interaction with a new person, and we simply give them a form of soft power over us. This pronoun biases us to automatically feel inferior (or superior) and makes us defer to the opinion or judgement of the said person (or lead ourselves) even though we might have only met them for less than an hour. And finally, believe it or not, this pronoun is what determines the kind of relationship we will form with the person in the future, including romantic ones.

But like I said, I do not necessarily like it. I’ve grown rather fond of the English system of establishing an equal ground for a conversation with virtually everyone, using the all-inclusive you. And while there certainly are some forms of pronouns reserved exclusively for a class of highly respected people in the English language as well (i.e. His/Her Highness, His/Her Eminence, Your Honor etc.) these are fairly rare and limited to a parochial context. For the rest of it, I quite enjoy talking to someone who is older, more educated, and powerful than me and yet not, inadvertently, come off as subservient due to a cultural training I didn’t quite signed up for. Or be able to kindly correct someone who feels the need to consider me superior just because of my age by saying: “Please, just call me Pravesh.”

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