Indian woman who sparked a Twitter battle on pronouns

time:2023-06-02 13:05:49source:Al Jazeera author:Press center2

In India when you call someone "you", how do you address them? Do you call them a respectful "aap" or an informal "tu" or use the middle-of-the-road pronoun "tum"?

That's the question that Indian Twitter has been debating for the past few days.

It started earlier this week with a tweet from Pratibha, a 31-year-old Delhi-based woman, who said it was rude to use the informal "tu" to address a stranger.

"Never engage with Bombay [Mumbai] people in Hindi. You could be complete strangers and they'll still feel free to address you with a 'Tu'. Unacceptable behaviour," she wrote.

The post went viral - with over a thousand responses and more than a million views - and kicked off a debate on appropriate use of pronouns in Hindi.

While the language is spoken by over 46% of the country's population, it is rarely the preferred language outside northern India. Hindi also has several dialects and the use of pronouns varies according to region.

In Bambaiya Hindi - the dialect spoken in the city of Mumbai in Maharashtra state - "tu" derives its meaning from Marathi language spoken in the region and is not closely associated with disrespect as it is in several parts of northern India.

It's even used in reference to Hindu deities like Ganesh and Vitthal, Marathi speakers say, and features in literature, devotional songs and prayers.

"What it indicates is a close bond or intimacy," BBC Marathi's Amruta Durve explains. "It's not derogatory at all."

Pratibha told the BBC her tweet referred to an incident from 10 years ago. She was talking to a colleague in Mumbai for the first time.

After chatting for a while in English, he shifted gears and asked her in Hindi, "Tu Hindi me baat kar sakti hai [do you know Hindi]?"

Pratibha, who always uses the respectful pronoun "aap" to address her parents, her elder brother and all those she doesn't know, uses the more informal pronoun only with her younger brother or classmates.

"I was taken by surprise. I think that among strangers, 'tu' implies a false sense of intimacy when it should be respectful distance."

Pratibha said she didn't expect the response she got after she wrote about the incident on Twitter. "I have less than 2,000 followers and I thought this would get two responses and I'll respond to them and that will be that. But it's taken a life of its own."

Her post was "written in jest", she says, and even though some trolled her, she found that a majority of responses were fun.

The cultural difference in how people of various regions spoke spawned a host of jokes and comments on Twitter.

"It prompted a lot of fun banter. People started posting memes and replacing tu with aap in Bollywood songs."

But many also pointed to the irony of insisting on the use of "aap" when the same people often used "tu" to speak disrespectfully to working class people and those belonging to marginalised castes.

The conversation also reflected the discomfort people had with being told to speak a certain way, especially in their home states.

Speaking Hindi is a touchy subject in India. In recent years, ministers from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been criticised for suggesting that the language could be an alternative to English or even the medium of instruction in schools across the country.

States in eastern and southern India speak a variety of different languages and some have often resisted such recommendations.

Pratibha says her the conversation on Twitter has been a bit of a learning experience and that she now understands there could be linguistic and cultural differences between regions in the manner they speak.

But she "stood by" her initial opinion, saying that those trying to speak a language should make an effort to speak it properly and be aware of the sensitivities.

One major takeaway from the debate for her, she says, was how much jollity it created.

"I take credit for the fact that Twitter became fun for a bit - for a change, we weren't fighting over religion and politics. I'm happy I contributed to something as positive as this."

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