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Call me uncle: an outsider's experience of Nepali kinship. (Research Note).


The kinship terminology of any language is a natural meeting point for the disciplines of anthropology and linguistics. The manner in which people construct and understand their relationships with others has a direct impact on the words they use to describe these relationships. In this short article, I will focus on the kinship system of Nepali and demonstrate its subtleties, especially in its application to non-Nepalis.

Nepali Kinship Terminology

A socio-linguistic characteristic of Nepali which greatly appeals to Western sensibilities is the widespread use of sibling kinship terms in interactions with people whom one has never met before. Many Nepali phrasebooks suggest addressing total strangers as didi, bahini, dai or bhai.

Nepali kinship terms are usually closely linked to specific pronouns which in turn require specific verbal endings. In other words, when addressing one's own father or someone of that age, one should use the kinship term buva and the pronoun tapai. On the other hand, in a conversation with one's younger sister, one would use the term bahini and most likely the personal pronoun timi. The table below is a provisional attempt at categorising these relationships.

To elaborate on the deployment of these kinship terms in everyday interactions with people, I will invoke two classic social scenarios. First, a conversation in a bus, and second, my own experience of being a volunteer teacher in a government school.

The Bus

Around me I can hear people calling out didi, bahini, dai, bhai, nani and babu to fellow passengers they have never met before. A boy selling boiled eggs is trying to persuade an older woman, whom he addresses as didO, that his eggs are indeed fresh. An older man, using the term nani, tells a little girl to move over so that he can sit down. When someone finally addresses me, it is with the term sar `Sir'. Then I demonstrate that I speak some Nepali and strike up a conversation with the family to my left, who happen to have a small child. Within a few minutes the father says to the child: annkal-lai-namaskar gara! `Sav hello to uncle!'.

So while other people are using sibling terms, or parent-child terms with a stranger's children (nani, babu), I am annkal `uncle'. It took me some time to appreciate that calling me annkal is as much about respect as it is about creating social distance. In an environment where everyone invokes notional-sibling kinship with strangers, to be annkal rather than `older brother' is as much a prestige position as it is a step removed.

There are three registers of standard (non-royal) speech in Nepali, each with an associated verbal ending and specific pronoun, in addition to one register with a pronoun but with no separate verbal ending. The three `full' registers are: ta, timi and tapai: What I call the `half-register' is represented by the form hajur, which functions as an honorific pronoun meaning `Sir' or `Madam', but takes the same verbal ending as the tapai pronominal form.

Generally speaking, an older man would use the term bahini or nani to address an unrelated young girl and most likely use the pronominal form timi, or perhaps even the more intimate ta. Likewise, a young man would address an older woman with the kinship term ama or didi and use the tapai, and perhaps even the hajur, form of pronominal address. This is fairly self-explanatory for any native Nepali-speaker and for non-Nepalis comfortable with the language. The point I want to emphasise is that, generally speaking, on account of their inherent respect and age-relatedness, kinship terms are consistently associated with specific second person pronouns and their associated verbal endings. Yet foreigners who speak Nepali and have in some form entered the sphere of notional Nepali kinship test these rules in interesting ways.

Bidesi Annkal

I am often called bhai or babu by older men and women, especially in villages, yet they resolutely stick to the tapai, or even the hajur, form of pronominal address. If I ever try to do the same with younger male Nepali friends, I am immediately corrected: `bhai is to be used with timi, and dai with tapai Yet within minutes someone will use the term babu to attract my attention, and then use the pronoun tapai when addressing me. How can this seeming inconsistency be explained?

In part at least, the answer is a tribute to the inherent flexibility of the apparently rigid Nepali kinship system. Calling a younger foreign man dai to convey respect is more awkward from a Nepali language-internal point of view than it is to use an honorific, such as tapai, or its associated verbal endings. An example will serve to illustrate the point. A grandfather calls out to me: babu, basnuhos hajur, ciya khanuhos, `little boy, please sit down (respectful) and drink some tea (respectful)'. The above sentence is entirely plausible. Respect is conveyed through the verbal ending -nuhos as well as through the choice of hajur as an honorific pronoun, and the use of the kinship term babu conveys affection rather than disrespect. An inverted version of the above sentence, however, would be less common: dai, basa, ciya khau, `elder brother, sit down (informal) and drink some tea (informal)', since the kinship term dai carries with it a certain degree of respect which one would expect to find mirrored by an appropriate verbal ending. I should point out that register switching, as in the examples above, is a common feature of Nepali. Kinship terms of endearment, such as babu with nani, can be compatible with honorific second person pronouns and their associated verbal endings.

Let us now turn to the kinship terminology of English for a comparative perspective. While uncle signifies `mother's brother', `father's brother', `mother's sister's husband' and `father's sister's husband' in modern English, the kinship term also has a broader and more metaphorical meaning when applied to non-kin. To this day, young people in Britain may have `uncles' and `aunties' who are neither blood relations nor family by marriage. To the contrary, they are usually close friends of the child's parents who have thus assumed a notional kinship position as mother's or father's sibling. In Nepali, the loan-word annkal is also used to mean close friends of one's parents, and (more commonly than in contemporary British English) strangers of a similar age to one's parents.

What remains to be explained for Nepali, however, is why the kinship terms used to refer to strangers are mostly loan words. The practice of having `uncles' and `aunts' was a noted feature of Anglo-Indian society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is likely that Nepali took its lead from Indian English. That borrowed words should come from English is no great surprise, but why was there a need for borrowing in the first place?

My theory concerning the widespread use of borrowed kinship terminology in modern Nepali is that loaned kinship terms provide a context-free and socially-neutral way of addressing outsiders, thus filling a niche which is largely absent in Nepali. In conversations with strangers then, the English kinship terms annkal and anni are the only terms which may logically be used. The explanation is as follows.

In the Nepali-language kinship sphere, there are many different classes of `uncles' and `aunts': those younger than the parent versus those older; those from the mother's side as opposed to those from the father's side; and those who are blood relations versus those who have married in. Unsurprisingly, there are also specific kinship terms for many of these different uncles and aunts. For the most part then, a kaka `father's younger brother' is as far removed from a mama `mother's brother' as a phupu `father's sister' is from a maijyu `mother's brother's wife'. All of the Nepali kinship terms, translated by `uncle' and `aunt' in English, have more specific meanings than just `uncle' or `aunt', and each term encodes a range of social and cultural obligations. Consequently, it would make little sense to address an unknown foreign woman of about the age of one's father as phupu when there is no reason to trace her descent from one's father's family any more than there is to suggest that she is kin of one's mother. The term phupu, as we have noted, has a specific meaning, and this kinship role is most likely already occupied by a `real' phupu. The role of anni, however, is flexible and not yet occupied by one's own kin. No wonder then that the kinship terms annkal and anti are used with such frequency to apply to foreigners in Nepal: the terms are respectful but neutral, affectionate but empty of real kinship meaning and the responsibility that such a role entails. As a logical extension of this explanation, being `promoted' from annkal to kaka or from anti to sani-ma implies that as a non-Nepali, one has been incorporated into a family's kin network. From then on, kinship will be specifically reckoned through one of the parents over and above the other.

The School

Ten years ago, when I volunteered as an assistant English teacher in a government school, neither the students nor the teachers could decide how best to address me. The word sar (< Sir) always seemed to be used in some form, and usually it followed my name, resulting in mak sar, but on occasion would precede it, thus sar mak. For reasons that remained unexplained, some teachers had decided that while Nepali staff should be called sar and mis, as a foreign teacher, I should be addressed as mistar (< Mr), resulting in mistar mak (< Mr Mark) or mak mistar (< Mark Mr). The latter form replaced sar with a different title of address, but at least retained Nepali word order. Other teachers found the lack of sar unacceptable, but agreed that non-Nepali men should be addressed as mistar, leading to such unwieldy concatenations as mistar mak sar (< Mr Mark Sir), and even on one occasion the highly-inflated sar mak mistar (< Sir Mark Mr). The pros and cons of the various possible forms of address generated quite some discussion in the village, and I was confused by the whole process and eager to find a solution acceptable to all. My status was rendered even more unclear by the conflicting facts of being younger than some of my students yet living in the house of an important family. Eventually, to my satisfaction and to the palpable relief of many of the villagers, I came to be addressed as mak sar in school and simply as mak outside.

The above example demonstrates the unclear role of non-Nepalis in the realm of Nepali forms of address. The `not-quite-inside' but also `not-quite-outside' status of the school example, and the social angst and terminological confusion that ensued, underscore the importance of choosing the right form of address.

Borrowed Nepali kinship terms in other Himalayan languages

A further point should be made regarding the use of borrowed kinship terms: not all ethnic groups in Nepal use English loan words to address strangers. Many of the ethnic languages have' retained their native lexical items for kinship relationships, some in full, others in part. When indigenous terms for social relationships are lacking or have been lost, then speakers of these minority languages may resort to using Nepali words to fill the same lexical and semantic vacuum as fluent Nepali speakers use English words to do. A case in point are the Thangmi-speaking populations of Dolakha and Sindhupalcok. Thangmi (Nepali: Thami) is a Tibeto-Burman language which retains an almost complete set of indigenous lexical items to encode culturally-salient kinship relationships. On the rare occasion that loaned kinship terms are used, they are invariably taken from Nepali. The most common borrowings are mama and phupu, both derived from Nepali, in which they mean `mother's brother' and `father's sister' respectively. However, as in the case of annkal and anti above, the loan words mama and phupu have been divorced from their original Nepali meanings and have a more general sense of `trusted non-Thangmi man' and `trusted non-Thangmi woman'. The status language is clearly not the same for every ethnolinguistic grouping, even within the nation state of Nepal. While urban Nepali-speakers borrow kinship terms from English, Thangmi-speaking villagers borrow similar words from Nepali, both groups of speakers adapt and reinterpret these loans to fit their own sociolinguistic context.


Professor Braj B. Kachru, the author of The Indianization of English: The English Language in India, suggests that "items operating in British English kinship terms may be used with extended meaning in IE [Indian English]; for instance, mother as a term of respect, sister of regard; ... bhai (brother) is used for any male of equal age" (1983:117). His statement may be broadened to encompass Nepali as well.

I would go further, however, to posit that borrowed English kinship terms are not so much used 'with extended meaning' in Nepali, but are rather reworked and reinterpreted. While British English auntie and Nepali anti may on the surface appear to have the same meaning, the motivations for their use are quite distinct. Traditional understanding of language encounters suggests that one language will borrow lexical or grammatical items from another for reasons of status. While there is no doubt that for many urban and educated Nepali-speakers, English is the dominant status language, I suggest that prestige alone is not enough to explain borrowings of kinship terminology from English. Rather, faced with a precise and elaborate system of native Nepali kinship terminology, Nepali-speakers conscript English terms to convey the very imprecision and vagueness which is so difficult to achieve in Nepali.
kinship term: pronoun: verbal ending

buva, ama tapai, hajur -nuhuncha (indicative present)
dai, didi -nuhos (imperative)

bhai, bahini timi -chau (indicative present)
 -au ~ -a (imperative)

babu, nani timi -chau (indicative present)
 -au ~ -a (imperative)

 -chas (indicative present)
 ta -[??] (imperative)


Many thanks to Professor Dr. Frederick Kortlandt, Professor Dr. George van Driem and to Sara Shneiderman for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this article, Thanks also to Lt. Col. J.P. Cross for pointing me in the right direction and for the use of his library.


Kachru, Braj B. 1983. The Indianization of English: The English Language in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
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Author:Turin, Mark
Publication:Contributions to Nepalese Studies
Geographic Code:9NEPA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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