Uncle and auntieSemantic differences between kinship have direct impacts on the construction of social relations in Nepal
The two English terms ‘uncle’ (Nepali: ‘ankal’) and ‘auntie’ (Nepali: ‘anti’) are increasingly used in cities of Nepal, especially among young people belonging to the middle class, to address the elderly in everyday conversation or interaction. Interestingly enough, these terms are not only used to address foreigners, as observed some years ago by the linguist Mark Turin, but also among Nepalis themselves. These two borrowed words, which are derived from the nineteenth century Anglo-Indian language, express a close, familiar as well as respectful relationship with somebody older, and generally much older, than oneself. They are used inside and outside the family and may refer both to kin and to non-kin. ‘Uncle’ is sometimes even extended to other domains. For example, a policeman or a tiger can also be addressed as ‘uncle’, or by the corresponding local term.
Uncle, not father
This new usage is worth noting and deserves some comment. Let us recall, firstly, that such a practice is widespread in South and South-East Asia where, whether in English or in the local language, the local lexical item ‘uncle’ denotes a respectful person who deserves this term and is therefore included in a quasi-familial relationship. ‘Uncle Ho’ (Ho Chi Minh), ‘Uncle (U) Thant’ (U Thant) are well-known expressions that have been applied to former prominent Vietnamese and Burmese leaders respectively. In Nepal, in a number of communities and castes, local words for ‘maternal uncle’ are used colloquially in this sense to address a wide range of elder persons. Frequently, in an urban setting, unrelated persons are not called ‘sir’ (sar) or ‘madam’ but are addressed by these closer, more familiar words.
In all these cases, the term ‘uncle’ is used instead of ‘father’, which implies a more authoritarian relationship. The two collaterals of the immediate ascendant kinship generation are thus clearly identified. As a matter of fact, relationships with uncles are much more affectionate and more easy-going than filial relationships.
Here, English terms are bent to fit in with local kinship usage. Extending kinship terms to older non-relatives is in itself a highly significant phenomenon. This realm of ‘fictive’ kinship reveals a ‘familisation’ of society, which is very different from the more impersonal Western view and usage.
What is even more interesting is that such loanwords from English blur the essential distinction in most of Nepal’s kinship terminologies between kaka and mama, that is, between the father’s brother and the mother’s brother, two types of uncle that are not recognised in most European kinship systems. This distinction is related to the eminent position held by the maternal uncle. The mama is a very close relative. He plays a vital role when his nephew performs his rites of passage, to an incommensurably greater degree than kaka. Yet, differences exist between the groups. In contrast to Newars and other Nepali groups, the sister’s son, bhanij, is for instance considered to be an honoured guest, almost of divine status, among high Hindu Parbatiya castes. The uncle has to bow down before him. In these castes, a nephew’s visit to his maternal uncle is so relaxed and enjoyable for the guest that mama ko ghar, the ‘maternal uncle’s house’, is used to refer satirically to ‘prison’ in Nepali, a place here you simply have to wait for food to be prepared for you!
Such a discrepancy between Nepali kinship words and English ones is just one of many others. People in Nepal address all their cousins (as well as a number of non-kin persons) as ‘brother’, daju for elder or bhai for younger, according to one’s age, as well as sister, didi/bahini for the same. What is more, daju/bhai are also used as reference terms in Nepal for cousin, in contrast to European terminologies where cousin and brother, who belong to the same generation, are referred to by different terms.
Nevertheless, here again, dissimilarity prevails among communities. In a number of Tibeto-Burmese languages, such as Tamang, cross cousins (descendants from parents’ opposite-sex siblings) are distinguished from parallel cousins (descendants from parents’ same-sex siblings), who are referred to by the same terms as siblings (own brothers and sisters), in accordance with cross-cousin preferential marriage that is in usage in these groups. By and large, in the two above-mentioned examples, Nepali kinship terminology is alternatively more precise (descriptive) than European terminology regarding the father’s generation upwards, in distinguishing different kinds of uncle and auntie, and more classificatory in the ‘Ego sideways’ generation, by merging different sorts of kin.
These semantic differences between kinship terms are not merely pedantic distinctions reserved for experts. They are of great import in social life. They have a direct impact on the construction of social relations and they denote a specific way of interacting with others and classifying unrelated persons. In addition, they echo a society based on kinship, patrilineal clans and lineages that is slowly adapting to the new globalised social fabric of the planet. When reflecting on the unity and diversity of Nepal, as well as issues related to citizenship, all these features need to be borne in mind. Marxism and economic liberalism, both exogenous systems in Nepal, as well as foreign experts often fail to understand these basic features of Nepali society.
Toffin is Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France