ByÂ Digant Kapoor:
As children we are all socialized to address those older than us as aap in Hindi. In fact, almost every word of the sentence is conjugated to reflect the level of respect we defer to our elders. Tu, along with the rest of the respect-deficient conjugated words in the sentence, is reserved for people our age or younger. While I am not against paying our respects to those elder to us, it is our language’s treatment towards those younger to us that I take issue with. I believe that the subconscious psychological message that our language reinforces with each word is that respect is reserved solely for those elder to us. As a Hindi and Punjabi speaker, I can only comment on these languages. While I am unaware of the grammatical nuances of all the Indian languages, I suspect that a similar phenomenon is present there as well.
We are all aware (I hope) of the numerous examples of sexism and racism that exist in India and beyond. I am exploring a different social vice: ageism. The term ageism, “prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a person’s age,” was first coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler to describe negative behaviour towards the elderly in the West. There are organizations, such as Third Age, that organize to counteract the negative impact of ageism against the elderly in the West, where the level of respect deferred towards an individual seems to diminish as they age (see here). The opposite is true in this region. Throughout Asia, an individual commands greater respect as he or she ages. Thus, I think that Indian youth suffer from ageism. I focus specifically on the role that our language plays in systemically reinforcing ageism throughout society.
First, let me establish that research clearly shows that the language we speak affects several aspects of our behaviour, including our level of spending/saving, our ability to distinguish colours, and how likely we are to make healthy decisions (e.g. regarding smoking). Here’s a quick example, by having distinct terms for each relative, Asian languages place greater importance on family than English. While this reflects societal attitudes, it may play a role in reinforcing the importance of family. The video below effectively summarizes decades of linguistic research regarding how language affects people’s behaviour.
Consider the potential psychological effects of ageism that plagues the Indian political establishment. There is a 40-year age-gap between the average cabinet member and the age of the average Indian (Economist). The ageing of our legislature over the last 60 years has led to “Fewer MPs under 40, more MPs over 70 in Lok Sabha” (PRS). The records reveal that “in 1952, only 20 per cent of MPs were 56 years or older. In 2009, this figure had increased to 43 per cent” (PRS). Do our lawmakers view their constituents, the overwhelming majority of whom are younger than them, with respect? Can a lawmaker really advocate for, and cater to the interests of those he or she does not respect?
Ageism is also affecting the youth in their family and their professional lives. It can be extremely frustrating for adolescents and young professionals to not be taken seriously both at home and at the work place. While those elder than us certainly have valuable life experiences, they should remain humble and realize that a person can never know everything and can therefore gain valuable insights from anyone (regardless of their age). If companies want to stay ahead of the curve then they should strongly consider trusting some of their youngest employees. Given the quickening pace of technological advancement, and the youth’s ability to effortlessly adapt to these changes and navigate the plethora of information available, the younger generation is becoming more indispensible to staying competitive and driving innovation.
Intersection with Sexism
In addition to disadvantaging the young, ageism may be disproportionately affecting women as well. I notice this in two ways: marriage and parenting. The marriage example is a systemic form of ageism in society that I suspect is widespread. I am not sure whether the parenting example is common.
Whether the age-gap is a few months or several years, married couples tend to consist of older men and younger women. This situation lends itself to women addressing their husbands with respect while husbands often do not reciprocate linguistically. While the foundation of this situation is the age-gap, I wonder how deeply our use of language impacts our perception of the value of the other individual. Do husbands respect their wives as much the wives respect their husbands?
An Amritsari family friend Manjeet addresses her son, Ranvir, with the respectful aap. I always found this a little odd due to the blatant age-gap between a mother and her son, but recently realized what bothered me about this practice. Manjeet addresses her daughter Saanya as tu. Ranvir (aap) is 12 and Saanya (tu) is 17. What lesson is Manjeet implicitly giving her children? I highly doubt she has ever consciously realized or thought about this.
While language alone cannot fully account for ageist attitudes and the age-structure of corporate and political India, it is important to be aware of the subtle and implicit values that are propagated throughout society due to the way we use language. The core issue I am grappling against myself is that our culture and language may be supporting the idea that respect is reserved solely for those elder to us.
Disclaimer: The names of people have been changed to protect their identity.