My “Ji” story

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It was about forty years ago that the little entity, “ji”, which grammarians call an “honorific suffix” came into my life. I was working in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh and must have heard people using it, but I took note of it during a seminar organized by the Department of Linguistics of the University of Delhi. Professor R.N. Srivastava, an eminent linguist, who is no more with us and whose goodwill and affection I had the privilege to have, addressed a female participant using ‘Ji”; he said “Radhaji”. I found it rather odd and thought that he had used this suffix ironically. He might have been displeased with her for some reason, I thought. That evening, during a relaxed conversation, I asked him about it. He said there was nothing odd about addressing, or referring to a woman in her presence or absence, with ji. It is not a gender-specific suffix. This politeness marker could be used for any adult – even those who are much younger in age. Radha, I guess, would have been twenty-odd years younger to him. It is a widely-used politeness marker in Hindi, he told me. It could be used after the first name or the surname, as inRadhaji, Gupta ji.

I was teaching at IIT Kanpur then and if I did not know this use of Ji, it was because of the expressions “miss”, ”misses”, and “miz (ms).”, “Dr.” and “Professor” followed by the surname or “madam” were generally used as polite forms of address and reference on campus. “Madam” could be used as a term of address for any woman working at the Institute as faculty or non-faculty, irrespective of her age.

It was not that I was unfamiliar with ji before coming to Kanpur. I had come across “Ji-hazoor” in Odia fiction. The term referred to utterly submissive and ingratiating behavior towards one’s superiors. Sixty years ago when I was in college the expression “Ji-hazoor culture” was used by many intellectuals in Cuttack to denigrate the colonial style of functioning. But Ji was not used as a term of address or reference – certainly not commonly.

From the above, it would look like if you know the addressee’s name or surname, you can use ji. But if you didn’t, you could use “saabji” and “madam Ji”. Just Ji cannot be a term of address. Now, ji can also be used as a term for a response. If the speaker is going on and on, and you cannot ask him to take a break, for fear of displeasing him, having borrowed money from him, you could keep saying Ji, from time to time to tell him that you are listening to him, even when you have switched off. This strategy can be effectively used during a telephonic conversation.

The Odia “aagyaan”, a politeness expression, can be used as a term of address (as in “aagyaan, kemiti achhanti – Aagyan, how are you?), and of response (sometimes as a term of reference as well). It is gender-neutral, as is Ji. Unlike Ji, it is a root, that is, an independent word and not a suffix. But the problem is that, unlike Ji, it cannot be used to address or respond to someone younger.

Soon after that seminar, I forgot about ji. It returned to me one afternoon about fifteen years ago in Mysore. I had gone to the newly opened Apollo Hospital for some consultation. The receptionist directed me to a certain counter. I went there but there was no one. The girl at the adjacent counter told me that Gita would be coming soon and that she would help me. I waited for about ten minutes and went to the same person. “Has Gita ji come?”, I asked. “She will be here soon”, she said and she and the two other girls at the adjacent counters giggled. I waited for another ten minutes and when I asked the girl, I got the same answer and the giggles. Another few minutes and when I got the same response, I asked the girls why they were giggling. “Sir”, said the girl, ‘her name is Gita, not Gita ji”.

That was a lesson for me in language use and I shared it the other day with the B.A. (Honours) and M.A. students of English at the Bannerghatta campus of Christ University, Bangalore. I was there to initiate a discussion with the students on language and culture. The students raised very interesting issues and made the interaction enjoyable. We talked about language contact and language borrowing in the context of Ji. 

In a language contact situation, language borrowing takes place. The borrowed items could be words, stylistic forms, grammatical constructions, forms of discourse, etc., but words are the ones that are mostly borrowed. Some of the borrowed words are absorbed into the borrowing language, some are rejected. Some words remain on the edge of acceptability before they enter the language. Linguists say that those words which satisfy the communicative need of the speakers of the borrowing language are absorbed into the language faster. This is plain common sense. Sometimes experts tell us what we already know; it is just that we hardly know what we know; so we often get impressed with the wisdom given to us. Since we were talking about ji, we thought of looking at it from the point of view of language borrowing.

By the way, of all borrowings, language borrowing is the best. Borrowing involves paying back and more often than not, with interest. The borrower’s experience is often sad, as we know from life and from our literature. In the case of language, there is no obligation to return in any form, say, linguistic or cultural practice. But language borrowing is not trouble-free. What on earth isn’t, come to think of it? If the donor doesn’t give you problems, the speakers of the borrowing language can do it. In these days of identity consciousness, they express their resentment against the use of borrowed words, telling the user with a frown, “You are corrupting my language”.

With respect to the cultural practices, the story of their borrowing and assimilation is more or less the same, it is just that the word “borrow” is not commonly used in this context. When a borrowed practice from the west becomes part of our culture, people say that the recipient culture has been “westernized”.The burning of the effigy of Ravana was not a part of the Dasahara (Dussehra) celebrations in Odisha. It became part of it only about, I think, four decades ago, thereby North-Indianizing the Odia culture a bit. No one complained because it provided a spectacle. Now, everyone loves a spectacle, as every child loves the grandmother’s story.

To return to ji, from the point of view of Kannada or Odia, it can be viewed as a non-native entity of address and reference and offers itself as a possible candidate for assimilation because of its functional advantages with respect to our languages in a communicative situation. Forget about the kinship-based address terms, which are gender-related, and forget about sir, and madam, which are gender-based, and miss and misses, marital status-based, and miz, which many unmarried and married women in our country, who are not feminists, are unfond of. And then since these cannot be used as response terms, you have to know the reference terms.  One has to judiciously choose between so many terms to use the correct one. Why bother about all this, just learn to use ji. It’s true that it solves best the problem at the workplace (not at home, for example), but that’s still something.

Unlike words like computer, laptop, mobile phone, breakfast, and biryani, which have entered the vocabulary of Odia and Kannada without a waiting period at the periphery,ji, in spite of its advantages, still remains there and is most likely to remain there for quite some time. Why so, one might wonder. Maybe one of those bright students who were in the discussion that day would think it’s a non-trivial problem and would try to resolve it for us!

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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