There was a small group discourse at the Press Council office recently on ‘Siyavas Dekak Sisara’, Padma Edirisinghe’s autobiographical sketch, with Dr. Leel Gunasekara as the guest speaker. The book is a narrative of her life story from her childhood, passing through the pre-war period, and after, leading up to the turn of the century. Padma Edirisinghe’s easy style makes it impossible for the reader to put it down and the book reads like a novel. Yet it is a very rare, very candid biography, not often seen today. Often books like these either become autobiographical novels with more fiction than fact. Sometimes the authors omit many memorable incidents for fear of hurting or annoying others, unless, like Mark Twain, the autobiography is to be published one hundred years after the death of the author.
In ‘Siyavas Dekak Sisara’, Edirisnghe tells us about an essay she had to write in English, at her new school. She had titled it ‘Nangi’s Funeral’ intentionally in protest against the school policy in using Sinhala. She justified her use of the term Nangi, because there is no specific term in English for a younger sister, just as there are no terms for elder sister, or elder brother.
The morning after the discussion of Edirisinghe’s book, coincidentally, I received a mail from the Sri Lanka Association of Anthropology, forwarding an on-line link to a publication ‘Categories of Kinship Vary Between Languages’. The study had been done by Charles Kemp (Carnegie Mellon University) and Terry Regier (University of California at Berkeley), who attempt to show that kinship categories across languages reflect general principles of communication. Kemp says “a system with a different word for each family member is much more complicated but very useful…we can’t make them simpler, without making them less useful”
Our own Sinhala is somewhere in-between, though we do have specific terms based on relative age, for elder and younger brothers and sisters – aiya, malli, akka, nangi. We do not have specific terms for paternal and maternal grandparents, except the non-standard use of muttha, seeya, aththamma and aachchi. The Chinese have terms for paternal grandparents, zufu and zumu, maternal grandparents wai gong and wai po. In Bangali the terms are Thakur baba, Thakur Ma and Dadu, Didi Ma. Hindi and Urdu too have specific age related terms for siblings and for maternal/paternal grand parents.
The most descriptive system is found in Sudan, with a different kin term to each distinct relative. Hawaiian is the least descriptive system. Richard A. Lobban Jr. of Rhode Island College had made of a study of the kinship in Sudan, where he found “..Some former kinship relations collapse amidst class transformations, others are reinforced…..traditional forms of kinship may come to have a new class content”. Sudan is the home of the Nubian, Arab and Nilotic peoples.
Even in our country, urbanization has resulted in a mockery of the kinship terms, with the indiscriminate use of the terms for brother and sister and aunt and uncle, creeping into our Sinhala literature too. To such an extent where the male calls his wife as ‘amma’, probably from a corruption of the village term ‘lamayinge amma’ (children’s mother). Such usage has been called ‘improper kin terms’ as against ‘proper kin terms’. It also shows the widening generation gap, specially between parents and their children. This opens up a business opportunity for the entrepreneur to make a good profit by creating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day markets.
In Sinhala there used to be so many terms for the second person pronoun, which too had degenerated to an impersonal term ‘Obatuma’ to address everyone as a more refined term of ‘oya, aise, tamuse and machan’ and address in anger as ‘tho and umba’. In Sinhala we do not have pronouns either for the parents or for the spouse. Parents are addressed ‘amma, thaththa, appachchi’, causing confusion for newly married young people when addressing the in-laws. We do not call them ‘oya or umba’. For the spouse a village term used to be ‘me ahunada’, but in the urban jungle address is by the first name or a pet name. In the villages, outside the immediate family no one knew the given names of the children. They were all given a second name to be used by the family and relatives, or were addressed as ‘loku putha, podi putha, loku duwa’ new additions to the family would be ‘sudu putha, rathu putha’ and so on. As they grow older, they become Sudu mahattaya or Rathu mahattaya.
The term ‘cousin’ has different meanings to the Sinhala term ‘bena’. In English the term refers to kinship between second and third generations, but always it is a blood relation, unlike in Sinhala where bena could be a relation by law. When it comes to cousins, the cross-cousin marriage retains the kinship terms used between the parents and the couple which were used prior to marriage, father/mother in-law and uncle is still ‘mama/nanda’, nephew/niece remain ‘bena/leli’. Even in our country, urbanization has resulted in a mockery of the kinship terms, with the indiscriminate use of the terms for brother and sister and aunt and uncle, by bus conductors and sales persons, and now creeping into our Sinhala literature via the tele-dramas on the ‘idiot box’.
Let us think again about the study by Charles Kemp. Even if it is more complicated, more specific kinship terms could make mankind get to be closer to each other and make this world a more pleasant and happier place to leave for our children.