Superlinguo

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Flattery and respect in Nepali and English

A lot of my day-to-day conversational competency in Nepali comes from stubbornly refusing to talk to cafe staff and cab drivers in English. While it was a slog at the start is means that at places where I’m a regular they now use Nepali with me all the time.

I was sitting in one of these cafes the other day and met some Australians who had been volunteering here for a month. The waiter confirmed my order with an ‘ok didi’ - which literally translates into ‘ok older sister.’ In Nepal everyone is integrated into social relationships that are the extension of a family dynamic. As he walked away the Australians were impressed that I’d been referred to in Nepali, but then one of them asked ‘wouldn’t it be more flattering if he said ‘bahini’ (lit. younger sister).’

I was so shocked at such a suggestion that it took me a moment to figure out why she had mentioned it. The extension of kin terminology is based on a system where age is correlated with respect - to be older is to garner more respect, and indeed I’ve been called ‘didi’ by people much older than me who are trying to be polite or flattering. In a Western mindset though the flattery comes from being thought younger than you are, hence my acquaintance’s feelings on the matter being somewhat opposed to my own.

This is one of those great/frustrating things about learning another languages. It’s one thing to learn the words, and it’s another thing to learn the social niceties behind their use. 

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